Patricia H. Shimm, author of “Parenting Your Toddler: The Expert’s Guide to the Tough and Tender Years”, has run the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development for over 20 years and  knows the benefits of parent groups.  Shimm established parent groups as part of the Toddler Center program since its inception, and has run scores of them for decades.

GCP: Why form a Parent Group?

Shimm:  Parents need a place to talk with each other without their children around in order to become better and more effective parents.  Parenting is tough to do in isolation.  We all have issues with our children, such as “my son won’t sleep through the night”, “I don’t like the way my child talks to me”, or “This teacher is being unfair to my son”.  The parent group weighs in on the issues and offers perspectives and advice.  We often can’t solve our own problems, but we can look at other people’s problems and help them with theirs.

GCP: What are the essential elements of a Parent Group?

Shimm:  Ideally the group should have between 6 and 10 members and a leader, preferably someone with professional experience with child rearing issues.  The leader shouldn’t be opinionated or intrusive, but be able to draw out the less talkative parents and make everyone feel comfortable in sharing their concerns.

No one in the parent group is allowed to reveal any details of any group conversations to anyone outside of the group.  Everyone in the group has to be able to trust that his or her issues will be kept confidential.

GCP:  How do you start a group?

Shimm:  Gather people who seem compatible and comfortable with one another.  It helps if they have children of similar ages. Find someone with experience in running a parent group: schools and universities are good places to look. One of the parents in the group should act as the administrator—someone who coordinates the meetings and collects the leader’s fees (if one has been hired). The group needs to decide where and when to meet (someone’s home is best, but a café or coffee shop or restaurant can work, as long as there can be privacy) and how often (weekly or bimonthly helps ensure that issues are dealt with as they arise).

GCP: Things to avoid/tips for success?

Shimm:  Civility must rule in group sessions.  Never ridicule someone’s actions or feelings. Never embarrass or insult anyone.  All advice must be given and received in the spirit of helping people become more thoughtful and better parents.

It helps if the first session starts with the leader asking everyone what he or she wants from the group so that everyone knows each other’s goals.  Honesty and candor are critically important elements of the group.  And laughter is essential. You have to be able to laugh at your parenting mistakes while getting advice about how not to make them again.