If Little House on the Prairie is to be believed, there was once a time when children were supposed to be seen and not heard; to speak only when spoken to. And Laura Ingalls did her chores without expecting any financial reward.
But drop in on a young family today, and you’re likely to witness something like an operatic cage match: kids whining for a snack, crying about some grievance and evading their parents’ requests. Mom and Dad, meanwhile, are wrangling their kids with bribes, punishing them with time-outs and lambasting them with lectures.
When Vicki Hoefle, 52, was pregnant with her first child about 21 years ago, she imagined these dueling tableaux and couldn’t see herself as a coolly collected June Cleaver type. Yet she didn’t want to spend 18 years yelling at her kids and devising ever more complicated incentives and punishments to keep them in line.
Instead, she found a set of parenting guidelines based on a psychological framework she could believe in. Then she taught it to about 60,000 other parents. Now, Hoefle has developed a home-study program called Parenting On Track that’s getting glowing reviews from parents and psychologists alike.
In 1989, Hoefle saw motherhood as a job she had asked for, but one for which she had no practical experience. “In no other job are you expected to show up and wing it,” she says, curled up on the couch in her home in East Middlebury.
Hoefle has shiny gray hair, young-looking skin and, when she’s in front of an audience, a dramatic persona. The rest of the time, she says, she’s frightfully shy.
Back then, like countless parents concerned with how to handle their children’s frustrating behavior, Hoefle turned to books. Most of them hashed out discipline strategies. But as she read them, she realized these approaches were all wrong. The problem was that the books treated kids like savages who needed a paternalistic form of tough love. Hoefle thought of children as friends with different opinions and desires. “You don’t read books on how to discipline your friends when they do things you don’t like,” she notes. What you do with friends, she points out, is build a relationship with them through hard work and empathy.
Hoefle wondered if anyone had applied this philosophy to raising children. She found its embodiment in the writings of Alfred Adler, a psychologist from Vienna who came of age with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Adler, who founded the school of individual psychology, believed that many personality weaknesses — such as an inferiority complex — were rooted in dysfunctional parenting marked by pampering and punishment of children. In place of these habits, Adler advised parents to approach their kids with empathy and introduce them to its kinetic cousin, social interest, which is an understanding of the interpersonal demands of any situation. The best example of this idea is the biblical golden rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Essentially, Adler’s approach is about fostering a healthy relationship between parents and kids so that kids become thinking, feeling adults. Hoefle liked the sound of that, so she put the principles to work in her growing family.
A few years later, Hoefle opened a day care in her home in Seattle. On Mondays, the children would arrive with a great gnashing of teeth, throwing tantrums when their parents tried to say goodbye. But by the end of the week, the kids would come to Hoefle’s home, hug their parents and cheerfully put away their lunch boxes. The weekend passed, and the cycle began again. Hoefle drew the conclusion that her approach at the day care was very different from what the kids experienced at home: She wasn’t doing everything for them and obsessing about their every move.
Hoefle told the parents that these cycles were driving her crazy. “The kids are very confused,” she recalls saying to them. Then she developed a six-week parenting class and encouraged the parents to take it.
It turned out the parents were as confused as the kids. “Why are they cleaning up their plates at your house, but they never do that at my house?” they asked Hoefle.
“This is how it works here,” she responded. “You never do for a child what a child can do for herself.”
Soon 60 more families had signed up for the class. “Something magical was happening,” Hoefle recalls.
In 1997, Hoefle moved to Ludlow, Vt., hoping to get away from the parenting classes and just be a mom. But before long, other parents in town noticed that Hoefle had a special relationship with her five children — they were cooperative and helpful — and they wanted to know how she did it. In exchange for a vow of secrecy and $30 apiece, she gave them the six-week class. Promptly, Hoefle says, “They told everyone they knew.”
Enticed by the extra money the classes could bring in, she started teaching again. Within two years, Hoefle founded Shared Ventures, based in Rutland, and taught four nights per week at elementary schools all over Vermont. The schools found money in their budgets or wrote grants to bring Hoefle in, and the thousands of parents who took the course didn’t pay a dime.
Two years ago, Hoefle considered retiring and moving to Arizona. To her surprise, she says, parents in Vermont were outraged — she hadn’t written her program down, and there was no way to keep it going without her.
The solution was Parenting On Track, a business Hoefle started with Jennifer Nault of Lincoln. Over a weekend, Hoefle presented her class to 40 real parents in Burlington and had it professionally filmed. The result is a home-study program consisting of four DVDs, four audio CDs and a 100-page resource book, priced at $349.
Some local parents still get the live version, since, in the end, Hoefle decided to stay in Vermont. She periodically teaches half-day classes in the Burlington area, does a weekly webcast on MomTV and coaches some parents on the side.
Sally and Jeremy Gulley of Waitsfield took the class when it was still free. Their daughter, Anda, was 3 at the time. Sally learned that, by putting Anda in her pajamas at night and brushing her teeth for her, “I was sending a message that I didn’t think she was capable of doing those things for herself,” she says. The night after that first class, Sally let Anda put her own pajamas on. “She was thrilled,” Sally recalls, “and bedtime became a lot easier.”
In the four years since then, Anda has learned many new skills, Sally reports, adding, “I’m always surprised at the solutions she comes up with to different problems.”
Jamaica and Andy Jenkins of South Burlington, parents of three boys between the ages of 4 and 11, noticed similar results in their household after going through the program two years ago. Their kids, Jamaica says, “are definitely on the rowdy end of the spectrum,” and although they hadn’t been seeking a parenting program, the Jenkinses are glad to have found Hoefle’s. Jamaica’s favorite tactic is “do nothing, say nothing,” which she uses when her 4-year-old wants to engage her in an argument. “I don’t take the bait,” she says. “I bring up another topic or walk away, and it helps me avoid the dumb stuff that is exhausting.”
What do parenting professionals think of the method? When Susan Crockenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Vermont, listened to the free one-hour audio session available on the Parenting On Track website, she was impressed. Crockenberg specializes in developmental psychology and how parental behavior affects children. “What I most agree with, and what there’s the most support for,” she says, “is [Hoefle’s] whole emphasis on self-discipline as being the goal.”
The model that Hoefle advocates, which Crockenberg also recommends, is called “relationship-based parenting,” in which parents and their children function as mutually respectful partners. This doesn’t mean parents and kids are social equals, but that parents must balance their own wishes with those of their children.
For example, Crockenberg describes a parent who wants her 3-year-old to pick up her toys. “You don’t say, ‘I want you to do it now, and it doesn’t matter what you’ve been doing.’” Instead, she suggests, give the child a few minutes’ warning, and then make the task manageable by breaking it down into steps.
Hoefle also warns against using threats on children, and Crockenberg agrees that this is one of the most common parental pitfalls. The problem with a threat is that it sparks a conflict, and the dispute is no longer about the original request but about who’s in control. “This is one of the best-replicated findings in psychology,” Crockenberg says. The better option is to instill a sense of “committed compliance,” in which children have their own motivation to follow through. Studies have shown that children with committed compliance are better able to resist temptation and are more likely to obey rules when someone’s not looking over their shoulder.
In Hoefle, Crockenberg sees someone who understands child psychology and can communicate it without using academic jargon. And building bridges — between “experts” and parents; between parents and kids — is what Parenting On Track is all about. Hoefle remembers the epiphany she had when she realized, back in the day-care years, that she could help parents. “All of a sudden,” she says, “I was creating a way to bridge the gap between what I was doing with their children and what they could do.”