Julia Steiny: How a Woman’s Childhood Experience Grew Into Prepare Tomorrow’s Parents
Suzy Garfinkle dedicated her adult life to finding out how to parent children, which led to her founding “Prepare Tomorrow’s Parents” to educate kids.
When Suzy GARFINKLE was growing up, her father often told the story of the day he brought her newborn self home.
She says, “My mother was only 20 when she had me; my father 23. She got double pneumonia in the hospital, so she had to stay there. They handed the baby to my dad to take home. He looked down at the new baby, then at his sick wife, and panicked – they were sending him home with no instructions and no help. I grew up knowing that I was that baby.”
Like most modern parents – me, for one – Garfinkle’s folks had become parents with hardly a clue as to what was really in store for them.
But 80 percent of the U.S. population becomes parents. That’s a huge number. Still, our schools don’t generally think it’s their business to teach the skills essential to the most important job anyone can take on. Learning empathy, for example, is critical to helping new parents intuit their infants’ needs. Of course empathy is also the foundation of all good relationships, including between teachers and students. And it’s the antidote to bullying. So why on earth wouldn’t schools teach kids skills that would also improve future parenting?
This question became the driving mission of Garfinkle’s life. In 1995 she founded Prepare Tomorrow’s Parents and is still its president.
“My entire childhood, I was that kid with an empathic personality. I noticed, for example, that when my friends’ parents got divorced, the moms who behaved well had kids who did okay. The moms who got dumped were mean and crazy, and you could see the effect on the kids. When still very young, I noticed the quality of parenting. It wasn’t uniform.”
In college Garfinkle looked for a bigger context for her obsession by majoring in psychology. While taking every possible relevant course, she discovered that her concern with teaching parenting skills to kids was pretty unusual.
So after college she sold everything, and traveled around the world to observe how people in other countries deal with their kids. In an Israeli kibbutz she worked assisting 2 adults to potty train 10 2-year-olds. Now that’s dedication to the pursuit of knowledge.
Back in the states, she got a job and got married. When her husband got transferred to Canada, she didn’t think they’d be there long enough to go through the bother of getting a work visa, so she figured it was time to become a parent herself.
Garfinkle recalls, “All I did during that pregnancy was to read every childbirth, parenting and child-development book on the library shelves in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I was 29, and I’d spent much of those 29 years cramming for this event. I was in a stable marriage (at the time); I didn’t have to work full-time. I should have been ready. But I got a baby who never slept. She was fine, but so curious and alert, she only took cat naps and wanted stimulation the rest of the time. I found that what little guidance we get from books on parenting is all based on generalizations that experts glean from their own practice as pediatricians or psychologists. They don’t talk about the healthy baby who never sleeps. Honestly, I think those generalizations are part of what leads to child abuse. That and the assumption in our culture that parenting will just come naturally.”
Of all people, Garfinkle had prepared. “But it was exhausting and really hard. I kept thinking about the parents who had this happen to them when they were teens, or working full-time, or just totally unprepared. Most of us get zero instruction in communication or relationship skills, child development, empathy skills. That’s all supposed to come naturally.”
Through the births of two more daughters, Garfinkle continued to check out libraries and bookstores for relevant information. In those pre-internet days, she asked everyone and anyone if they knew of any programs that would at least get kids thinking about what’s involved in having children before they actually get to that stage of their lives.
In the course of her research she did find some programs. You’ve probably heard of the “Baby Think it Over” program, which gives adolescents computerized baby dolls to live with for a week. Less famous is a curriculum called the Roots of Empathy, which is widely used in schools throughout Canada.
By 1995, Garfinkle had collected a diverse group of people enthused about her passion. Together these researchers, educators, parents, fund-raisers and organizers started what they called The Parenting Project. It was and still is a web-based collection of pre-parenting programs with contact information.
Once it was up and running, though, parents desperate for advice started calling their 800 number. Children screamed in the background. The ever-increasing flood of parenting emergencies only strengthened PTP’s resolve to get good information out to young people before desperation or even damage could set in. In 2005 the Parenting Project became Prepare Tomorrow’s Parents.
A 13-minute video (at preparetomorrowsparents.org) gives a clear and compelling overview of their philosophy and work.
Garfinkle says, “At the end of these programs, the kids say ‘I didn’t realize how hard this would be. There’s no way I’m having a baby any time soon.’”
But beyond preventing premature pregnancy, research shows that parent preparation programs also develop caring and empathy, reduce violence and bullying, and improve mental health.
Let’s do it.
Julia Steiny wrote the education column for the Providence Journal for 16 years. She is a freelance writer and consultant on data projects such as infoworks.ride.ri.gov , RI’s school-accountability site and ridatahub.org , an innovative data-analysis tool. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative. She blogs and can be reached for questions or comments at www.juliasteiny.com.
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