Getting dialed in on summer mom mode

June 22, 1999|By SUSAN REIMER

IT IS SUMMERTIME. School is out. And mothers everywhere are muttering urgently into the telephones on their desks, "I said, not until your chores are done."

It is remarkable what women (why doesn't anybody think to call Dad at the office?) can accomplish over the phone.

We can organize children's activities. ("Did Emily's mother offer to drive or are you just saying she will drive?")

We can diagnose illnesses ("Did you actually throw up or do you just feel like you will?") and perform triage on injuries ("How much blood is there?").

We can cook over the phone. ("Is the toaster oven off? Go over and look at it before you answer me.") We can settle disputes between warring children. ("Put your brother on the phone.")

My friend Verna has even conducted a funeral for the family fish over the phone.

All summer, if the phone rings at her desk, a mother knows who it is without Caller ID. Even if she has a sitter, she will be called upon to act as a court of last resort.

Parenting by phone doesn't work much better than parenting in person, but it is a change in routine for the summer.

There are, however, a number of important things that a mother cannot do by phone from the office.

She cannot, for instance, make sure the doors are closed while the air conditioning is on. She cannot put the ice cream back in the freezer.

She can't hear if her daughter is actually practicing piano or just messing around at the keyboard. She can't be sure her son was wearing a bicycle helmet. She can't wipe off the kitchen counter -- again.

A mother can't reach through the phone lines and grab somebody by the ear and march him up to his room and make sure he stays there until he's ready to apologize. And a mother can't have one of those screaming fits that startles kids into good behavior for an hour or so.

Actually, parenting by phone is a lot like U.S. currency. It only works as long as everyone believes it is backed by the gold bricks in Fort Knox.

Let the kids call her bluff, or say something like "I have a really bad headache and I'm hot and I can't move my neck" and it's over. A woman goes flying out the office door like smoke up the chimney.

This long-distance attempt at discipline actually has a name. It is called "tele-parenting" or "virtual parenting." And, as you might expect, tele-parents are a marketing niche.

There are auto-dialing services that will call your home at set times during the day and ask, in your pre-recorded voice, if everything is OK. The child is then instructed to press "1" for yes or "2" for no, whereupon you will be notified or one of several emergency numbers will be called.

If the phone is busy, the computer keeps trying. If there is no answer, the computer will call the emergency numbers.

The flaw in this system is clear to me. My kids would press "1" for "OK" only if they were trashing my house with their friends. Every other time they would press "2," get me on the phone and complain that there was nothing to do and when was I coming home and could I bring pizza.

I don't need to be auto-dialed six times a day for that nonsense. I'd rather let my voicemail record their complaints and only return the phone call if the bone had actually pierced the skin.

Cell phones and beepers are marketed to busy, mobile parents as a way to keep in touch, too. And we know how well that works. I have a facial tic from the incessant bleating of my cell phone. My kids use it like a choke chain: When am I coming home and will I bring pizza?

Those parents on the electronics horizon can check homework by fax, have dinner with their children by video conference or read them a bedtime story via video cassette. Why not hire the Jetsons' Rosie to make supper?

Don't get me wrong. I am no Luddite. I plead guilty to using my cell phone to give my husband sports bulletins from the sidelines, and I have e-mailed my children my thoughts on topics too sensitive for them to discuss in person. But I stop short of wearing a beeper in the movies.

The sad fact is, tele-parenting is a one-way street like so many streets on the Planet Childhood. Kids use the phone to reach out and torture you at your desk. But try to check up on them by phone and you will discover that they didn't hear it ring because they were downstairs playing video games. And they'd left the portable phone out by the basketball hoop, anyway.

Pub Date: 6/22/99

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