The National Parenting Education Network (NPEN) started in 1996 when a volunteer group of parenting practitioners came together informally to share their interest in supporting and strengthening the field of parenting education.
DOES THE FIELD OF PARENTING EDUCATION NEED A NEW ORGANIZATION?
Through a series of discussions, and background research, the answer gradually became a clear “yes.”
This question was addressed at two meetings: an initial meeting held at Wheelock College in November 1995, and a follow up meeting at the Family Resource Coalition of America conference the following May. These meetings were organized by an Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Parenting Education of which Rae Simpson became the spokesperson and eventually the chair.
Early in the discussion there was a need to define parenting education and who we were considering to be parents. The definitions are still evolving. Currently they read as follows:
- Parenting Education is a process that involves the expansion of insights, understanding and attitudes and the acquisition of knowledge and skills about the development of both parents and of their children and the relationship between them.
- Parents are those who are so defined legally and those who have made a long term commitment to a child to assume responsibility for that child’s well being and development. This responsibility includes providing for the child’s physiological and emotional need, forming a loving emotional relationship, guiding the child’s understanding of the world and culture, and designing an appropriate environment.
From the outset, these participants recognized and appreciated that years of discussions and initiatives had already contributed, and continue to contribute, a great deal to the field of parenting education. National organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR), the American Orthopsychiatric Association, and the Family Resource Coalition [now the Family Resource Coalition of America (FRCA)] have, largely through their conferences and committees, facilitated gatherings of parent educators and addressed key issues in the field. Major parenting programs such as MELD, Parents As Teachers, and HIPPY, have for some time engaged in dialogue and training around professional issues, and nine such programs met periodically from 1992 to 1995 as Friends in the Field to foster exchange and cooperation. Also beginning in 1992, the National Parenting Instructors Association (NPIA), headed by Kerby Alvy under the auspices of the Center for the Improvement of Child Caring (CICC), held three conferences and conducted other activities, before being discontinued in 1998 and replaced by a broad-based, advocacy-oriented organization, also within CICC, called Partners for Effective Parenting. Other organizations focusing on advocacy for parenting include the National Parenting Association, founded in 1993 by Sylvia Hewlett and based in New York City, and the National Parents Day Coalition, (now the Parenting Coalition International, Inc.) founded in 1994 by Belinda Rollins and based in Washington, D. C. We are finding ways to coordinate these complementary initiatives both formally and informally. Also important have been the regional and state initiatives devoted to parenting education such as those in Georgia, Washington, Minnesota, Texas, Massachusetts, and Kansas. Nonetheless, these two meetings, attended together by over 60 leaders–diverse in philosophy, culture, and geography–generated a surprising degree of consensus on a number of points, including the need for an “organizational home.”
Reasons for creating an organizational home, expressed at these meetings, included a perception that several pressing needs in the field were not currently being met by other organizations, needs such as:
- A national forum for addressing issues that transcend disciplinary and regional boundaries, issues such as cultural competence, standards, ethics, and credentials
- A stronger and more accessible knowledge base of theory, research, and practice
- Greater visibility to parents, policy makers, the media, and larger public
- Increased professionalization of the field
- Stronger leadership for the field
- Professional identity for parent educators
- Networking and communication among parenting practitioners across regions and disciplines;
- Easier access to resources
- Coordination and support for the growing number of regional efforts devoted specifically to parenting education
- Increased opportunities for training and professional development
The needs were summarized into four goals which have guided the evolution of NPEN. They are:
- Networking: to facilitate linkages among practitioners, resources, and organizations involved in parenting education, in order to increase their effectiveness in supporting parents and families.
- Knowledge development: to consolidate and expand the base of research and practical knowledge about parenting and parenting education, and to increase its accessibility.
- Professional Growth: to address the issues that will allow parenting practitioners to build their skills and the profession, in particular the issues that transcend disciplinary and regional boundaries, such as professional identity, ethics, standards and certification, training, and accessibility.
- Leadership: to provide national leadership in the field of parenting education among professionals, policy makers, media, and the public.
In short, while the particular reasons varied, there was widespread agreement that something more was needed.
SHOULD THAT ORGANIZATION BE AFFILIATED WITH AN EXISTING ORGANIZATION, OR SHOULD IT BE AN INDEPENDENT ENTITY?
When the ad hoc group first organized the two initial meetings, they expected that the field’s needs could be met most effectively by affiliating with one of several existing organizations that have been playing an important role in furthering parenting education, such as FRCA, NCFR, and NAEYC. Such an approach, the organizers recognized, would reduce the human and financial investment required to develop an organization, and it would avoid costly duplication of efforts.
As a result, at the request of the ad hoc group, a task force spent over a year researching the organizations that might be appropriate for affiliation and engaging in extended discussions with leaders of those organizations that had the stability, scope, and structure to encompass such an initiative, including NCFR, FRC, NAEYC, and others.
Ultimately, however, the task group became persuaded that affiliation with an existing organization would not meet the needs of the field, or even of these existing organizations for at least two reasons. For one thing, the group observed that parenting practitioners and activities were not concentrated in one or even a few existing organizations. Rather they were scattered across a wide range of disciplines and fields, from community development to health care to early childhood education to juvenile delinquency prevention, and thus were represented by more than 40 national organizations. For every practitioner who felt an affinity with a particular existing organization, another felt alienated and left out.
Second, the task group observed that, if the new organization were associated with one particular professional organization, efforts to foster essential links across disciplines would be less effective.
In a pivotal meeting in December 1996, members of the task group met with leaders of the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR), and the Family Resource Coalition of America (FRCA), and together they forged a concept in which the new initiative would be an independent organization, but one that would work closely with existing organizations that relate to parenting education, supporting and supplementing the activities of these and all organizations involved in parenting education.
As a first step, the group agreed that the new organization would conduct a pilot project to test and refine the collaborative concept by developing organizational relationships specifically with NCFR and FRCA. Principal forms of collaboration were expected to be participation in these organizations’ next conferences and contributions to their publications. In fact, these collaborative efforts have moved forward, with very successful sessions held at NCFR in both November 1997 and 1998, and at FRCA in 1998. Since then, NPEN has been invited to participate in the conferences of a number of other organizations, including the Parenthood in America conference in the spring of 1998.
In other words this group of parent educators came, reluctantly, to the conclusion that another organization was the only way that the needs and goals of the vital growing field of parenting education could be met.
WHO WILL BE INVOLVED IN CREATING THE ORGANIZATION, AND WHO WILL TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR COORDINATING AND LEADING THE EFFORT?
The process of moving from an interim to a permanent structure has been and continues to be complex. It has involved many people through a series of meetings and informal discussions held over the past few years. The culmination of this work will be in our meeting in Chicago in May.
A national organizational meeting, convened in May 1997, again at Wheelock College, set as its goal to create a mechanism for getting from the existing ad hoc committee to a permanent, self-sustaining organizational structure. At that meeting, critical steps were taken, including the creation of an interim “management team” to oversee the transition to a permanent structure. Task groups were expanded and their leadership reorganized. Also, very importantly, the group accepted the generous offer of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education at the University of Illinois in Champaign to provide an organizational base of operations, moving the base from Rae Simpson’s overloaded office at MIT.
Since then, the management team has met several times: during conferences such as at the NCFR conferences in November 97 and 98, The Parenthood Conference in the spring of 98 and in a “weekend retreat” format in Haverford, Pennsylvania, in March of 98 and again in Atlanta in September of 1998.It’s work has been guided by several principles that evolved from earlier meetings. They were:
- Inclusiveness: NPEN embraces and seeks to draw upon the wide professional, regional, and ethnic diversity in the field, so as to enrich our collective work and model our values.
- Universal access: NPEN takes the position that one goal of parenting education is to provide access to parenting education resources for all parents.
- Embeddedness: NPEN recognizes that parenting education is embedded in a large number of organizations and fields, all of which are important in addressing NPEN’s goals.
- Support for existing organizations: NPEN seeks to support and extend the significant work of existing organizations in the area of parenting education, complementing rather than duplicating their efforts.
- Participatory approach: NPEN seeks to involve in decision-making all those with an interest in developing the organization.
The management team became the answer to the third question. It assumed responsibility for coordinating and leading the effort to create an organization.
WHAT CAN THE ORGANIZATION UNIQUELY CONTRIBUTE TO THE FIELD? THAT IS, WHAT WILL ITS SERVICES BE?
In the fall of 1998, in Atlanta the management team came together to share their experiences and input from previous meetings with parent educators. This one day strategic planning session was funded and hosted by the Egleston Scottish Rite Children’s Health Care System and facilitated by professional consultant Al Bartell, Certified Professional Consultant, of Atlanta.
As the team worked, they took into account several realities. For one thing, practitioners in the field are very diverse in many respects, including geography, ethnicity, approach, training, discipline, and values. For another, the knowledge base, people, and other resources in the field are scattered and embedded in a wide range of organizations and endeavors. Finally, time and financial resources are limited, as are those of most others involved in supporting parents and families. In fact, those on the Management Team knew these realities first hand, in that all of the time and resources for the development of NPEN to date have been provided pro bono.
The team concluded that NPEN would make two unique and powerful contributions to the parenting education field. They would:
- Link people working in and on behalf of parenting education with each other and with existing resources in the field by gathering and disseminating information about the knowledge base, programs, practitioners, and other resources; and
- Catalyze the development of initiatives to address the field’s unmet needs by fostering collaborations among existing organizations and individuals.
In short, NPEN will work to provide people who are involved in parenting education with access to the resources that do exist and stimulate the development of those that do not.
WHAT PERMANENT STRUCTURE CAN BE DEVISED FOR THE ORGANIZATION THAT IS SELF-SUSTAINING, REFLECTING THE FINANCIAL AND DEVELOPMENTAL REALITIES OF THE FIELD?
While working to draw up a structure for the organization, the management team kept in mind the basic goal, to create a permanent structure that would allow NPEN to work effectively toward meeting the urgent needs of the field, but in ways that avoided duplication of efforts and took into account the realities of limited and scattered resources. At the Atlanta meeting, the team arrived at the following parameters for a permanent structure for NPEN that would indeed advance the field while acknowledging current realities.
The permanent structure will consist of a diverse group of 20 to 25 people, including a chair, who are committed to NPEN’s mission of advancing the field of parenting education. This group will take over from the management team in 1999. The team anticipated that, as resources become available, the structure will also include one salaried coordinator.
The present NPEN Management Team and its currently donated services, including the web site, listserv, and mailings, will continue functioning until the new organization is in place in order to provide for a seamless transition to the permanent structure.
Members of the new structure of NPEN will carry out their responsibilities by means of periodic meetings and ongoing networking. The group will listen to ideas and concerns from its own members and from the larger parenting education community of which it is a part. By so doing, the group will identify both the needs in the field and the opportunities that are available for meeting those needs. Based on this information, the group will initiate and support collaborations among organizations and individuals to develop new projects. Also based on this information, the group will develop and maintain a clearinghouse of information that will connect people to each other and to the existing and emerging resources in the field.
Instead of having its own membership, therefore, NPEN will link people with existing regional and national opportunities for networking and membership that match individual needs, and work to encourage the development of new networking opportunities.
Similarly, instead of carrying out services and projects on its own, NPEN will seek to catalyze the development of the services and projects that are needed by seeking out and fostering collaborations between NPEN and appropriate organizations and initiatives. Thus, NPEN will continue to support and enhance, not compete with, the many efforts and organizations that are already contributing to the field or that have plans to do so.
This vision for the organization is especially promising because it has already been working successfully within the interim structure of NPEN. Informally, members of the group have gathered information about existing resources, shared that information via listservs, meetings, and mailings, and linked people and resources.
Furthermore, as activities described earlier above with NCFR and FRCA have shown, this kind of collaborative relationship can function effectively and has made significant strides in moving the field forward. Other examples of collaboration include the creation of a list of professional organization in the parenting education field through a partnership of NPEN Cooperative Extension as well as the project, just beginning, of developing a data base of parenting education curricula through a partnership of NPEN and the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.
Since Atlanta, the management team has undertaken a series of steps to flesh out and implement the key decisions made in Atlanta, so as to create the permanent council and facilitate its assuming responsibility for NPEN. Steps have included: (1) calling for volunteers to be part of the council, (2) beginning to identify the areas of diversity in the field that should be represented on the council, (3) creating a council that represents that diversity, (4) outlining an organizational structure, and (5) planning the council’s first meeting.
Now NPEN is ready to make the transition from its interim to its permanent form, the team joining with new members to create a permanent council. Our work in Chicago is to flesh out further the structure that will allow NPEN to meet its objectives and to envision together how we want to move into the future.
In summary, NPEN is progressing in answering the questions raised at Wheelock three and a half years ago. The first three questions, about whether we need an organization, whether it needs to be a separate organization, and who is to create that organization are pretty well resolved. Answers are in process to the fourth and fifth questions, what can the organization contribute and what should be the permanent structure. Our attention in Chicago will be to expand the answers to these last two questions.
On reflection, it is remarkable that so much has been accomplished, and undoubtedly will continue to be accomplished, by the entirely volunteer efforts of already overworked practitioners committed to advancing the field of parenting education. Speaking for the management team, we have found joy and frustration as well as honor in working towards the objectives of NPEN. We look forward very much to working with all of you this weekend. Our work together reminds us of something that Margaret Mead is quoted as having said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”