Friday, June 16, 2006

Your presence is present enough.

Before I begin today’s topic, you need to know something. One morning in the past week, I fed Daughter fruit pie for breakfast. My reasoning went like this:

1. It was the last week of school, during which Daughter’s presence was required at 643 graduation-related events

2. I could either remember to buy bread or I could remember to pick up a gift certificate for her teacher but, sadly, I couldn’t remember both and

3. Apples are fruit. Pie crust is a carbohydrate, I forced broccoli into her last night, and

4. Shut up.

In short, I am forced to admit I am a mother of the cutting-corners variety. Having admitted that, may I please discuss a variety of mother who simply must be lectured? Maybe not by me; maybe they should be lectured by someone who didn’t toy with the idea of adding a scoop of ice cream to breakfast pie (you know, for the calcium). But someone needs to talk to these women.

I am talking about the women who leave their children at after-school classes and/or athletic practices and then take off for parts unknown.

I have spent several years in the après-school trenches, all smelly hallways and broken chairs. I estimate that 20% of any given population of children in a dance class/gymnastics class/aikido class/soccer practice would answer the question Where is your parent? with a shrug or “She’ll be back later”. It would be one thing if these kids were in their teens, or even nearly in their teens, but these kids are sometimes no more than seven or eight years old. In one particular place Daughter takes classes, the bathroom the kids use is at the far end of a public hallway, accessible with very little effort by anyone else in the building. Call me a worrier but I’m not comfortable ending up as the woman interviewed on local news saying mournfully, “We always knew something would happen in there.”

I waffled about writing this for a while because I fear I have a “Let them eat organic croissants” thing going on here. I know there are parents who can only afford to pay for these classes by working full-time. I am aware that running Hiphugger means I am one of those lucky women who is available to her kid when her kids needs her, without having to run it by management. But the other two women I am closest to in those dingy hallways both work full-time and they are there with me, walking other people’s kids to the bathroom. Both of these women arranged to start work at six in the morning so they can be with their kids in the afternoon, which means I admire them without qualification and can never complain to either one about feeling tired.

I’m not suggesting every single mother needs to sit there video-taping each arabesque and scrimmage. I’m not even saying a mother has to be there; there are kids in Daughter’s class who are monitored by older siblings or grandparents. There are groups of kids who are brought by one mother and the responsibility traded-off between weeks. In short, I don’t care who watches out for these kids, but shouldn’t it concern the parents that no one might be?

I’ve asked the teachers and coaches about this practice. They roll their eyes and mumble the names of the most notably absent parents, but unless it’s a private gym with specific rules about parental involvement, they can’t force the parents to attend. The amazing and maddening thing is, when these kids get injured, the parents call the next day screaming about how “You were supposed to be taking care of them! Why weren’t you doing your job?”

Sometimes it isn’t about the parent’s professional workload. Sometimes, I think, in multiple-child families, it’s about the embarrassment of riches in terms of after-school programs here in Los Angeles, and a certain panic about keeping up with the parental Joneses. Do you want to be the parent who chooses to actually sit with one child and not get the other child to Fun with Fractions?

This past week (the same week I fed Daughter breakfast pie, let us not forget), one of the more defiant and exhausting children in one of Daughter’s classes came bouncing into the park. Following behind her was a small woman with a similar nose. I hazarded, “Is Emma your daughter?”

She smiled wearily, “Yes.”

Emma ran around the field, removing field cones and kicking balls into the hedges, something she did at nearly every practice. However, since her mother hadn’t been here for months, this behavior might have been news to her. I waited for her to say something. She watched Emma as one would watch a television show.

I ventured, “You know, they aren’t allowed to do that.”

Her mother watched for another thirty seconds or so and sighed.

“Emmy, baby, this woman says you can’t do that.”

Emma kicked two more balls into the hedge and ran off to interrupt someone else’s game. The mother turned to me.

“It’s sure hard to park around here, isn’t it?”

I restrained the urge to scream “I bet slowing down at the corner and letting your daughter tuck-and-roll out of the car is MUCH more convenient!” Instead, I mooed sympathetically.

Thus encouraged, Emma’s mother told me about her afternoon schedule. It seems she has three kids, and she has them all in after-school programs. She spends nearly every afternoon dropping them off and picking them up, but because of the overlapping nature of the classes, she never actually views any class. She just drives in circles. One of her kids was at camp this week, which meant she had the time to see Emma at practice.

I was just about to start feeling a certain measure of sympathy for her schedule, if nothing else, when she said, “…and now the principal says we really should start family counseling, because he says the kids are acting out at school to get attention, which I don’t get. I mean, look how I spend every afternoon. But the only time the counselor had available was five-thirty on Fridays, and that’s Bethany’s ice-skating lesson. I don’t know where we’re going to find the time…”

I watched Emma, under the guise of getting control of the ball, push a smaller boy into the dirt, and then glance quickly in our direction. I looked over at her mother. She had never taken her eyes off the side of my head as she was talking to me.

16 Comments:

Blogger cathy said...

years ago i was a traveling portrait photographer. we called those kids motherless children. they were fasinated by the whole photography set up. it was nothing to hear a mom yelp and turn around to see said motherless child climbing onto the poser with someone elses children. when the mom finished shopping she would roam over, collect her kid and head on home. ggrrr

11:31 PM  
Blogger Jan said...

On the flip side, I just spent a week at camp with one-of-those-children-that-nearly-caused-me-to be-childless-in-the-first-place...and his father. Since I was the leader, I came with great expectations of courtesy, obedience and cheerfulness. This young boy was openly defiant, pushy, loud and prone to point out I was not the skinniest mother in the camp, thank you very much. His father never did anything to reign him in and, since he was right there, my power was diminished.

Still, I'm with you that presence is most important! Certainly it is more important than enrolling your children in multiple activities!

10:15 AM  
Anonymous Barbara said...

Thanks for putting into words something I've only begun to notice, and get annoyed by, this year. My daughter is seven and in prior years ALL the moms (or dads) stayed at dance class and Little Gym and any other activity we attended. But something happened this year and I am now hardpressed to find another adult to chat with in waiting areas. In fact, one day my two year old was asleep in the car and I waited outside dance with my daughter to send her in with another mommy so as not to have to wake him. No other mommy arrived to go in with - they all dropped the kids off at the front door and drove away! 7 year olds! At a dance school located inside a gym/tennis club for adults! So happy to be validated that I am not being over protective, I just have common sense!

1:14 PM  
Blogger Judy said...

What is it that makes you (and me) see this as a problem, and other parents be so clueless? Do they not listen to the news? Read magazines?

I want to know.

Maybe I could request grant money to study this.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Chewy Mom said...

Hmmm....I'm one of those "leavers," I guess. I was going to say, in my defense, that I have five kids, and I am usually either dropping other ones off elsewhere, or I just don't want to sit, for example, in a tiny booth at swim team practice with a wiggly three-year-old for two solid hours every day. But after reading your last two paragraphs, maybe that's not a good excuse?

Maybe it is the nature of our little town that most people view these events kind of like school--the parents don't sit and watch the teacher teach for 7 hours, and they don't sit and watch the coaches coach (many don't anyway) either.

But can I beg off by saying I don't think my kids have ever had apple pie for breakfast?? :-)

4:39 PM  
Blogger Quinn Cummings said...

Chewy,
I think the key phrase you used is "Little town". I imagine you know every person who is involved with the sports programs. We live in a city of multiple millions of people. The choice you can make safely in a small town seems, to me, kind of foolhardy in a huge metropolis.
Then again, what do I know.
I feed pie to my child.

5:36 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

I think it all boils down to the fact that YOU WERE THERE to feed said daughter the pie. I have noticed that parenting discussions are far more volatile than any discussion about religion or politics. We all know who the parents are that drive and dump and we can see that in the personalities of their kids. Have I ever dropped off and run errands? Sure, but only after securing the kids with a friend or coach that is staying and then returning the favor for that parent when she needs a quick run to the drug store etc.

4:09 AM  
Blogger elswhere said...

Hmm... this is interesting to me and I have a different opinion. I can work up as righteous a froth as anyone about phone-it-in parents (I'm a teacher), and the mom you describe sounds truly irksome and ineffectual, but honestly it has never for a moment occurred to me that it's my or my partner's responsibility to supervise our daughter during her extracurricular activities, especially as she gets older.

I mean, often I'm there, because there's no point in leaving, what with the driving I'd have to do to get back anyway. And yeah, if there are behavior issues and the counselors/teachers/ coaches need backup, you need to be there; when my kid had swim class last year and her teacher was a slightly clueless teenager and the little girls were ripping him apart, I was right there at the edge of the pool glowering at her so she'd behave and learn. And of course if we felt there were any safety issue we'd either pull her out or one of us would be there every second.

When I can be there, I love watching her learn and become an independent person in the world while I watch semi-invisibly; it's one of the thrills of parenting.

But I always felt that part of the point of these activities, after kindergarten or so, is that someone *else*--presumably someone qualified and capable (and if they're not, see all the above)--is supervising your child for that time period. I don't expect the parents at my school to be hovering over my shoulder while I'm teaching their kids how to search the library catalog; likewise, I'm a pretty hands-on parent, but don't feel that good parenting requires that I stand on the sidelines week after week as my daughter pursues her own learning and interests.

8:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My daughter is only two, and I do live in a small town, but I'm amazed at things I see. I was at the grocery store, checking out and realized that I didn't get something I needed that was very close to the aisle I was on.

People behind me in line told me to leave my child at the counter to run to get the item! Ummmmmmm, no! I would have had to take my eye off her for a moment, and while the people behind me didn't look like kidnappers, why in the world would I just leave my child?

I do work outside the home and as my daughter starts to have outside activities, I can't imagine a time before High School that I would be comfortable just leaving her and coming back to get her.

I haven't fed my child pie for breakfast, but her first food (even before rice cereal) was pudding.

7:49 PM  
Blogger Vikki said...

My son is 4, so, we stay for all of his activities. Actually, we wouldn't miss them for the world. I'm guessing he will reach a point where he wishes we would leave.

I do think it is important to make sure that your child is supervised and also important that, as parents, we don't make assumptions about a coach's/teacher's job responsibilities.

7:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quinn, you'd go mad at our local park. Here we have a preponderance of the other type of ineffectual parent - the one who goes to the park with their kid(s), only to spend the entire time talking on their cell phone while their offspring do one of three things: 1)throw sand in the faces of other kids; 2) climb to the highest part of the equipment only to dangle off precariously and then spit on other children below; and/or 3) run off alone and unattended to another part of the park where they are ideal prey for kidnappers/molesters/child predators, etc. My favorite part about the cell phone moms is that they are usually pregnant, which I find particularly ironic since they take no interest in the children they have already birthed. I know I shouldn't judge, but if it walks like a duck...

11:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

P.S. - Serving pie to Daughter reminds me of the great Bill Cosby bit about rationalizing his children's request to eat chocolate cake for breakfast: "What are the ingredients in chocolate cake? Eggs...and milk..." only to have his wife find them and become hysterical and have the kids turn on him: "We asked for eggs and milk and Dad made us eat this!" I think it's off the "Bill Cosby-Himself" album.

11:43 AM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Very well written and insightful. Hope Emma's mom doesn't read this.

3:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel it is my responsibility to oversee my 6 year-old twins' extra-curricular activities. They are still learning and/or needing reinforcement regarding appropiate behavior in different environments; I want to be there to reinforce the good and discourage the bad (my twins have a way of revving each other up). The children also want me there. They want my attention and I think giving it to them is important. If I have to leave for any reason, I make sure they know where I am going and that I will be right back. I guess it is a judgment call as to whether staying is necessary, depending on your knowledge of your child, the supervision given, and the safety factor. I'll see how it goes as they get older, but I admit I delight in watching them now!

Also, I need to give you my cousin's recipe for Breakfast Cookies!!

8:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said Quinn,
I have some very close friends that whilst I love them dearly I really don't want to alienate them by pointing out that their children are spoilt, ill-behaved, bullying brats (language in check).
I can see it as clear as day.
Hmmm, I wonder what they think of my kids (3)?
It is really wonderful to know that their are parents out there you do know right from wrong. Let's face it - that's what it is. Pure and simple MANNERS and respect for others. Too often forgotten these days.

Thanks for listening

7:56 PM  
Blogger Amie said...

I live in a big city, but in a small neighborhood with six or seven what I call "feral children" - they are all under the age of 8, and I have no idea who their parents are. I have never seen any adult supervision as they run around the street chasing each other with sticks.

My husband sent an anonymous letter around with a list of all (248 or so) sex offenders in our neighborhood. The problem stopped ... for a while...

4:19 PM  

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