Jen Campbell Munn pried her son Lucas’ arms from around her legs and handed the sobbing boy to his pre-K teacher. She reassured her 4-year-old that she’d be back after she finished leading a yoga class, which was due to start in a half hour. She watched as the teacher tried to settle him in her lap.
“The teacher looked at me and said, ‘If you’re going to leave, I think you should just go,’ ” recalls Campbell Munn, 45, of Bethesda. “It was one of those parenting moments that you hope never comes. You’re leaving your child somewhere where they’re physically restraining him. He’s crying. You don’t have an option.”
As she left the building, Campbell Munn wondered how her son’s behavior had deteriorated so quickly. Since he was a toddler, Lucas had thrived at the private school. But after winter break of his pre-K year, every other day seemed to bring another teacher’s report of misbehavior: screaming, stomping, running around or crawling under a table.
At first she deemed it a fluke for the normally sweet-tempered boy, perhaps a reaction to being cooped up by winter weather. Lucas’ parents and his teachers emphasized maintaining a routine and tried to set consistent expectations in hopes of curbing the misbehavior. “The crazy play happens outside in the park,” Campbell Munn would say. But before long, his teachers seemed to give up on Lucas, calling Campbell Munn to pick him up early almost every day in the two weeks prior to that morning.
Campbell Munn and her husband, Jeff Munn, both have an older child from previous marriages, and neither had ever acted like this. How could they be so flummoxed by their pre-schooler’s behavior?
Campbell Munn withdrew Lucas from school and turned to Mali Parke, a parent coach who had been recommended by a friend. “My intention was for him to be at the school until high school graduation, to grow up in this environment, and it was shocking to me that that was not going to happen,” Campbell Munn says. “I had a lot of fear, anxiety and uncertainty. How could we help him?”
Jen Campbell Munn turned to a parent coach to help with her son Lucas’ behavior problems. Photo by Michael Ventura
Like many Bethesda parents, the Munns are polished and well-educated—she ran her own Pilates business, and he’s a health care and retirement adviser. They’re accustomed to being in control. Faced with a problem, they educate themselves and find the right solution. But when it came to their son’s behavior problems, they were at a loss for what to do.
Since Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote Baby and Child Care in 1946, parents have turned to experts for help in raising children. But unlike the 1950s and 1960s, when father knew best, or the 1980s, when Dr. T. Berry Brazelton taught child development to the masses, there’s no clear authority or widely accepted single answer today on how to parent. If anything, there’s too much parenting advice, with each new book contradicting the last. Parents can easily become overwhelmed by the abundance of information and paralyzed by too many choices.
Although parenting classes and workshops started to pop up in the 1980s, experts say that the field of education for parents has flourished in recent years. Many attribute this growth to the popularity of parenting styles that turn away from punishments or rewards as ways to influence the actions of children, and instead seek to build kids’ problem-solving skills, resilience and independence. “It’s easier to be authoritarian than it is to be democratic,” says Kimberly Greder, an associate professor at Iowa State University who specializes in family resiliency and parenting education.
“You actually have to listen to your child, think about what they’re saying and work with them.”
Parent coaching, a subset of parent education that involves hiring a person to help you with your child, is an even more recent development, and one that has grown apace with the explosion of life and career coaches throughout the country.
The International Coach Federation counted 47,500 coaches in 2012, up from 30,000 in 2007 and 2,100 in 1999. About 2 percent of those coaches focus on relationships, the category that includes parent coaches.
The trend has been especially pronounced in the Bethesda area, where some parents can be obsessed with raising the perfect child. We buy Oeuf cribs for $1,000 and feed our children organic snacks; why not bring in an expert when our child misbehaves or won’t sleep through the night? Bethesda-area parents are hiring coaches or taking classes for a wide range of problems: their high schooler won’t sit down to do homework without being reminded a dozen times; their middle schooler dawdles and takes forever to get out the door in the morning; their toddler has started biting or hitting at preschool.
Parke, the Dupont Circle-based coach hired by Campbell Munn, says the parents who come to her typically fall into one of four groups. Some are feeling disconnected from their children and want more peace in the home. Others are attachment-parenting devotees seeking more independence as their children move into the elementary years. Certain parents are struggling with a life transition, such as a divorce, or are seeing their children through a new developmental stage that is presenting challenges. Then there are those who merely want more tools and stronger parenting skills.
As the field of parent coaching has grown, so have concerns that you could be bilked by a coach who doesn’t have enough experience or the right training to help with your problems. Before hiring any expert, but especially one in a relatively new field such as parent coaching, it’s important to check references, ask about training and credentials, interview competitors and understand which problems they can—or can’t—tackle. You don’t want to muddle through with a parenting coach when your child has a developmental issue in need of diagnosis and treatment by a doctor. On the other hand, if you’re independently able to work through tough developmental stages with advice from friends and parenting books, there’s no need to hire an expert.
“We rush to fix things too often that don’t necessarily have to be fixed. They may resolve in a day or two,” says Peter Stearns, a history professor at George Mason University in Fairfax and author of Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America.
The media and the outpouring of advice from parenting authors and researchers have created an “expert culture” that can cause parents to doubt their competence unnecessarily, says Lenore Skenazy, a public speaker and author of the book Free-Range Kids. “The whole idea that you need an expert for everything is wrong,” Skenazy says. “The culture that says you personally need a teachable moment with every step you’re taking with a kid can make you feel as if your instincts are not enough. It can be oppressive.”
Do we need experts? The simple answer is no. After all, generations of children reach adulthood with parents who feed them, clothe them and send them off to school without a thought of sleep consultants or parenting classes.
But some parents say that experts provide a valued outside voice and a wealth of wisdom from other families that have experienced similar challenges, and therefore a way to avoid painful trial and error. They help parents assess the situation dispassionately, notice patterns, suggest steps to break unhealthy cycles, and stick to their principles.
When my youngest daughter was about 3½, we began butting heads. She was extremely strong-willed—often refusing to dress or put on her shoes when it was time to leave the house—and my husband and I did not know how to deal with her behavior. We tried counting to three. We tried negotiating. One tactic would work but then lose its power a few days or weeks later. It seemed that every day, we were getting into power struggles that ended with yelling and tears.
Eventually, we turned to a parent workshop.