Effects of Parent Education on Knowledge and Attitudes

Article excerpt

Every year, nearly half a million adolescent girls in the U.S. give birth (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002). About 95% keep and raise their children, which has serious implications since adolescent parenthood and child maltreatment are linked (Coren, Barlow, & Stewart-Brown, 2003; Dukewich, Borkowski, & Whitman, 1999). Lack of both emotional maturity and parenting skills are contributing factors in this maltreatment. While teen parents express empathy and concern for their children, they often lack necessary life experiences and knowledge of child development (Weinman, Schreiber, & Robinson, 1992). Compared with older parents, teen mothers are less knowledgeable about normal developmental milestones for infants and children; display fewer and poorer quality vocalizations; are less aware of, and responsive to, their child's needs; are less inclined to engage in spontaneous play, and the give-and-take during play is of lower quality; are less likely to spend time looking at their babies; are more ambivalent about being a mother; and are more inclined to use physical punishment (Dukewich, Borkowski, & Whitman, 1999; Miller & Moore, 1990).

There are other problems associated with adolescent parenthood. For example, children born to adolescents often have low birth weights (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1999; Children's Defense Fund, 1997; Mann & Hunt, 1989; Ventura, Curtin, & Mathews, 2000). Further, the majority (approximately three-fourths) are born out of wedlock (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1999; Children's Defense Fund, 1998). In fact, for adolescents in the U.S., the rate of out-of-wedlock birth is higher than for any other industrialized nation (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1999; Clewell, Brooks-Gunn, & Benasich, 1989; Coley & Chase-Lansdale, 1998; Coren, Barlow, & Stewart-Brown, 2003).

Adolescents often have inappropriate expectations of their children and favor spanking as their primary means of discipline (Bolton, 1980, as cited in Miller & Moore, 1990; Cohen, Barlow, & Stewart-Brown, 2003; O'Callaghan, Borkowski, Whitman, Maxwell, & Keogh, 1999). Lack of parenting skills is another factor that puts their children at risk for abuse and neglect (Danoff, Kemper, & Sherry, 1994; Dukewich, Borkowski, & Whitman, 1999). As noted by Bavolek (1989), parent education is often cited as an appropriate means of teaching noninjurious discipline techniques to adolescent parents.

Research has documented the effectiveness of parent education programs for adolescent mothers. Since the 1960s, family life programs have yielded positive results in terms of increasing both knowledge of child development and parent-child interaction skills among low-income families, as well as changing parental attitudes (Clewell, Brooks-Gunn, & Benasich, 1989; Coren, Barlow, & Stewart-Brown, 2003; Weinman, Schreiber, & Robinson, 1992). Such programs have also been found to increase the likelihood that teen parents will return to school and obtain significantly more education. In comparison, teen mothers who have not attended parenting classes have been found to demonstrate more dependency, greater isolation, less interest in activities, more stress raising their children, and more unrealistic expectations of their children (Clewell et al., 1989; Coren et al., 2003).

The Parenting Life Skills Center (PLSC), serving at-risk adolescents and families in a medium-sized midwestern community, offers one such program. Life skills are taught in a caring, nurturing, and accessible environment designed to improve self-worth and quality of life. In addition to attending parent education classes, participants meet weekly as a support group, are given incentives for participation in the program, and share a weekly family-style meal. The parent education curriculum follows a consistent format over a nine-month period.

The purpose of the present study was to evaluate the PLSC program by measuring change in knowledge and attitudes as a result of participation in parenting classes. In particular, the following areas were assessed: creativity (parental acceptance of the child's creativity and willingness to encourage its development), frustration (parental frustration as a result of inconsistency between parental expectations and the child's developmental abilities), control (scope of child control required by parent), play (parental understanding of play and its influence on child development), teaching-learning (parental views about the ability to foster intellectual development), parental expectations for the child, parental empathy for the child's needs, parental value of physical punishment, and parent-child role reversal.



The 42 participants were pregnant or parenting adolescents (aged 13 to 20 years) and adults (who began parenting as adolescents). They attended parenting classes, were from economically disadvantaged households, and possessed weak academic skills. The majority were from child-abusive and substance-abusing families, in which their mothers began parenting at a young age.


The Parent as a Teacher Inventory (PAAT; Strom, 1984) and the Adult-Adolescent Parenting Inventory (AAPI; Bavolek, 1985) were used to measure change in participants' knowledge and attitudes. Both instruments are norm referenced, reliable, and valid for the population under investigation in the present study (Bavolek, 1989; Strom, Johnson, Strom, & Strom, 1992).

The 50-item PAAT contains statements that describe parents' desires and expectations for their child, ways they interact with their child, and the actions taken in response to certain child behaviors. PAAT items are grouped into five subscales (creativity, frustration, control, play, and teaching-learning) that parallel key domains of child development.

The 32-item AAPI was selected to assess participants' attitudes. It consists of four subscales: parental expectations for the child, parental empathy for the child's needs, parental value of physical punishment, and parent-child role reversal. The inventory was carefully developed and normed, using separate samples of abusive adults and abused adolescents (Fox, Baisch, Goldberg, & Hochmuth, 1987).

The curriculum of the parenting classes (i.e., child growth and development, role of play, child discipline and guidance) closely parallels the concepts measured by the PAAT and the AAPI. In addition, a demographic questionnaire was developed to gather information about the participants, their family of origin (including physical maltreatment and substance abuse), and their children.


The instruments were administered within the first three weeks of participation in the parenting classes, and again four months later or when participants left the Parenting Life Skills Center. Informed consent was obtained. Participants were told that (a) there were no right or wrong answers; (b) it would take about 25 minutes to complete the inventories and questionnaire; (c) their answers were confidential and would be pooled with those of about 30-50 other respondents; and (d) the materials would be identified by number only. Participants received a voucher for groceries upon completion of the instruments.


Comparison of pretest and posttest scores using paired-samples t tests indicated statistically significant improvement in six of nine areas (p < .05). Participants showed significant gains on four out of the five subscales of the PAAT (creativity, control, play, and teaching-learning), and the fifth subscale (frustration) approached significance. Participants also showed significant gains on two of the four subscales of the AAPI (parental expectations for the child and parental value of physical punishment).


The six subscales that were statistically significant are related to the content of the curriculum--units were taught on child growth and development, appropriate discipline techniques, and the value of play. These findings support the idea that knowledge about parenting can be imparted, and that the PLSC program is an appropriate means of delivery.

The remaining three subscales--frustration, parental empathy for the child's needs, and parent-child role reversal--are related more closely to attitudes and feelings, which are more psychological in nature. Psychological changes may be harder to achieve or take longer to occur. Perhaps conducting the study over a longer period of time would have revealed significant changes in attitudes, specifically frustration, empathy, and role reversal.

Overall, the gains in knowledge were modest (it should be noted that some participants attended classes sporadically). Because this was a short-term study, large gains were not expected. However, anecdotal reports from program educators indicated that participants with good attendance records increased their positive behaviors, such as staying in or returning to school, maintaining sobriety, utilizing community resources, and delaying subsequent pregnancies.

It should also be noted that systematic collection of data from this population was a challenge. Some participants had no permanent home, making it difficult to contact them in order to collect data after they left the program. Some had difficulty reading the inventories and questionnaire and were reluctant to ask for help. Further, self-report measures were used, and social desirability bias may have been a factor in their responses.

Nevertheless, the findings of this study suggest that knowledge about child growth and development can be increased through parent education. It is hoped that such gains will result in better parenting behaviors and fewer instances of child abuse and neglect.


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This study was funded in part by a grant and fellowship from Southwest Missouri State University. The authors thank the students and colleagues involved in collecting, transcribing, and coding the data, and the participants at the Parenting Life Skills Center.

Peggy T. Pearl, Early Childhood and Family Development, Southwest Missouri State University, Springfield, Missouri.

Pamela D. Behle, Jackson County Family Court, Kansas City, Missouri.

Requests for reprints should be sent to Mary Beth Mann, Child Development Center, Southwest Missouri State University, 901 South National Avenue, Springfield, Missouri 65804. E-mail: mem032f@smsu.edu