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Lecture aims to help parents talk to kids

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet Staff
Thursday March 22, 2001

More than 50 parents – many with their children – filled the Berkeley Arts Magnet School Auditorium Tuesday night to hear Dr. Barbara Staggers talk about strategies for better communication between parents and children. 

The lecture, sponsored by the Berkeley PTA Council, is the first in a series addressing parenting issues. 

“I want to hear what they have to say about when you should talk to kids, and when and in how much detail,” Kristin Prentice, who has two children in the Berkeley school district, said before the lecture. “I talk to my kids already, but I don’t know if I’m doing it right.” 

Staggers, director of Adolescent Medicine at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, has lectured all over the country on parent-child communication on tough issues like sexuality, peer pressure, drugs and violence. She began the evening by telling parents how to recognize different stages of development – early, middle and late adolescence – and respond to them appropriately. 

“You have to understand that normal development is normal” – even when it doesn’t appear that way to the adult mind, Staggers said.  

“Puberty happens.” 

Are parents frustrated by their 9-year-old’s monosyllabic answers to questions they consider important? The child may not be willfully withholding information, Staggers said, so much as reflecting his or her own bewilderment at the situation. 

For example, since early adolescent children typically don’t plan ahead but rather react to things as they occur, they might be just as surprised and dismayed as a parent when they receive a D in a class, Staggers said. 

“They really don’t know how it happened.”  

Since adolescents as a group don’t plan ahead, they won’t be prepared to respond to difficult situations faced by many children today unless parents take the initiative to prepare them, Staggers said.  

“You have to role play,” she said, advising parents to practice with their children how to walk away from a fight, or how to say no to drugs or sex, before they ever confront such a situation on their own. 

In a world where addictive drugs are readily available to youth, or where the risk of AIDS is an ever-present danger, adolescents can’t afford even one mistake, Staggers said. 

“That’s what prevents kids from using drugs: talking with their parents,” Staggers said. “Ask them, ‘Why do you want to do drugs?’ ‘What do you know about drugs?’”  

Staggers talked at length about the importance of developing clear expectations for children’s behavior and then reinforcing these expectations with appropriate punishments and rewards. 

“I see a lot of adolescents who are not parented,” Staggers said. “You cannot always be their friend, but you have to always be their parent.” 

Staggers emphasized in disciplining children, parents should find way to make it clear that they dislike the child’s behavior, not the child. 

“They cannot doubt or question whether you love them,” Staggers said. “We lose too many kids that way...Kids who look for love in all the wrong places.” 

Patricia Bandy, who attended Tuesday’s meeting with her granddaughter Brijuanaé Bandy, said in her day open communications between parents and children was the exception not the rule. Bandy said she wants to stay attuned to her grandchildren’s lives so she can overcome negative influences of the media age. 

“They’re exposed to guns, when you think they have no idea about guns,” Bandy said. “They know it all.” 

“I haven’t had these conversations with them yet. But I want to know. I want them to talk.” 

Parent Maya Karpinski agreed. 

“The media has made times faster for our kids,” she said. “You have to always keep one step ahead of the information they get.” 

At the end of the night, Staggers divided the audience into four groups, carefully separating parents from their children. She asked two of the groups to come up with a list of reasons about why it’s good to be a parent, and the other two, to form a list of reasons for wanting to become a teen. 

“If I can do this and one parent or child comes out inspired, that’s one less kid or parent that I’ll see in my clinic,” Staggers said.