Overwrought Moms Turn to Parenting Coaches

Sept. 23, 2003 -- On a typical day at the office, Peggy Alvarado has some unique discussions with her clients.

"So tell me more about your potty training issues with Gabrielle," she urges one.

"It's hard not to feel like a failure when you're trying to help your child go through a developmental stage," Alvarado sympathetically tells another.

Alvarado is part of a relatively new industry. She's a "parenting coach." She doesn't have a degree in child development or psychology, and in fact, for 13 years she was a software developer. But now Alvarado runs her own business, charging an average of $300 per month per client, to moms, like herself, who phone her Manalapan, N.J.-based office seeking guidance, or send e-mails to her Web site.

"The parents I've encountered are good parents," she said. "They're just having issues with dealing with the relationship, their spouse, their child, their own parenting skills, their own stresses."

Answers — for a Price

Buffi Neal, a 36-year-old mother of two from Annandale, N.J., is one of thousands of parents who are turning to coaching for help. It's a growing trend, for those who can afford it. Neal has been a client for seven months and has spent over $2,000 thus far. She started talking to Alvarado because she was struggling with typical day-to-day pressures of raising her son, Derek, 4, and daughter, Amanda, 6. She felt she needed more than a self-help book but didn't feel the need for a psychologist.

"I felt unfulfilled," Neal said. "I felt out of balance and I was trying to struggle home, my family, my children, my work and I never felt like I was doing anything well … I feel like there's such pressure to be the perfect mom."

So she shares those feelings with her parenting coach.

"I feel tired," Neal told Alvarado. "I feel tired, like if it's all on me, it's all on my shoulders."

"Yeah," Alvarado said. "So when do you want to have them start cleaning their rooms every night again?"

"Yesterday," Neal responded.

"I imagine that you're torn between trying to keep on top of the kids to keep their rooms clean all the time, at the same time trying to just let it go so you could spend good quality time with them," Alvarado said.

"Exactly," Neal responded.

"It's a tug of war for you," Alvarado said.

"Right," Neal said.

Parent Coaching Draws Critics

Not everyone thinks that parenting coaches are such a great idea.

Dr. Carol Goldberg, a clinical psychologist in Syosset, N.Y., holds a Ph.D. and has been in private practice for over 25 years.

"I think the risk with any coach is that there are a lot of unknowns," Goldberg said. "It's sort of like a grab bag.You can get somebody who's qualified who knows a lot, or you can get somebody who's totally unqualified. And because there's no state regulation you don't know the difference."

But Neal says that Alvarado has helped keep her on track as a mother.

"Peggy's the one that says 'what kind of mom do you want to be?' And I tell her 'this is what's important to me.' And then she makes sure I do that. She keeps me honest. She keeps me on track with my goals."

Guidance, But No Answers

The term "parenting coach" may suggest that it's all about parent education, but according to Alvarado's coach-client contract, "the coach's job is not to provide advice, counseling or consulting."

So what do they do?

"As a coach, I don't provide answers. That's more of a consultant,"Alvarado said. "As a coach, what I do is I'm expert at asking the kind of questions that [let] the client see something maybe they hadn't seen before."

It may sound like the type of advice that you can go to your mom or a girlfriend for, but Alvarado insists that it is more than that.

"Best friends or moms sometimes can't help but bring their own opinion into the conversation — like they kind of know what's best for you or they kind of want the best for you," she said. "So it becomes like — their agenda becomes part of the conversation."

Offering support and boosting confidence is one thing, but are coaches capable of detecting serious problems?

"I think that anything that is done over the phone misses certain cues," Goldberg said. "I would be concerned that somebody who does not have a depth of training would be able to know when they are in over their head."

Neal says that her parenting coach has put her life in balance.

"I think what I got out of Peggy — Peggy's coaching is that if my life is in balance," she said. "I'm happier, and therefore I'm a better mother."

Goldberg says that parents should be careful.

"There's nothing that is harmless," she said. "Anything that deals with your head, with your behavior, with your children is important, and it is important to get the best for you."