'I helped some. Some I couldn’t,' former N.D.G. family support worker says

Ellie Presner has written the book on parenting — with respect, humour and an acknowledgement of the changing times.

Article content

When Ellie Presner talks about parenting, she uses the word “we,” not “you.”

“That’s the point,” she says — that advice isn’t about shaking a finger at caregivers. “You don’t have to do this or that.”

Article content

N.D.G. resident Presner literally wrote the book on parenting, but she didn’t do it right away and she didn’t do it all at once.

Presner, who is in her 70s, went back to school when she was in her 30s to take a three-year social-service course. She had two small children, Kathryn and Jeremy — “We stopped at two because you only have two hands” — and had just separated from her husband. It was the 1970s and everything was different.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Except that when you talk with Presner, you realize it was all the same as now. Families in difficulty need support, and they need it quickly.

She worked at Jewish Family Services of the Baron de Hirsch Institute, then at the Parent Enrichment Project, followed by a two-year stint as a family support worker at Ville-Marie Social Service Centre during the 1980s.

She was often called on to try to help people who struggled with alcoholism and family breakdown. “They couldn’t handle the couple, let alone the kids. I helped some. Some I couldn’t. Sometimes it was too little, too late. You have to start when the kids are very little. People muddled through until their kids started stealing or whatever. It was very sad.”

And she was so tired. Her children were pre-teens and needed attention themselves, “but I would come home drained. I talked to them for 10 minutes and I’d say, ‘OK, if I’m going to make supper, I have to lie down first. Give me 20 minutes.’ They were very good about that.”

It was then that she started a family project of her own that would resonate across the country.

Presner began writing a booklet of tips for families that included hand-drawn images with speech bubbles showing common issues and the best way to handle them. Her first was Tips on Parenting Preschoolers. The cartoons use humour and feature dos and don’ts: how to offer choices so that parent and child both come out winners and how to channel a child’s energy instead of mandating actions that frustrate everyone. The images and language were simple because she was working with people with different levels of literacy. It was intended for families who were receptive to learning.

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

Presner’s children, who both work in the IT industry now, were early adopters of technology, so her son was able to help her scan the images to create a printable booklet. Word began to spread about Presner’s little books and she soon offered them by mail. Orders came in from across the country, from schools and libraries, daycare centres and hospitals.

Three pamphlets about parenting on a wooden desk.
Ellie Presner’s parenting guides began as simple pamphlets with tips and suggestions. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

She revised and revised again and then, by 1990, compiled her tips into the book How to be an (Almost) Perfect Parent: Dos and Don’ts From a Former Family Support Worker.

Like all parents, she had doubts that linger now: “Sometimes we wonder what we’re doing wrong, or think that maybe we’re not great role models.”

She believes most caregivers now have a greater awareness of the things they’re supposed to be doing, the power of positive reinforcement and the respect shown to children.

One of the most important aspects, Presner says, is humour. There are funny bits sprinkled through How to be an (Almost) Perfect Parent and the thoughts she shares on her blog, Crossed Eyes and Dotted Tees.

“I think we’ve come much farther than in the ‘80s, there is more exposure” to information and articles that focus on positive parenting and mutual respect.

“We know a lot more now, right? We’re always learning things in and mulling things over.”

How to be an (Almost) Perfect Parent is available on Amazon and via the website elliepresner.com.

Sign up for our awesome parenting and advice newsletter at montrealgazette.com/newsletters.

[email protected]

Recommended from Editorial

Advertisement 4

Article content

Article content