Shuttered businesses, increasing unemployment and a record rise in home foreclosures tell the story of a deep, long recession that promises to go deeper and longer than any in recent memory. But spread just below the passive indicators depicting the fearful length and chilling depth of economic despair are hundreds, indeed thousands, of North Bay families. These families now struggle to fend off the hard knocks of very hard times.
You don't need a social scientist to tell you the insecurities of a failing economy take an especially harmful toll on the fragile security of a struggling family. What do we do with less income—or none at all? How do we shop for ourselves and our children? What bills do we pay? How do we see a doctor? How do we keep our home?
These are just some of the questions that quickly become riveting, obsessive challenges for parents cast adrift by a sputtering economy. For some, it means trimming a shopping list and delaying the rent check. For others, it means lining up at the food bank and sending the kids to live with relatives. For all, it means significant dislocation and serious anxiety.
As an agency that advocates for the health of children and their parents, the California Parenting Institute is accustomed to working with families in crisis. But in our 30 years providing services in Sonoma County, we have never before served so many driven to the edge of survival by such rapidly diminishing prospects.
Since increases in economic insecurity are invariably tied to increases in family problems and child maltreatment, CPI now includes an "economic survival" component with the services it offers to parents. A new parenting class, "Assets and Resources: A Survivor's Guide to Parenting in Challenging Economic Times," is now available through CPI; the class is free. Parents enrolled in "Assets and Resources" learn some basic budgeting skills, of course. Understanding how to manage even a limited income—and to resist the fear and panic that can create bad decisions—is a fundamental asset for heads of households.
But "Assets and Resources" goes further to explore the challenges of meeting unsatisfied needs (especially those of children), dealing with couples' stress over money, and managing a myriad of difficult emotional responses to hard economic times. Parents learn how to involve children in age-appropriate conversations about changing needs; how to sustain routine and discipline in new settings; and how to problem-solve and control costs as a family. Despite the hurdles to happiness created by a depressed economy, it is still possible for parents and children to have fun and feel OK.
Parents also learn that they are not alone and that a larger community exists beyond their immediate family that can become a vital resource to them. Friends and acquaintances, which many parents might not think to ask for help, are viewed as potential collaborators in managing transportation, childcare and food costs. Networking among just two families has the potential to cut many living expenses in half. Networking within a neighborhood carries a powerful capacity to limit costs while building stronger social networks among resident families.
Beyond the family and neighborhood, there is a larger community that provides a safety net in the form of food banks, shelters, health services, education and employment. The CPI class describes how families can access this safety net as well. But CPI's primary goal in offering "Assets and Resources" is to support good parenting, especially when times are tough. Effective parenting, in good times or bad, creates happy childhoods. And happy childhoods last a lifetime.
More information about CPI's free Assets and Resources parenting classes is available by phoning 707.585.6108 or going to www.calparents.org. Robin Bowen is the executive director of the California Parenting Institute.
Open Mic is now a weekly feature in the Bohemian. We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 700 words considered for publication, write [ mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org ]email@example.com.