PARENTING : When to Let Go : Parents must decide at what point helping children is actually interfering, which can arrest development and damage self-esteem.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Roberta Wax is a Northridge writer

The 12-year-old boy had proudly showed his friend the new calculator he bought with his own money. The friend admired it and said he really wanted one. When the friend left, the calculator was missing. The boy and his mother were certain the friend had taken it.

"In my heart of hearts, I wanted to call the other mother and have her look for the calculator," said the boy's mother. "But he didn't want me to. He just brushed it off and said he learned a lesson. But it was hard for me to stay out of it."

The parental instinct to protect and defend one's cubs is strong. Whether it's a problem with a bully who hates your child or a teacher your kid just doesn't get along with, the urge to step in and make it all right is hard to resist. In elementary school, parents seem to feel comfortable taking these problems to teachers and administrators. But as children get older, when should a parent intercede?

"There's no easy answer," said Bonnie Geary, a licensed marriage and family counselor in Northridge. "The principle is, if you do for your children what they can do for themselves, you lower their self-esteem. It's not the parent's job to make sure your child is happy every moment. The parents' job is to help the child develop skills to deal with problems."

To intercede or not "is a judgment call," added Colleen Miller, also a licensed marriage and family counselor who deals with adolescents in her Sherman Oaks practice. "You offer assistance and guidance and support and see how a child deals with that. You have to know your child."

The first day of junior high, Jackie came home in tears--the teachers were mean, the work was too hard, nobody liked her, she couldn't remember her locker combination, the homework was overwhelming.

"I held her and soothed her the first few days," her mother said. "But by the end of the week, I was out of sympathy and told her she just had to make the best of it. I knew she'd be embarrassed if I went in to talk to her teachers. She has to learn to cope."

But teaching a child coping skills doesn't mean you toss them out without a net. "Kids have to learn how to handle their own business, how to cope, but they still need guidelines and structure--and want it," according to Rose Morelli, counselor at Holmes Middle School in Northridge.

"You have to teach your children that they are not going to like all their teachers," added Geary. "In real life, you can't just bail out whenever you don't like someone. You have to teach them to work it through, to find something positive in the situation."

At Holmes, for example, "We hardly ever change a class just because a student doesn't like the teacher," Morelli explained. "You say to the child, 'Now how are we going to deal with this? What do you do that sets the teacher off?' Maybe the child is tardy every day or is disruptive, or never has his homework. You break it down so the child can see his responsibility."

Sometimes, a parent-teacher conference is needed.

"Usually, the parent has only heard one side," Morelli said. "Or sometimes the teachers don't perceive that there is a problem. Kids don't understand that sometimes they are at fault. Teachers have too many students to single out one kid."

But, she noted, parents do need to be involved on "big issues," which could be anything from failing grades, chronic tardiness and absenteeism or being physically threatened.

Headaches, stomachaches, withdrawal, constant tears, inability to do schoolwork are all red flags.

Assistant Principal Pam Hamashita, who counsels students at Monroe High School in North Hills, said administrators there try to keep parents informed of their child's school status. When a child is absent, for example, "a phone call goes home immediately. If there is any problem, we call the parent. We cannot involve the parents enough. We're here for the kids and we need parents behind us. We need to work together.

"We encourage parents to teach children to take responsibility for themselves," Hamashita continued. "But some kids take a little more time to get there. I have never told a parent, 'You're interfering too much.' "

Morelli agreed that parents should never feel shy about calling school. "No parent is obnoxious or a pest when they are involved with a child."

In fact, she said, parents should meet teachers at the start of school, "when things are on a pleasant level. Sometimes parents forget that school is for good things."

Listening to your child and discussing possible solutions are ways to teach coping skills, s aid Geary, who has two teen-agers. "You listen and encourage them to discuss the problems and think of ways of handling it. Present some options, but let them decide what works for them."

"A child's sense of competence comes from being encouraged and guided," added Miller, who has two adult children. "Sometimes parents get involved because they are too protective. You ask yourself, 'Is this a situation that my child is ready to deal with?' You have to say, 'I know you can do it.' "

A Granada Hills mother of three said: "The older my children get, the more I feel they should work things out themselves. When my son's locker wasn't working, I asked if he wanted me to talk to his teacher. He said no.

"Maybe in a bully situation where my child was really a victim, I would call the school," she continued. "I might not even tell my son I had called. I would probably get involved if it was a question of physical harm or self-esteem."

Junior and senior high school is a difficult time for parents as well as students, experts agreed. "Not only do parents tend to think children should be able to fend for themselves, but children tend to push the parent away," Morelli said. "They think they can handle things. When the parent does want to step in, the kids are telling them not to. It's a very frightening time. Sometimes parents give youngsters too much independence."

Junior high students, she said, are experiencing changes daily, "going through all kinds of identity problems. There are often problems at home that kids bring to school. It's the age where problems are monumental.

"All junior high school kids are embarrassed to have their parents come in," said Morelli with a laugh, "but you have to show your child that you are there for them."

Teen-agers, Miller noted, look to peers, rather than parents, for advice and comfort. But that doesn't mean they don't still need you. "You need to give your kids a sense that you care, that their welfare concerns you and that you'll stand by them. You have to work at keeping the communication lines open."

When there is a problem, Geary advised: "Do the least first. If you need to talk to a teacher or administrator, go calmly, with the attitude that you are allies. Don't put the teacher or administrator on the defensive. Be a little confused. Say you are just trying to get information. Ask in a positive way for help."

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