Easthampton program teaches better parenting through communication

  • Jacob Parker and his son, Zachary, 14, at their home in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jacob Parker and his son, Zachary, 14, watch "The Walking Dead" in Zachary's room at their home in Easthampton, Monday, April 22, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jacob Parker and his son, Zachary, 14, watch "The Walking Dead" in Zachary's room at their home in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jacob Parker and his son, Zachary, 14, watch "The Walking Dead" in Zachary's room at their home in Easthampton, Monday, April 22, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Scott and Carrie Southwick with their son, Anderson. Contributed photo—

Staff Writer
Published: 4/24/2019 1:00:40 PM

Last fall, Jacob Parker went from being a “weekend dad” to a full-time parent overnight.

“His mom passed away in August, and, correct me if I’m wrong, kiddo, but things kind of spiraled out of control there for a while,” Parker said. He was sitting on his porch one recent day in Easthampton with his 14-year-old son, Zach.

For months, Zach said their relationship was fraught with tension. They’d “get into it, at each other’s throats, yelling back and forth,” Parker said. In desperation, Parker said he picked up a flier for Easthampton Healthy Youth Coalition’s “Strengthening Families Program: For Parents and Youth 10-14,” which had been sent out by Zach’s school.

“I read over that pamphlet six times saying ‘this isn’t for me, this isn’t for me. But I was like, ‘this needs to happen,’ ” Parker said.

For both father and son, the seven-week class — designed to help parents and their children improve relationships and to prevent teen drug use — was life-changing.

“It taught me how to be a parent. Before, I was the fun guy — I’d have him every other weekend, and it was ‘let’s go here, let’s go there, let’s do this, let’s do that.’ I never actually had to parent,” Parker said. Through the class, “I got the stepping stones to get to that ‘aha’ moment.”

For Zach, the program helped him “understand what adults go through — teaching their kids and raising them — the stress levels, and all that,” he said.

The transformation that father and his son experienced isn’t exclusive to their relationship, said Ruth Ever, coalition coordinator and the program’s facilitator. According to Ever, the World Health Organization has rated it as a top drug prevention program for families.

“They have studied this program in different circumstances and places and consistently get the same results,” Ever said, noting it’s also the only one of its kind offered in the state.

The curriculum, which was developed at Iowa State University, is designed around interactive activities and intentional communication. During the first hour of every workshop, the parents and kids sit through a lesson on their own. For parents, the topics range from setting healthy boundaries to showing love to parenting techniques and the importance of family meetings. The kids discuss things like bullying, peer pressure, ways to avoid underage drinking, communicating well, and balancing social relationships.

During the second hour, Ever said the parents and kids come together for more interactive programming that’s intended to help them find common ground. The night usually culminates with a family meeting.

In her experience as a primary facilitator since the program started locally 5 years ago, Ever said a lot of parents are either too permissive — “they’re not setting limits and then constantly nagging — or they’re being very rigid and saying ‘we lay down the law’ and not having fun,” she said. “What we’re finding is that there’s a middle ground where everyone feels closer.”

In today’s digital world, Carrie Southwick, of Easthampton, who attended the last session with her 11-year-old son, Anderson, said the pressure is higher than ever for teens.

“You still have the stressors of school. You still have the stressors of social anxiety. None of that has really changed, much, it’s just gotten broader,” Southwick said. “Now they have social media, they’re playing video games. It’s not just in school. It’s constant.”

As a parent of a young middle schooler, Southwick said she’s concerned about what Anderson will be introduced to when he’s in high school.

“You hope that what you’ve instilled in your kid will stick as they start wandering off on their own — that they’ll make good choices,” she said. To that end, Southwick said the program has helped them both open lines of communication. For example, instead of just getting mad at each other, Anderson said they’ve learned to express how they’re feeling in a calm and controlled manner.

Before the class, “Mom would tell me to do something, and then it would be yelling and screaming and Edison (the family dog) would get all hide-y,” Anderson said. These days, however, “we ask for each other’s feelings. It definitely helps a lot.”

Asking how the other feels “starts the conversation,” Southwick said. “Rather than pointing a finger and constantly yelling, we both work collaboratively, as a parent and a kid.”

Instead of opposing each other, they now work toward a solution, she continued. And by doing that, communication flows smoothly.

“As he gets older I don’t want him to (shut down),” Southwick said. “I want him to continue to have conversations with me, tough conversations, and to know that I’m not going to fly off the handle at him.”

The program’s focus on communicating well was also a highlight for Parker and his son. Of all their takeaways, Parker said “active listening. That is the biggest one.”

Parker said he’s beginning to find balance as a parent.

“I have found that, if you have a bad day at work, you can’t carry that into a conversation with your kid, because then you’re going to hold them responsible for things they didn’t do, and vice versa,” Parker said.

Another important lesson they’ve both learned is to keep things simple. Instead of blowing off chores and then arguing with his dad later, Zach said he has learned the benefit of doing things right away. “Now, I just do it, without being asked,” he said.

On the flip side, Parker said that “by keeping it simple, you don’t give your kid a laundry list of things to do. You start off small. You keep it simple.”

Of all the lessons they learned, Parker said “you’ve gotta have fun with your kids. You’ve gotta have fun. It doesn’t have to be spending money. We both like to hike, so going for a 3-mile hike in the middle of the woods is nothing for us.”

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.

For more information on the Easthampton Healthy Youth Coalition visit easthamptoncoalition.org. Pre-registration for the next session of Strengthening Families Program: For Parents and Youth 10-14, which Ever said will probably take place in the fall, can be completed via the website. The program is free but participants must commit to a full seven weeks. Any Hampshire County caregiver and their child can register.

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