Smart Mom Sometimes Just Leaves Son Alone

We've all heard that expression, “If they can put a man on the moon, why can't they come up with a way to get a sixth-grade boy to tell his mother about his math grade?”

Well, “they” did.

At long last, the technology that permeates our culture has transformed the nature of parenting a middle-school boy. I no longer must rely on my son to tell me how he's doing in school. I can simply go to the World Wide Web and find out.

Back in the day, moms and dads had to rummage through backpacks to discover what was happening in the classroom. This was messy. Between the dirty gym clothes and the leftover bananas, you could end up on antibiotics just learning how your son did on a social studies quiz.

Not that you couldn't simply ask, “How'd you do on the social studies quiz?” More often than not, however, the answer was “fine,” a subjective response, to be sure.

So schools like ours have begun subscribing to online reporting services that let parents log on to track their children's work in every subject. Used in conjunction with teachers' computerized grading systems, these services also allow parents to stay informed about daily assignments, projects, and deadlines.

Gone are the days of prying, guessing, and rifling through tattered pocket folders in a quest for information about academic progress. We can point and click our way into the teacher's official records.

Naturally, a development that's this good for parenting is a nightmare for your average middle-schooler, such as my son, Jimmy. He's a good student, but even a conscientious young scholar has a bad day every so often. With online grade monitoring, no bad day goes unnoticed.

Nonetheless, ups and downs are just part of being a sixth-grader. The term is nine weeks long, after all, and there's a large body of work to do before his teachers make the final judgment on his performance. You can't get into a lather about every blip on the academic screen.

Besides, who among us hasn't walked into a classroom, dropped into a prefab plastic chair, and felt his heart drop to the floor as he remembers — too late — that today is the English test? An occasional bad grade is to be expected.

What I look for when surfing the online updates are trends. How often do I find the dreaded “mi” — for “missing” — where a letter grade should be? Do the math grades reflect a lack of effort or confusion about decimals? How many days in a row does the music teacher give him just three out of five points for “conduct”?

When I find a pattern, I pounce. “Look at this,” I say sternly as I hand Jimmy the printout of his music teacher's daily performance and participation record. “You have a C+ for behavior in music class. Do you know how a person gets a C plus for behavior? By not behaving.”

I continue to lecture Jimmy for a good five minutes on the relationship between good conduct and good grades.

I remind him how miserable his life might be if all he is permitted to do is sit at home thinking about how to practice better self-control when singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” I throw in a few choice words like “basketball practice,” “computer games,” and “Jonathan's house” to drive home the point.

When he seems appropriately somber, realizing again that mom is everywhere, I know I've made my case. The prosecution rests.

In truth, though, mom isn't everywhere, and the older he gets, the more he must rely on his own abilities to monitor his progress and correct his course when necessary. Sometimes, in the interest of better parenting, I find it's best not to use all the information I find online; or more precisely, I decide not to act on everything I find.

The danger of a system that lets parents track each day's results is the temptation to rescue your child — to keep him from failing, a learning tool we probably don't use often enough these days.

All the warnings and threats in the world won't work if they don't come to pass occasionally. Sometimes you have to get that bad grade to realize your parents are right about finishing your homework, studying for tests and listening in class.

That's why, even though it looks for all the world as if Jimmy has a C+ coming in math, I decide to watch and wait.

I don't print out the page that documents his predicament.

I don't offer to check his homework, remind him of an upcoming quiz, or generally nag him about working harder.

I just keep an eye on him.

Sure enough, there is a new trend. After a couple of weeks, I check the Web site and find a series of 100% on worksheets and an A on a test. Before long, he has reversed the downward spiral, proving my case about the inextricable connection between effort and results.

Online monitoring systems are terrific because anything that betters communication between parents and teachers is a great development.

Then again, another great development is watching a boy take responsibility for himself and succeed on his own.

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 18 years and mother of four children from third grade to junior year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)

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