CFLE in Context: Parenting Education

by Drew Betz, M.S., CFLE
CFLE Network
Content Area
Parent Education and Guidance

How does one begin to tell the story of one's path as a family life educator? I have been pondering this question as I reflect on the people and positions that have led me to my current job as Professor and County Director in the Washington State University Extension system. I began my professional life as a psychology instructor in the community college system. My bachelors and masters' degrees are in psychology, both earned at Western Washington University. One of my major emphases in both courses of study was Child Development and in my graduate studies I also specialized in teaching at the community college level. Life has a funny way of intervening in one's plans. There was no straight path in the early years of my career as I found my way into parenting education. I had a child, I went through a divorce, I took a parenting class in which my use of spanking was challenged. I was shocked and defensive. My family of origin "issues" emerged as grist for the mill of my journey into adulthood and later into my career path. I learned early on as a parent that no amount of academic theory was going to pull me out of the weeds of parenting a child with a temperament very different from my own. I needed to learn parenting skills.

My career as a community college psychology instructor was enriched by the many returning adult students who took my classes. The stories they told me about their lives and how they used the context of their families (both as children and as parents) inspired my understanding of real families and how varied and important they are. Unfortunately for me, because the economy was not strong, the work was irregular. I think it was a recession but what it meant for me was 16 moves in the first 8 years of my daughter's life, getting lots of support from the state and family to just survive. I remarried in the middle of this time and my husband Mike, with whom I will celebrate 32 years of marriage this spring, and I had a son in 1984. We moved to the Seattle area where I began working in a child abuse prevention program, funded by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect (NCCAN), that focused on parenting education and preschool experiences for at risk populations. I became active in the Washington Association of Child Abuse Councils and the state chapter of National Council for Prevention of Child Abuse and I became a convert in the move to change attitudes and practices about the use of spanking and other forms of corporal punishment. I had seen the impact it had on my first child and made a commitment to raise our son without its use. We now reflect with our 31-year-old about that choice and how it was a conscious but difficult choice for two parents who had been raised with physical punishment to make. I see a generational difference in the way my son treats his step daughter and it makes me glad that we made that choice.

Our family moved to Olympia, Washington, the state capital, in 1985 because Mike was working for state government. I began working for a community action agency and got a small grant from the state NCCAN funds to work as a consultant and a grant from our children's trust fund to develop a family support program that used the same model I used in my work in the Seattle area. I learned a tremendous amount about how to effectively work with families who were using corporal punishment and unhelpful parenting techniques to raise children. I could appreciate the full spectrum of child abuse and neglect and how it impacted children's development and the contexts in which child abuse and neglect take place. I learned skills that helped me parent my own children and which I could teach to others. Solid communication skills, the value of consequences justly applied and so much more were foundations of what I learned. I was also learning about working with "hard to reach" populations, which in those days, meant families who were isolated because of language, ethnicity, race, poverty, location, health and more. My world exploded with ideas and possibilities. Our family support program was doing good work. One of my most favorite projects was a Parents at Work program I initiated for state employees. We enjoyed a four year run and it was a pleasure to bring parenting to the workplace in the state capital.

I was recruited to apply for a statewide parenting education project funded with substance abuse prevention funds and I worked for four years directing a statewide project, Parenting is Prevention. We brought training in Effective Black Parenting and Los Ninos Bien Educados to the state. I am very pleased with the ways in which we opened up parenting education to a wide range of audiences and empowered cultural guides to become parenting educators.

In the middle of this exciting time I was blessed to work on a project with the University of Washington, our state public education agency, and the woman who became my mentor, Jean Illsley Clarke. Our group decided to make set a video series based on Jean's Growing Up Again, Parenting Ourselves, Parenting Our Children (Clarke and Dawson) for broadcast on our local PBS station. It was an honor and a life-changing experience for me to work with Jean on developing both videos and a curriculum that used the videos from her work. Her work became seminal in how I frame the job of the parent. I use her nurture and structure highways to this day as I explain helpful and unhelpful parenting behaviors to parents and other parenting educators. I am especially grateful for the work of Jean and Connie Dawson that explains how discounting and denial can keep us stuck in using unhelpful methods with our children.

In 1993, I was hired as an area agent for WSU Cooperative Extension and was tasked to focus on parenting, a new role for an extension professional. I am really fortunate that it was near the time that the National Extension Parent Education Model was published and it became a frame of reference for my work. It also connected me with the larger nationwide network. My position was a tenure track position and I used my time well to continue my work with low-income families, Latino families and to rise awareness amongst parenting educators in how to talk about spanking with parents. I conducted many workshops for parenting educators and volunteers who worked with families about the research about corporal punishment and the risks associated with its use and how to talk effectively and compassionately with parents about its use. Another program focus at the time was promoting and training others in a broad life skills program that incorporated parenting education (using Jean's work) and family resource management skills like budgeting, feeding, housing, etc. It was a wonderful blend of traditional home economics and parenting/family education. I was fortunate to partner with a long time extension home economist. Our skills and knowledge complemented each other well.

My work became more about teaching others to teach than teaching parents myself. The closest contact I had with families came from an experiential model that I developed with colleagues from the experiential education community. We designed and used "Family Challenge" to encourage family communication and play. I co-developed a manual and a video to encourage use of the experiential activities with families. The visual medium had a great deal of appeal for me. I worked on satellite conferences for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren and spent a number of years training relative caregivers to use Cornell's Parenting the Second Time Around curriculum. I coordinated a group of Extension Specialists to produce a satellite conference on best practices in parenting education and it was through that experience I became familiar with the Iowa State University program, Strengthening Families Program for Parents and Youth 10-14 Years. I have been involved in statewide leadership for that model since 2001. I have conducted numerous trainings and am always an advocate for the parenting and family education parts of the model.

In 2001, I was recruited to move up to Bellingham where I had attended college and to lead the family extension programs in Whatcom County. It was a good move for me. I reunited with my sisters and their families who all lived in this county at the time. I was also able to develop some new programs for extension in the area.

I have been extremely fortunate to have colleagues at WSU in the Human Development Department and Extension who have come together to form a synergy that supports families and parents. We sponsored a professional conference for parenting educators for fifteen years that ended during the great recession. It was a lively and fulfilling means for parenting and family education professionals to get ongoing professional development. We continue to work together on efforts to support families in our state. My current work focuses on family meals, food parenting and expanding programs for Latino families.

I have been thinking about all the people who have helped me on my journey in this challenging and never boring job. I could not possibly give a shout out to everyone who has helped me along the way. I credit a good solid scientific education (my degree is a Masters of Science in Psychology) with preparing me to operate in the academic world and to be able to translate research and be part of ongoing integrated research and extension teams.. I think my membership in NCFR has given me a professional home that has enhanced my understanding of a broad range of issues that impact families. I credit the CFLE process as the means for rounding out my education, especially my ongoing professional development. I have been an officer in my regional chapter, Northwest Council on Family Relations and continue to participate in our regional conferences. I know that being a professor and educator in the venerable land-grant university's cooperative education system has given me the opportunity to respond to local needs, to be creative, to network across state lines and to have influence on the practice of parenting education that I would not have believed was possible when I tentatively entered the field in the early 1980's.

In summary I have a few recommendations:

  • Allow yourself the privilege of integrating your own story into the work you do. I think the family life education field is one in which we need to be very clear about who we are and thoughtfully share that with others. I think this needs to be done with compassion and wisdom. It is a fine balance between the personal and the professional for many of us. I use the motto that every good counselor has a counselor and practice that myself. Although I am not a therapist I am clear about my boundaries and I keep my unresolved issues out of my role as an educator.
  • Practice the fine work-life balance that we are continually urging our families to practice. Take the space you need to be effective and when you are not, take a break. One of the gifts I received from my daughter's untimely death from meningitis in 2002 was an appreciation for grief and the role it plays in families and in one's ability to cope. The time I have taken to grieve and to step back when I needed to has paid me back many times in what I can give to others as an educator and as a human being.
  • Strive to make this a better world where all families have opportunities for a safe, healthy and secure life. This a huge goal but I think having that big picture about why I do the work I do has kept me in the field and will prolong my work life. I think of Jean Illsley Clarke and the impact and leadership she has provided for many people and I am inspired by her example and glad for her influence on my career.
  • Find friends and mentors who can help you along the way. It matters to have guides.
  • Maintain your connection with organizations like NCFR and keep up your CFLE!

Drew Betz, M.S., CFLE, is a Professor and Director at Washington State University Whatcom County Extension. She currently provides leadership for parenting, family and community health programs in her county and statewide for parenting. She has been fortunate to work with many talented and dedicated colleagues and that she has been able to focus on important and relevant issues that impact families. Food parenting, family meals, healthy behaviors/lifestyles for all ages and programming for Latino audiences are her current interests. She took a six-month sabbatical in 2015 and documented her journey of discovery on her blog.

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