When Sister Deborah Davis, PHJC, explains to parents in the Systematic Training for Effective Parenting class that “to raise adults, one needs to start at the crib,” she often observes confused or funny looks on their faces. But the essential life skills that Sister Deborah teaches are basic to the parent-child relationship, which starts in infancy and remains with a person through their entire life.
Maria and José, the parents of three sons, ages 17, 16 and 5, found that the STEP course “totally changed the way we speak with our children.” Their appreciation and renewed energy to parent well became evident during the course in their enthusiasm for the commitment to their children and their commitment to one another in marriage.
Active in St. Michael Parish, Plymouth, as leaders in the charismatic group, the couple is grateful for the learning opportunity. Especially with their youngest son, they feel they have a chance to change, refresh and try again, with the grace of God. “We can now think before we react. It is hard, but we’re on top of it.”
Originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, José remarked, “In my view, our culture is totally different than (the American culture), in the way we approach parenting.” Maria found herself becoming “more patient, treating the children with more respect.” Both parents recognized that the transition, especially with older teenagers, was tough, but as Sister Deborah mentioned, “it’s normal to make mistakes, get up and try again.”
During the course, the parents open in prayer, naming their children directly, following the Old Testament tradition and trusting in God’s guidance and love for their families. Using a combination of scientific, physical and spiritual realities, the STEP program allows the parents to grow in their role, as they develop better communication with their children. This whole-person approach is essential to help families flourish in faith.
Sister Deborah first began teaching the course 40 years ago. A member of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ religious order, she discerned her vocation at age 20. She entered religious formation in the motherhouse community in Donaldson and studied psychology and educational psychology.
Her first active ministry included teaching the STEP course in the Diocese of Belleview, Illinois. There, Sister Deborah shared with catechists how to teach the course in their own parishes. She next taught it herself to the position of a pastoral associate at a Mount Carmel parish. When she was asked to serve as a social worker in Mexico for 17 years, she brought the Spanish translation of the STEP course with her because the teaching of the essential elements of parenting transcends language and culture.
Returning to the U.S., she taught STEP again as the director of religious education at several Chicago parishes. Today, she gives instruction at the motherhouse in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.
Originally prepared by the American Guidance Services, the main goal of the program is “to help parents improve their communication with their children, to help them become loving, caring, responsible adults.” This premise builds strong and faith-filled families, despite age or language spoken. Sister Deborah explained that the course is successful and maintains its timeliness due to “the solid principals.” Video components have also been developed, using real families in relatable situations, such as backtalking teenagers or toddlers throwing fits.
Themes in the course include topics most parents struggle with: how to discipline well vs. punish, how to encourage children vs. praise them, etc. Basic principles include speaking directly to the child, on their level and to their face, clearly and distinctly.
For example, instead of asking a first grade student to “be good,” a parent would explain what the desired behavior might look like, using patience and words a child can relate to. During an argument a parent might speak less but act more, using a calm voice: This way, they can assess a situation without becoming the target of the child’s anger.
Using phrases such as, “I can see you are upset about it this,” allows the child to be in relationship with the parent while also navigating their new feelings. A conversation that previously might have sound like, “I’m so proud of you!” would now perhaps go, “You seem very proud of your work,” with the parent encouraging the child to do a self-assessment of the situation.
These phrasing of conversations might seem subtle, but they allow a child to develop as a whole person who is known and loved as an individual within a larger family unit.
The principals are also in line with the goals of Catholic education, which is to help prepare useful citizens for society for heaven as Blessed Basil Moreau, CSC, wrote. As a result, recent articulations of the parenting program are offered to families in preparation and qualification for their children applying to the “On My Way Pre-K” program in diocesan Catholic schools.
In South Bend, where Sister Deborah just completed teaching the STEP course in Spanish to families at St. Adalbert and St. Casimir parishes, she observed the highest percentages of active fathers parenting she has ever taught, she said: Twelve of the 16 families participating in the last course were couples vs. single parents. “Seeing moms and dads come together, co-parenting and being on board together, I admire that,” she shared. “I see responses from parents raising faithful, psychologically healthy kids,” which she finds life giving because “teaching is one of my favorite things to do. It is a joy for me to see them move forward in their relationships!”
Sister Deborah also just finished teaching the STEP course in Spanish to families at St. Michael Parish, Plymouth, and she is organizing a yearlong offering for fall at St. Adalbert and St. Casimir parishes. All interested parents are welcome to join.
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