Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Child Advocate

I'm not a helicopter mom. I don't hover over my children, doing their homework, reading their text messages, yelling at a referee when he makes a questionable call against their team, or generally living my life vicariously through theirs. I ache for them when something goes wrong, of course -- when their sports team loses despite a valiant effort, when they don't do as well as they had hoped on a test, or when a friendship goes awry -- but I know that learning to deal with life's ups and downs is all a part of growing up.

Nevertheless, there are times now and then, when I feel compelled to intercede on their behalf. I believe my role as my children's advocate should be reserved for correcting wrongs and injustices that really matter -- and that are correctable. Case in point: after years of paying for lessons at a local tae kwon do school, I noticed changes in the school that I knew to be detrimental to my kids. They were subtle at first: some teachers left and younger, less qualified personnel took their place; notices for a belt test were handed out at the very last minute from a school that had been organized and well run; classes sometimes started as many as 20 minutes late at a school that insisted on punctuality. The school's director was increasingly absent, and seemed distracted even when he did show up. There was a sudden insistence on rules and a new rigidity replaced the familiar flexibility. The child-friendly atmosphere that had pervaded the school all but disappeared, to the point that attendance was required on Halloween (which meant that the kids missed trick or treating), and during school vacation (which meant that families had to change their plans). My boys began to invent excuses not to attend class, whereas in prior years they had been anxious to go often. I was torn: by this point, my older child was close to attaining his black belt and starting over at a different school would have set him back for at least a year or two. The turning point came when the director reneged on his assertion that my son would be ready to take the black belt test at the next session. I firmly reminded him of his promise, reminding him that my child had been diligent in his attendance and in his class work, and had done everything he had been told would prepare him for the test. Our relationship became increasingly frosty as I continued to insist that my child should not wait an additional 3-6 months to take the test. Finally I prevailed: my child got the black belt... after which both sons left the program. A pushy mom trying to make things too easy for her darling? Maybe. But I like to think of it as protecting my child's interests, of showing him that a promise is a promise, and of proving to him that you shouldn't let other people step on you.

Other times, I wonder if I step in enough. The middle school application process in New York City can be full of stress. There are few neighborhood public middle schools (each district has a catchment school, but these tend to be large and unwieldy), so most student choose one of the "application only" schools that match their talents or interests. Having sent our child to a prominent gifted and talented elementary school (where he excelled), my husband and I were assured that our child would easily be accepted to the school of his choice. He always had done well on standardized tests and spoke to adults easily and confidently, so it never occurred to us to enroll him in test prep and interview prep programs. But perhaps we should have: few children from his school who didn't participate in such programs were accepted to their first choice schools. And while his second choice has turned out to be a wonderful place for him, I have some regrets that I wasn't more aggressive in the school application process.

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