Jeanne Watson pioneered fathers-only parenting class

  • Article by: PAUL MCENROE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2009 - 8:36 PM

She persuaded St. John's Hospital to let her start the program in 1979, and the idea spread across the country.

Jeanne Watson created her parenting class for fathers in 1979, hoping to help men learn how to play a bigger part in their children's lives.

Thousands of cooing, screaming, burping and sleeping babies later, Jeanne Watson knew her dream had been realized. She only had to look at the expressions of satisfaction painted across the faces of the fathers who'd attended -- and survived -- the unique class she created at St. John's Hospital in St. Paul.

She knew those men had been forever changed by the experience of realizing exactly what it takes to nurture a newborn.

"My mother was a big believer that providing a good education was the way to good health,'' Laurel Watson said of her mother's cutting-edge program, which has become the standard model in hospitals throughout the country. "She wanted fathers to learn how to have fun with their babies, share concerns, and help them discover their own values and goals for their children.''

Watson, 90, died Sept. 2 in Minneapolis from complications related to pneumonia.

Titled "A Father and His Baby,'' Watson's class was so cutting-edge when it began that Newsweek magazine and then USA Today wrote about how the curriculum was based on the principle that a father's deeper involvement in the months following a birth was a crucial factor in strengthening families, relationships and preventing child abuse.

Watson's interest in paternal infant care was closely tied to the work of her late husband, Theodore, a physician who became the head of obstetrics at St. John's. He died in 2002.

"She was in Seattle visiting her brother when she saw a community college class that taught fathers about how to better understand and communicate with their babies,'' Laurel Watson said of how her mother first became attracted to the concept of a fathers-only baby class. After persuading administrators and doctors at St. John's to join her, Watson co-directed the program with Rick Bell, a psychologist and new father.

It was a free-wheeling three-class session: Beach balls flew around the room, fathers learned how to give their babies massages, babies rolled on foam cylinders, hubcaps became mirrors for babies to study their own faces and fathers sang -- even if off-key -- lullabies in unison. The mothers were at home taking a well-deserved break while fathers learned what it took to handle a baby solo.

"Soon, the idea spread to hospitals across the metro area and now it's a common program,'' Laurel Watson said. "My mother was just thrilled.''

In 1992, St. John's dedicated the Watson Education Center in honor of her and her husband's work on behalf of infant health care. It turned out that five of her grandchildren went through her program with their fathers.

Born in Mitchell, S.D., Watson graduated from Carleton College in Northfield in 1941 and then briefly taught high school English and drama. Watson's interests later in life centered around music and being a peace activist. She was an enthusiastic member of "The Raging Grannies,'' a group of women who sang peace songs at area benefits, community centers, churches and synagogues.

In addition to her husband, a son, Bruce Watson, preceded her in death. She is survived by her daughters, Laurel Watson Riedel of Minneapolis and Janet O'Neil of St. Louis, her son Craig Watson of Louisville Co.; brothers Robert Winsor of Seattle and Frank Winsor III of Inver Grove Heights; nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren,

Services were held Tuesday at St. Christopher's Episcopal Church in Roseville.

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