Rock star parent or micromanager?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the stark differences between my life as a high school student back in the early ’70s and my kids’ attitude toward school today. Recent news reports say our Minnesota kids rank high nationally on most test scores. That’s great, and I applaud kids, teachers, crossing guards, legislators who vote money and support to the schools, and all the parents who make education a priority.

Getting those good marks doesn’t come easy — especially for us parents. No disrespect to my own folks, who were teachers themselves, but it sure seems that parents today are a heck of a lot more involved in the micro-details of school life than my parents ever were. Does that partly account for these good test scores? Frankly, I’m not sure it helps at all.

It starts early in the morning. Both my parents worked, so I pretty much got myself up and out on my own. Today, I not only drag my two sleepy kids out of their beds, but I make them breakfast, slap together sandwiches, help them pack up their backpacks, remind them of forgotten papers left on a table somewhere, make sure their cell phones are charged, and scoot them off to our neighborhood middle school and high school.

Oh wait, before they leave, let’s make sure they have all the signatures they need for the day. There are syllabi to sign, filled-in agenda books, project assignments, permission slips, sports waivers, reading logs and musical instrument practice sheets. Oh, don’t forget the contract to eat dinner with my kids. That needs a signature, too.

And don’t get me started on homework. When I was in high school, I did my homework during study hall ("What’s that?" my kids ask) or under my bedcovers at night with a flashlight so my parents wouldn’t see it and make me do it over. My kids insist on doing their homework at the kitchen table with me just feet away, busily making that dinner we are legally bound to eat
together.

If I asked my parents a homework question, their answer was a predictable, "look it up." My kids may crack a dictionary when pressed, but they mostly prefer to pry answers out of me, even though I’ve forgotten — or never knew — most of what they’re studying. In fact, some of their homework purposely involves me. Last week, my son was supposed to ask me if I think viruses are alive (of course they are; otherwise, why would we want to kill them?). And then there was the night I had to make three dozen bialys (Polish onion rolls) for my daughter’s class as an example of our ethnic heritage. My mom never had to cook my homework, I gripe.

Yeah, I gripe a lot, even about things that are kind of cool; like the "Parent Portal" now in use at Southwest High School. It may sound like something Mrs. Alice in Wonderland might have used to find her daughter after she fell down the rabbit hole, but it’s really just an online tool to snoop on your kids. But how cool is it that I can look at every grade my son gets on every single assignment, quiz or test in every class he’s currently taking? It’s very cool. And very annoying.

Do I really need to stay abreast of all this information? Probably not. But because it’s there — and kind of cool — I not only look and ask him questions about certain grades, but I also wish this was available from my daughter’s middle school. Am I a crazy? According to my husband, for this and many other reasons, yes.

But today’s crop of overachiever parents are conditioned to crazily micromanage their kids’ student lives, and the kids have likewise come to depend on the parents to supervise everything. I often know more about what assignments and quizzes are coming up than they do. Did my parents know so much about my life as a student? I don’t think so. They actually had time to play bridge with their friends and watch "Dr. Kildare" on TV. I spend my evenings signing my name and adding fractions.

So where does this all end up? Little by little, I’m trying to let go. Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t completely mastered the art of benign neglect. If my daughter tells me for three nights in a row that she doesn’t have any homework, I start checking up, and usually it results in bialys hitting the fan. Still, I’m trying to find a little time for myself to sit quietly and daydream about the halcyon days of walking to school in blizzards and getting C- grades on math homework — without my parents even having a clue. Ah, those were the days …

Nora Leven is a freelance writer who lives in the Fulton neighborhood.