When Parents Are Too Busy to Do Their Job

CLARENCE PAGE

February 16, 1993|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington. -- Sometimes little events in your personal life offer valuable insights into the great events of public life. One example occurred a few days ago when our 3-1/2-year-old son was whacked across his nose with a toy ladder in his pre-school class.

The perpetrator of this heinous crime against the latest edition of the Page family nose was a 3-1/2-year-old classmate of notorious repute who I suspect is well on his way to a future career as a serial killer.

As tears mixed with blood on his cheek, my son balled up his little fist with a never-say-die Page family spirit and bopped his young assailant on the head.

A parent volunteer intervened. My son's little schnozz was treated with an ice pack and the future serial killer was consigned to the dreaded isolation penalty known as ''time out.''

While these little episodes in the life of a parent were unfolding in my personal life, larger child-rearing issues were unfolding elsewhere along the eastern seaboard.

In Baltimore, local black leaders were protesting the nation's first program to offer the surgically implanted contraceptive Norplant local high school clinics, claiming it smacked of social engineering and ''genocide'' in the predominantly black school system. Interestingly, there were no major protests two years earlier when the clinics, after surveying parents and winning school-board approval, began distributing condoms, pills, diaphragms and contraceptive foam. Maybe nobody was paying attention then.

Anyway, the day after a stormy Baltimore City Council meeting over Norplant, New York's school board voted to oust Chancellor Joseph Fernandez after only three years in office, partly because of a citywide furor over his advocacy of condom distribution to help prevent AIDS and his ''Children of the Rainbow'' program to teach grammar-school pupils about tolerance toward all people, including homosexuals.

Perhaps it was my own foul mood in the wake of the wanton attack against my firstborn that caused me to react to these major events scornfully. Where, I wondered, are the parents?

I was not angry at the child who whacked the Page family nose. I was angry at his parents.

The boy is a chronic troublemaker who beats somebody just about every day. This day just happened to be my son's turn. His parents can't even excuse themselves as naive, undereducated products of the so-called ''underclass.'' Both are white, middle-class suburban professionals. They are not bad people. They're just busy people. Maybe too busy.

When my wife told his mother, she apologized, as she has apologized before. But, as far as I am concerned, it is going to take more than apologies to help this child avoid the pathway to the penitentiary.

''He just wants attention,'' said my wife. Right. I wonder who's going to give it to him. So maybe I was in a mood not to be angry at the New York kids who were looking for contraceptives or practiced intolerance toward gays. I was angry at the parents who, by failing to teach the proper lessons at home, made corrective programs necessary in already overburdened public schools.

Similarly, I was not angry at the school-based Baltimore health clinics that were offering or considering offering Norplant. I was angry at the parents whose failures had made such a drastic move appear to be necessary.

If more parents were doing a better job of parenting, cities like Baltimore and New York could spend more time teaching and less time trying out controversial remedies for major social disorders.

We parents are justly offended that schools officials would usurp our authority. But some parents have more of a right to be offended than others do. Some have no right to be offended at all. When we blame schools for trying to make up for the shortcomings of parents, we pick on the wrong target.

Just ask a teacher or a principal about the difference between good and bad parents. Since they have to deal with the end products, they can tell you a lot about the producers.

They can tell you about parents who don't even try to stimulate or challenge the developing brains of their pre-school children. They can tell you about parents who don't spend much time with their children during any years, reading to them, having heart-to-heart talks or contributing to their moral and spiritual enrichment.

They expect schools to do all that for them. Yet, in too many cases they don't even bother to show up for parents' nights or other visits, even when their child gets an award or gets into trouble.

It's sad, but I've seen it happen, sometimes in the best of neighborhoods.

Many parents are too busy, they will tell you. As a working parent, I sympathize, although I find it sad that so many parents feel they must neglect their children in order to make enough money to raise them. Nevertheless, sympathy with that problem does not solve the first, which is child rearing.

The bigger problem is that some families do such an inadequate job that the community must step in for the sake of the child and the community on the whole.

The appalling stream of child-abuse stories we see in the media these days shows with grisly clarity that parents don't always know better than the community what's best for their kids. Sometimes parents need help. The question is not ''whether'' the community should intervene. It is ''when.''

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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