Parenthood Requires Supportive Neighborhoods and Communities

Lisbeth B. Schorr
Harvard University Project on Effective Interventions
Washington, D.C.

In order to succeed in life, children need supportive families. In order to be successful parents, many parents need support and education. This chapter defines two kinds of parent education. It shows how the most effective kind of parent education requires supportive neighborhoods and communities.

I distinguish between two kinds of parent education that raise very different kinds of policy issues: didactive and interactive.

Didactive Parent Education

Didactive parent education aim to transfer knowledge and information. The person who has knowledge and information tries to transmit it to persons who lack it, usually in a classroom setting.

The didactive form of parent education has spread most easily. It is the most common because it is easier to carry out, is less expensive, and requires less training. When parent education is mandated by the court in a child abuse situation, it is likely to be the didactive form in the hope that a few classes in childrearing will solve the problem. However, didactive parent education classes have never been shown to influence parenting practices among those at highest risk.

Didactive parent education has analogues in other fields. A physics teacher who teaches simply by lecturing doesn't really have to understand physics. If you give her the right materials, she can read them, or memorize them. She may not be able to figure out why a particular student isn't understanding a particular concept because she doesn't understand enough about the concept herself to be able to diagnose this child's problem. In the same way the parent educator who is trying to teach that a two-year old's playing with his food is not a punishable offense has to get beyond the curriculum materials if she wants to understand why that information is not changing parenting behavior.

Interactive Parent Education

The second type of parent education is interactive, based on idea that how one parents depends on one's own experiences, as much as it does on information. It is much more individualized and supportive. It most frequently takes place in a setting where other activities are also taking place: a Head Start center, a parent support center, or on a home visit.

Interactive parent education is extremely important for parents who did not experience good parenting, who are trying to change not only what they know but how they feel and how that affects their behavior, or who are trying to raise their children in neighborhoods that are unsupportive of good childrearing.

Some attributes of interactive parent education are important to think about because the very characteristics that make it effective also make it hard to spread and sustain. In my book, Within Our Reach,1 I identified the attributes of a variety of effective program in several domains:

These are the characteristics that make the best kinds of parent education so hard to sustain and spread. When I found that so many of the effective programs described in Within Our Reach had gone out of existence within a few years, I tried to understand why they were not sustained even though they had succeeded in achieving their goals. I found that the organizations that fund and regulate and hold accountable and even mandate specific services are not a good fit with most of what we know works best.

People running successful programs tell you that they are swimming upstream. Whether they are working on school reform, early childhood, family support, child protection, or welfare-to-work, they have to surmount all kinds of obstacles put in their way by the organizations that fund and regulate them. The people and places that were able to implement and sustain responsive and flexible programs adopted strategies in which we could identify common elements. The common strategies of successful scale-up became the basis of my new book, Common Purpose.2

Strategies of Effective Programs

This work led me to conclude that one of the big mistakes we have been making in the social policy arena is to assume that the front-line program people can make the changes that need to be made in systems in order to make them supportive of our best programs. Many of the most promising strategies now require vertical alliances between front line people who know what works and what is important to sustain and the people who have the clout to change the rules under which the front line people operate.

Focus on Results

The first of these strategies is a focus on results. Successful programs focus unambiguously on results as a way of taming bureaucracies, to make sure that funders and voters know that they are accomplishing the outcomes the public cares about, and to make sure that every activity they undertake is clearly linked to the outcomes they are trying to achieve. Some of those outcomes are going to be more measurable than others, but to the extent that we can identify outcomes that show that we are achieving shared purposes we mistakenly trade accountability for outcomes for accountability for complying with rules.

For example, in Within Our Reach I mentioned a demonstration home visiting program in Elmira, New York. That program documented reductions not only in child abuse, which was the primary purpose, but also in hospitalization of infants, and in long-term outcomes of mothers who were returning to school or work and were themselves more effective parents. When the foundation funds ran out, the city of Elmira, New York, was so impressed with the outcomes of the demonstration that they took it over and fund it with Medical Assistance funds. On the first day the city took it over, they focused on Medical Assistance rules rather than outcomes. They accordingly doubled the nurse's caseloads. They cut the amount of time that the nurses could spend with families. They stopped the visits when the baby was four months old. Then they were surprised that they did not get the same results.

Attention to outcomes also promises to reduce some of the long-standing confusion between the means and ends of intervention. There always is a temptation to fall back on process measures as evidence of progress. When you count the number of people who are attending a class, you at least can show that something is happening. This is what you have to do when you are so woefully underfunded, as so many of these programs are. You get the grant with the promise of reducing child abuse and teenage pregnancy and after about a year the evaluators come and want to document reductions in child abuse and teen pregnancy rates. The program people say, "But it's absurd to think that we could reduce child abuse and teenage pregnancy with $20,000 in this community of 50,000 families." The evaluator replies, "You are right. Let's figure out what we can count that will show that something is happening."

A focus on results forces funders and evaluators and program people to be much more realistic about what they can actually accomplish. It forces a discussion of whether we really want to continue to fund some of the most important family support programs "on the cheap?" Or do we want to invest enough so that we can change outcomes? Inner-city neighborhoods and other places that are seriously depleted require a critical mass of intensive and interactive intervention to change outcomes. Especially for them, a focus on results can help funders and program people resist temptation to hide the limitations of so many of our current efforts. Such a focus can help clarify the fact that single circumscribed interventions often are not sufficient to change outcomes.

Adapt Models to Local Circumstances

A second strategy of effective programs is that they do not try to use a cookie-cutter method of replication. They do not expect a single model to be effective everywhere in exactly the same form that it made it succeed in another time and place. They try to sort out essential principles from the attributes of the program that can be shaped to fit a local community's needs and strengths and desires. When people say, we really should not have to reinvent the wheel, I say to them you may have to shape the spokes in a different way. You may have to use different materials for the spokes to meet the needs of individual communities and to make it their own.

Use Intermediary Organizational Support

A third strategy of successful programs is that they create or utilize intermediaries. The scale-up of successful programs rarely occurs without the support of outsiders. Almost uniformly the successful initiatives I have studied receive crucial help in developing and sustaining reform from some sort of intermediary organization that offered expertise, outside support and legitimization of an opportunity for networking and peer dialogue, and the clout that can help change the rules under which the intervention operates. Every one of the systems and institutions in which major scale-up efforts have tried to gain a foothold contains features that eventually exhaust reformers by trying to force them back to the status quo. Intermediary organizations can support and strengthen local reformers in countering those pressures.

Cross-System Partnerships

A fourth strategy involves establishing partnerships between formal systems and community-based organizations. These partnerships often are essential because so many prevailing services are too far removed physically, psychologically, and administratively from the communities they serve. For example, in child welfare we see more and more child protection agencies partnering with networks of community organizations so that they can make families and neighborhoods, including churches, part of their efforts to strengthen families and protect children. Partnerships do a lot to increase the chances that neighbors will help neighbors. They help families feel less isolated in their childrearing, and respond to a family's self-defined needs for help. They bridge the gulf of mistrust between public agencies and the community.

Long-term View

A fifth strategy is taking a long-term view of change. Outcomes do not change overnight. Politicians that expect you to be able to change behavior that is rooted in a long personal history during the two years they hold office are spitting in the wind. We have to convince them that it cannot be done. We do need interim indicators to show that we are making progress toward long-term goals. But we cannot promise that any of these life-changing interventions will succeed overnight.

A long-term view of change also means a two-generation focus, recognizing that strong families are the keys to healthy children. Often parents must be nurtured so that they can nurture their own children. A long-term view of change also requires that the interests of children not be sacrificed to short-term efforts to move their parents into the workplace in welfare reform efforts. When you superimpose the findings of brain research showing the importance of the early years onto the new welfare policy, our laissez-faire attitude about childcare during the early years becomes totally untenable. It is untenable for government to say we will force you to leave your children --- in Wisconsin at the age of twelve weeks --- and we take no responsibility for what happens to those kids. Yes, we have some childcare money, we have some childcare subsidies, but we do not have a system that will make certain that childcare is accessible, affordable, and of high quality.

In New York City mothers are told that their benefits will be reduced if they do not use whatever childcare is offered to them. The New York Times reported recently that a mother found her fourteen-month-old toddler's "day care" consisted of spending eight hours a day tied to a dirty stroller. When she told the welfare office that she was not going to leave her child under those conditions, and said "If I can't find other childcare, I'm not going to work." The welfare worker said, "you will be docked on your welfare check." Since we know how to do this right, since there are plenty of examples showing how to do it right, it is hard to understand why we are allowing this scandal to persist, why we do not have more of a sense of outrage about what is going on.

Perhaps part of the answer is that people do not believe that government can do anything right, and therefore government subsidies and standards will not do it right. Columnist William Raspberry writes "You don't have to be mean-spirited to walk away from social problems, you just have to believe that nothing can be done to solve them." This distrust of government that is so pervasive in our country today is getting in the way of acting on so much of what we know.

Safe Neighborhoods

The sixth strategy involves making neighborhoods safe and protective places in which to bring up children. The influence of neighborhoods on families and life outcomes has long been apparent to people working at the front lines, although research in this area was for many years almost nonexistent. But the influence of neighborhoods on individual outcomes now has become a hot topic again. We owe so much to Urie Bronfenbrenner, for pointing out long ago how crucial it was to understand the environment, the ecology of childhood. The latest research shows that even the best parents have a hard time doing well in rearing their children in neighborhoods that are full of violence and chaos.

It is true that children who are blessed with extraordinary resiliency or unflagging adult support can beat the odds, but we have to change the odds for the kids growing up in very depleted neighborhoods. One of the most encouraging things I see around the country are efforts to do just that by putting together what we know works in specific neighborhoods and by addressing directly the challenge to build community, to restore some of those disintegrating bonds of trust among neighbors.

Not long before he was killed, Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy called attention to the destruction of the thousand invisible strands of common experience and purpose, affection, and respect that tie people to their fellows. He believed that the world and the neighborhood "had become impersonal and abstract, beyond the reach of individual control and even understanding." In his 1968 presidential campaign he called for the restoration of communities as a place "where people can see and know each other, where children can play, and adults work together and join in the pleasures and responsibilities of the place where they live."

When you think about community that way, you realize how closely it is connected to parenting and the ability to do it well. People who are engaged in community building today recognize that formal services are not enough --- that you cannot service people out of poverty. You can't even service children into school success. It takes more. That is why successful community-building efforts act in more than a single domain, and why many of those community-building efforts are reaching out to people, who are working with parents and could become partners in this effort to rebuild community.

Build Knowledge of What Works

The seventh strategy has to do with the responsibility all of us have to continue to build a sturdy knowledge base about what works. Those of us involved with complex community-based interventions have discovered that the old approaches to evaluation are not really a very good fit with the far-reaching kinds of things that we are trying to do. Parent education and neighborhood rebuilding and family support are not a "treatment" like penicillin, and can't be measured that way. They are not like a fixed injection of an antibiotic, where you can compare a group of experimental treatment subjects with a group of control subjects. Especially as we try to reach out and change norms in neighborhoods, change how neighborhoods function, we cannot use the kind of evaluation that has been used in the past based on the medical experimental model. It is very encouraging that there are lots of people who are thinking about new ways to evaluate those more interactive, more comprehensive, more community based and comfortably evolving trends of intervention.


A focus on parenthood in America is an enormously useful reminder of how much better we could do than we are now doing by acting both on our best instincts and on our ample knowledge base.

Successful parent education programs require more than didactive techniques. They are most effective when they provide interaction between parents and professionals in a larger supportive context. They focus on results, adapt models to local circumstances, use intermediary supportive organizations, and draw upon cross-system partnerships in safe neighborhoods. Most importantly we need to build transferable knowledge of what works

As we join with others who are determined to reach all children, like Stand for Children, a brand-new, grassroots organizing attempt to leave no child behind, we can work toward the day when every American child grows up with a full stake in the American dream.


1 Schorr, L. (1989) Within Our Reach: Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday.

2 Schorr, L. (1998) Common Purpose: Strengthening Families and Neighborhoods to Rebuild America. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday.

Copyright © 1999 Lisbeth B. Schorr.

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