IN AN IDEAL world, on the day report cards are delivered dinner time would be extended while mom and dad calmly look over the kids' grades, praise them for their excellent efforts and tell them to keep up the good work.
But in the real world, there is evidence that child abuse goes up at report card time. Parents, often handling more than one
stressful situation at a time, aren't always calm, let alone kindly, when they see a less-than-perfect report card.
It was with the real world in mind that a statewide educational task force created a colorful, eye-catching insert that many Baltimore area youngsters will be bringing home in their report cards today. The tip sheet, of sorts, warns parents that "the next few minutes could make a difference" and advises them to sit down with their children, listen to them, praise them and work with them to do better in school.
It also gives a telephone number parents can call for help or for referral to various sources of family support.
The insert is the product of the Public Education Task Force to Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect, a committee founded on the growing evidence that the incidence of child abuse increases at report card time. Members refer to such explosive situations in the home as "report card reflex."
"This is a national problem; it's not just in Maryland," says Elaine Fisher, co-chairman of the task force and executive director of Parents Anonymous of Maryland. The task force was organized by the Governor's Office for Children and Youth and is supported by grants from the state Children's Trust Fund.
Fisher says there are no statistics on child abuse at report card time, but "there is anecdotal evidence" nationally -- from police reports, teachers, social workers and others -- that abuse, both physical and emotional, increases when report cards are issued.
Any number of things about a child's report card can touch off a parent, she says. It could be a bad grade, a note from the teacher or even an attendance record that reveals a child hasn't been going to school every day.
"Often, the report card is the final straw," says Sara Mandell of the Mayor's Office for Children and Youth, which helped formulate a similar insert for city students' report cards last fall.
"It could be that the parent and child have been at odds for a while now, and a bad report card is the final straw that proves the child hasn't done what the parent wanted him to."
Abuse doesn't have to be physical, says Fisher. Verbal criticism of the "you'll never amount to anything" variety can be devastating to a child's self-esteem.
Some parents mistakenly interpret a child's performance as a reflection of their own abilities as a parent, she adds. If their child fails a course, they feel they have failed. They may blame themselves or a spouse and become defensive and abusive.
The task force's insert was first distributed in November, at the end of the first marking period, to parents of public school children in 16 Maryland counties. This month, almost 300,000 copies are being distributed in mostly elementary and middle schools in six more jurisdictions, including Baltimore city and Baltimore, Howard, Harford, Anne Arundel and Charles counties.
"We're obviously trying to be preventative," says Min Leong of the Maryland Department of Education's Pupil Services Branch. "The important point is that parents realize there are different ways to respond to report cards that are not up to their expectations. We hope that rather than respond in an aggressive way, they will sit down and talk with their children."
This is the second time city school children will be taking such a message home. Last fall, the city developed its own advisory and included it in the report cards of 110,000 public school students in November. The positive response from the community was heartening, said Mandell.
"I had parents tell me it made them rethink how they were responding, even if they hadn't been abusive." And students, she said, reported that the insert stimulated lengthy family discussions, even about high grades.
In addition, she said, the hot lines suggested to parents were flooded with calls, particularly by people interested in tutorial services. "It made people feel they could do something besides be frustrated."
The notice students take home this month advises parents to phone First Call For Help (1-800-492-0618), a referral service that will put them in touch with agencies offering help with everything from homework to counseling.
Stressed-out parents also can call Parents Anonymous (243-7337), says Fisher, for advice or for a sounding board. In the meantime, she offers these suggestions for a healthy response to a not-so-healthy report card:
* Sit down, with your child at your side, and look over the entire report card before saying anything. Remember that harsh words can scar a child's spirit and self-worth.
* Ask questions about specific areas and listen closely to your child's response before making judgments.
* Find something about the report to praise. It may be good attendance or improvement over last quarter's grade. But say something positive.
* Work together with your child on a plan for improvement. Don't hesitate to call the school or the teacher or a tutor for help.
* Look at your own needs. Recognize that everyone needs help in parenting occasionally, and don't neglect to call or ask for assistance.