Learning to be a parent isn't easy, but 'Right from the Start' can help

July 14, 2000

Learning to be a parent isn't easy, but 'Right from the Start' can help

How do you learn how to be a parent?

If you're lucky, you have family members - grandparents, aunts and uncles - who are willing to teach first-time mothers and fathers how to cope with that squalling newborn they imagined would be so cute. Twenty years later, I can still remember my mother-in-law sharing her experience on everything from the right way to hold a baby to the proper temperature for infant formula.

But if you don't have such a person, what do you do? For young mothers in Washington County, the answer might be Right from the Start, a program run by the Parent-Child Center, a United Way agency.

The program's director is Greta Kinna, a licensed social worker who says that many participants are referred through the Washington County Health Department's Healthy Start program, which guides young girls through their pregnancies.


"Or we get some referrals from school nurses, or occasionally we might have a parent call and say, 'My teen-age daughter is pregnant.'"

Kinna said the two agencies work together to make sure the mother's medical and nutritional needs are taken care of, with Healthy Start nurses visiting several times even after the baby is born. Then Kinna's program takes over, beginning with a personal visit with the family.

"I usually go out and have a home visit and get a little bit of family history, and find out things like, is the young father still involved," Kinna said, adding that 95 percent of the program's young mothers live at home, usually with their mothers.

After she discusses the program, then it's decision time.

"The teen has to want it," Kinna said.

If the answer is "yes," then the young mother is assigned a volunteer parent aide, a person who Kinna said functions not as a parent, but "more like a mentor."

To that end, Kinna said she tries to pair teen-age parents with a young adult parent, someone they can identify with, in part because the volunteer usually has small children herself.

"My volunteers are a mix of working moms and stay-at-home moms, maybe with one child in pre-kindergarten," Kinna said.

"We look for someone who is giving in nature who is willing to stay with the program at least a year," she said.

"A lot of times they (the volunteers) really want to do something to benefit the community and the teen parent really gets a chance to see that role modeling," Kinna said.

And the program does more than provide good examples, she said.

"Across the board we try to incorporate guidelines and milestones of child development," she said, so that mothers will know what should be happening at a certain age in a child's life.

The skills they learn include everything from hygiene and how to deal with minor ailments like diaper rash to safety practices like the proper method for putting a child in a car seat, Kinna said.

But Kinna said that the most valuable knowledge that the parent mentors communicate is the need to play with and interact with young children, to stimulate their mental and physical development.

"A baby's job is to play, but a parent has to give them the opportunity to do so," Kinna said.

"I met with a young parent recently, a 14-year-old who's seven months pregnant, and I told her that this baby she's going to have is not going to be a Cabbage Patch doll. This is going to be a living, breathing person," she said.

"The more of these things younger teen parents learn, the less likely they are to neglect their children later," Kinna said.

The program's caseload of teens ranges from as few as seven to as many as a dozen, and Kinna says it's gratifying to watch the progress as they go through the program.

"The longer they work together, the more nurturing they become," Kinna said, adding that she's watched girls in the program who began as scared adolescents turn into caring, competent parents.

If you're interested in volunteering, Kinna said she looks for people who are "giving in nature, someone who has the desire to stick with the program for at least a year, and who has time to give four to six hours a week."

Volunteers go through a police background check and a child-abuse registry check and are evaluated by staff for their personal skills, Kinna said, adding that being a "good, non-judgmental listener" is important.

Volunteers are also asked to attend one training session a month, which Kinna describes as "a time when they can come together and get support."

In the interests of full disclosure, I've raised money for the Parent-Child Center for more than 10 years and have tried to help in other ways because child abuse and neglect are rampant in this community. If that small amount of time results in just one child being spared physical pain or mental trauma, my time has been well-spent.

If you'd like more information, please write to the Parent-Child Center at 115 W. Washington St., Hagerstown, Md., 21740, or call (301) 791-2224.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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