Making the Grade

by Andrew Reiner

At the school where I teach, parents appear with the frequency of new middle school romances. Often, the parents stick around longer. What's unusual about this is that many of these parents work full time.
The dawning of the Information Age has made this possible, of course. Parents no longer have to work outside the home. Such liberating machines as laptop computers and cellular telephones enable many working parents to spend their weekdays in socks and sweatshirts. While this burgeoning Information Age is making parents more visible at school, ironically it is removing them from a crucial part of their children's education: that which needs to take place at home.
Much of this parental absence has to do with our lifestyle at the turn of the 20th century. We work longer and longer hours (including those working out of their homes who, studies show, often work longer hours than those of us in offices). We fill our nights with graduate school and continuing education, which help us stave off that circling shark, unemployment. In between, we rollerblade and meditate and practice aromatherapy, hoping to find some peace, some emotional and spiritual bearings, amidst the disorienting furor.
When many parents finally get to see their families after weathering such grueling schedules and digesting the voluminous amount of information required to keep pace each day, they are too tired and brain-dead to help their children with homework, let alone make sure that it has all been completed. Although this lifestyle sounds cliché by now, it has led to a very recent problem that, oddly, is similar to one faced by parents in poorer, urban areas.
Just as many single parents in inner cities cannot, as newspapers tell us, get their children to stay off the streets and in the home to study, many well-heeled parents where I teach reluctantly submit to a similar inability. During recent conferences with parents and their children, most of whom are 12 years old, my students admitted that while their parents decompress in front of the television each night, these children spend, on average, 15 minutes on homework. The rest of their schoolnight is spent behind closed doors, unattended, roaming the alleys of the internet in gangs, trying to sneak into high-security files or high resonance peep shows.
To their credit, many parents are beginning to install devices like the V-chip to censor unwanted software programs from reaching computer screens. Although these devices can control one problem they exacerbate another-the widening gulf between parents and their children. This chasm is becoming so devisive that many parents, out of desperation, are beginning to ask teachers to overstep their boundaries and intervene.
This past autumn five different sets of students' parents asked me if I would lean on their children to spend more time on homework. "He doesn't pay attention when I tell him to let me help with his homework, but he'll listen to you," went the familiar refrain. Why didn't these parents press their children so that they could be more involved in their children's homework? "I want to give him his independence," went the familiar refrain.
Part of what's causing parents to seek outside help with this responsibility has to do with our inability to say "no" to our children. In our haste to avoid acting like our own parents before us, we try to be both friend and guardian to our children, and, in the compromising situation we create we often opt to play the role of the former.
Sociologists blame this avoidance of the disciplinarian role on our post-1960s values. These values, among other things, have given us our culture's insistence upon personal freedoms and trusting people, no matter how young, to determine what is best for themselves.
It's time to make a stand to and for our children. To do this we first need to turn back the clock, so to speak. We should look for more humane ways to finding answers to our very human problems that don't require sitting in front of a screen. Computers, television sets and V-chips aren't the solutions to the frustrations we are feeling; they only add more layers of alienation and further obscure communication in relationships already too strained.
We need to consider turning back the clock on the ways that we are preparing our children for their futures. Like our parents and earlier generations before them who gave up things in their lives to ensure that their children succeeded, we must learn to do the same.
We can start by taking away some personal freedoms from our children that they presently enjoy but cannot handle. These freedoms include making decisions and handling responsibilities for such important things as homework that we-parents with more wisdom and experience than our children-should be monitoring. And we can learn to give up some of the time we claim as our own to establish deeper rapport with our children.
At a time when our children need every fiber of support and direction we can give them for their eventual journey into a volatile, unpredictable Global Economy that requires survival of the fittest, we need to train them without the space-age glitz. We can best do this through a tried-but-true, old-fashioned diet of greater dependence on each other instead of machines, and increased face-to-face communication. Sometimes the oldest-not the newest-ideas make the best progress.

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This story was published on April 2, 1997.