287. "The Family That Beeps Each Other Keeps Each Other--At A Distance." The Philadelphia Inquirer, Commentary, (May 27, 1997), p. E&.
You heard it here first: The parental crisis is over; move over child care. Salvation has arrived in the form of New Remote Parenting.
A pioneer of the new movement is reported to be one Mary Croft, an attorney is too busy to talk with her 12-year-old daughter about the happenings of a school day, boy-and-girl kind of things, even about permission to stop over at a friend's house. Instead, Mary purchased a pair of beepers so the child can cue her ma "I need to talk," as the mother-attorney is racing around carefully taking care of her clients. Alas, the beepers did not prove to be quite efficient enough. Mary often found that when she could find a minute to respond to her daughter, the phone booths on street corners or in stalls at airports were occupied. Mary came up with an ingenious solution--she added a pair of cellular phones to the mother-daughter relationship! Now when mother has a moment--using the facilities, zipping along the highway, or when the clients demand a breather--she can complete her business calls and find free time to beep and ring her teenager.
Parents are not to worry that the new, beep-and-ring relations may not be quite as affectionate as old fashioned talks-and-hugs at bedtime, on the way from little league, or while stacking dishes in the washer. They have the word of one professor of psychology, Professor Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, that children monitored electronically do not get into more trouble than those with family at hand. And if parents need more assurance they can find it in labels fashioned by marketeers of these gizmos. Parents who reach out and touch their own over the airwaves are told that they are the wave of the future, the masters of something called "teleparenting," or more futuristic yet-- "virtual parenting."
There is one catch, though, the professor allows. For long distance parenting to work, children require clear and firmly set routines. Once those are in place, parents then can click and check if their offsprings have turned off the TV on schedule and turned on their homework; found the wholesome tuna sandwich left in the microwave; or remembered to let out the dog, who does not get the beep-and-ring thing, yet. Those who fear that the children of High Tech Parents will learn all too quickly to game the system, turn off the idiot box when the phone rings, claim to be home on the third beep while they are actually in a friend's liquor cabinet, need not worry unduly. Surely the industry is hard at work at designing cellular picture phones armed with location-identifiers, using satellites to verify the exact place of a child speaking on the roving phone. If all else fails, really hip parents can bring into play the video cameras hidden in teddy bears that they previously employed to spy on their nannies, to check on their kids for their own good.
Quality time has long replaced quantity time in many high- powered homes. Given the time squeeze many successful parents--and children--are under, long gone is the notion that educational opportunities, in which a child truly opens up to parental guidance, occur at unpredictable times, somewhere during a long walk, a prolonged conversation in a traffic jam, in short, in quantity time. I am not writing about old fashioned parents, who believed in the need for an adult at home when the children are under age, but about those from yesteryear, who tried to keep several contact hours a week for their youngsters. Many now seem to take it for granted that one can relate-on-demand, during times set aside for fostering relations. "Jimmy tell me, what troubled you about Rachel, before the phone rings again or I have to dash to my next meeting." The new twist is that face-to-face quality time is being replaced with quality phone calls. Says Jane Maddow, a tax accountant, cellular phones are an indispensable part of her parenting; she confirmed to her mother than even on very busy days, at the highest of the tax season, she will push all else aside, to be sure to talk to each of her two boys as long as five minutes on the line, most every day when they return home from school.
Parents who have recently acquired infants should not feel left out. A group of some of our brightest and best computer science students at Rice University are working on something called quite appropriately, a cyborg blanket. If perfected, it will "free" as the student-researchers say, parents from having to listen to the monitors to which their babies are hooked when the parents are elsewhere. The "blanket" will play soothing music or parental pre-recorded warm words, when their infant engages in "low intensity" crying. Rocking the baby crib, if it engages in middle intensity crying is the logical next step. The students, though, promise that high intensity crying will lead to a beep being broadcasted to the parents.
Parents had better keep these gizmos in good repair. At their next anniversary they should expect a beep and a ring. Costs are of little concern, as the children have been well trained in keeping phone calls short, constantly reminded by the peculiar beeping sounds of call-waiting that others have a call on their parents' time. Family get-togethers, especially during the much-traveled and crowded holidays, will soon be replaced by conference calls. And as parents grow old, they had better take a modem with them when they are installed in a nursing home; e-mails from their children are sure to follow, as time allows.
Amitai Etzioni is director of the George Washington Center for Communitarian Policy Studies and author of the newly published The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society (New York: Basic Books, 1997).