The "best thing" Bob Pomerleau said he ever did for his children was to attend a mandatory five-week Parents Forever class after he and his wife divorced last winter.
Even though his 17½-year marriage ended and he was no longer a husband, his role as a father to his 15-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter did not stop.
"You don't have to be married to be a parent," said Pomerleau of Willmar.
Parents Forever classes are required in Minnesota when couples with minor children have contested issues when they're divorcing.
In Kandiyohi County, the classes are coordinated by the University of Minnesota Extension Service in Willmar and are taught by volunteers.
Although it was difficult going to that first class with a group of 15 other recently divorced parents -- the tension was so thick you could've "cut it with a knife" -- Pomerleau said he's a better person, and a better parent, after taking the class.
"It's about the kids," he said.
Like many who have attended the Parents Forever sessions, Pomerleau said he wished he would have taken the classes before he was divorced because of the valuable lessons he's learned, and applied, to raising his children.
Some say the classes may have saved their marriage, said Kim Johnson, the Parents Forever coordinator with the Kandiyohi County University of Minnesota Extension Service.
The class helps parents understand how their divorce "affects their kids" and gives parents tools on how to help the children get through the traumatic transition with "minimum harm," Johnson said.
One of the things he learned is to "put yourself in your kids' shoes before you make any decision," said Pomerleau, who has joint custody of his children.
Even though parents get divorced, Pomerleau said kids need to know that "mom is still mom and dad is still dad and they love you and they are parents forever."
In 1997, Kandiyohi County was selected as a pilot county in the state to conduct Parents Forever classes. It used new curriculum created by the Extension Service.
In 1998, legislation was approved to make classes mandatory in Minnesota when there are contested issues on things like custody or child support.
In Kandiyohi County, however, there is a standing order for all parents to attend the classes "whether there are conflicts or not" when divorces come to the court, said District Court Judge Kathryn Smith.
There are penalties if one or both parents refuse to attend the classes, including the possibility of being held in contempt of court. Smith said a judge can refuse to sign off on a divorce, delaying the proceedings until the class requirement is fulfilled. The penalty "will depend on the case," she said.
"But I can't recall that many cases where people have balked and haven't done what they have been asked to do," said Smith.
Judges have the option of eliminating the order if parents are cooperative and custody issues are resolved, said Smith. That decision is left up to the individual judge.
When it comes to attending their first Parents Forever classes, most parents "don't want to be there," especially if their former spouse is also in the room, said Nancy Norbie, a family service supervisor who also volunteers to teach one of the classes.
But Norbie said parents need to know that "nobody loves their kids more than they do" and that "their children are the most important thing and not their own needs."
Based on participant evaluations, Norbie said the classes reduce conflicts between the parents, allowing them to focus on their children.
The program includes a series of five two-hour classes that cover topics on the impact of divorce on children, the impact of divorce on adults, legal issues and the role of mediation, finances and pathways to a new life.
Participants pay $60 for materials for the self-supporting program.
There are 15 to 20 people who attend each session, with three sessions held each year (spring, fall and winter) in Kandiyohi County, said Johnson.
In 2008, 52 people attended, with about 25 percent coming from Renville County, which doesn't offer its own classes.
So far in Minnesota, 2,600 individual parents have attended the classes.
The program helps divorced parents communicate better with each other and "helps parents keep the kids out of the middle of the dispute," said Minnell Tralle, program leader for family relations at the Extension Service. She helped develop the original curriculum and updated new manuals that will be put into circulation this fall.
The curriculum was developed out of a "really strong desire to help families during a very difficult time," said Tralle.
Better communication between parents, she said, is shown to increase the access kids have to both parents. Kids "do best" when they can spend time with both mom and dad.
Divorce is "not a time to pull away from your kids," said Tralle. "You're in it for the long haul."
Eric Vogel, who specializes in child development with the Extension Service and volunteers to teach Parents Forever classes, said kids "are going through the divorce too" and have a variety of emotions, like denial, anger and a desire to "fix it."
It can be "difficult enough" raising a family under one roof, and the complexity increases when families are not living together, he said.
But Vogel said divorce "is a great opportunity to develop some new tools and some new skills" when it comes to discipline for children.
Some parents are "guarded and very careful" when they come to the classes. "They may be embarrassed to be there," said Vogel. But the classes can provide parents with some valuable new tools for being a parent.
Norbie teaches the class on money, which is fuel for many parental conflicts.
Divorced parents typically have less income coming into the household to raise children than when they were married. In her class, she encourages parents to talk to children about money, discusses the "grief" of having less money, leads them through a financial worksheet and discusses the importance of financial support.
"When someone is supporting their kids financially, they're more apt to be involved with them emotionally," said Norbie.
Because the classes help parents "focus on the kids" and "transition into a different way of parenting," Smith finds the program very valuable.
She said parents need to remember that "they are each parents of those kids and they're still a family even though they're not married."
Non-custodial parents are "still incredibly vital in a kid's life," Smith said. "I hope the custodial parents realize that."
Pomerleau said it's important that divorced parents are thankful for their spouse because "they gave you the gift of your children."
Although going through a divorce was difficult, he said the Parents Forever class helped him become a stronger person, a better parent and to realize it's important to "spend time with your kids as much as you can."
Kandiyohi County Commissioner Harlan Madsen said Parents Forever is a "very valuable and essential" program. Commissioner Richard Falk said it's "one of the best programs Extension has ever done in our county."
Tralle said Kandiyohi County "has been fortunate to have the level of support" through the county-based Extension Service that has kept the program going without interruption since 1997.
For more information about the Parents Forever classes in Kandiyohi County, call the University of Minnesota Extension service at 320-231-7890.