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Report card has mom rethinking e-snooping

My daughter’s midsemester report card makes her mother look pretty stupid.

Last week, I poked fun at computerized school programs that allow parents to go online and monitor their kids’ homework assignments, class attendance, test scores, even what they ate for lunch. Technological umbilical cords, I called them, for hovering parents who won’t let their teenagers grow up. I have refused to sign up for them.

The column ran on Saturday morning. That afternoon, my 11th-grader’s progress report landed in the mailbox. Her grades were good, except for one -- in a class that she enjoys and I expected her to ace.

She was surprised. I was chastened. I should have been paying more attention.

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The response to my Saturday column from readers was swift, strong and all over the map.

I was taken to task for everything from letting my daughter “prepare for a test with music blaring from her computer” to being too lazy, self-absorbed and/or naive to do what is necessary to ensure her success.

“I pity your kid,” e-mailed one reader -- who described himself as a “father of three college-educated, successful adults . . . who were deprived of one thing growing up: the freedom to fail.

“Of course your daughter wants you to ‘back off,’ ” he wrote. “But teenagers don’t know what they need. They depend on you to set goals and make sure they meet them. That’s real parental love.”

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Others applauded my hands-off approach. “We need less interference and more positive reinforcement of the trust and faith we put in our youth,” wrote Veronica Cohn, a mother of three who always “knew exactly who was achieving and who was struggling.”

But both parents speak in hindsight. Their kids are now grown and raising children of their own. Parents in the trenches of child-rearing are bound to have a different view.

They told me online monitoring is a boon for working parents, divorced parents and those whose children are less than forthcoming about what’s going on in their classes.

“In today’s society, where divorce and sharing children between households is on the rise, e-monitoring can be a valuable tool for the non-custodial parent,” one reader wrote, in a response posted online. ". . . It keeps the [parent] connected to their kids, up-to-date on their progress and gives them an idea of what is going on in their lives.”

Sheila Doan found San Marino’s Parent Portal a great way to ease the transition into middle school for her sixth- and seventh-graders. “You go from elementary school, where you get weekly reports and the ‘Friday folder,’ to middle school and six classes a day and no way to keep up.”

Several teachers said they worry that e-monitoring thwarts the shift of responsibility from parent to teen.

Spanish teacher Ezequiel Barragan said his school in Orange County offers School Loop, which can be programmed to send a 5 p.m. e-mail every day telling parents what homework has been assigned.

“Most of my students are old enough to drive. Many are old enough to vote. . . . In that spirit, it is ludicrous that my students’ parents should be involved in this kind of hand-holding,” he wrote in an e-mailed response to the column.

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And although many teachers like its convenience and the link it creates with parents, others suggest it makes teaching less satisfying.

“Many of the tasks we are expected to perform for our students are ENABLING them as they have been enabled all their lives at home,” wrote one Whittier high school teacher, who did not want me to use her name because “I do not need angry parents flooding my phone system.”

Several like-minded parents shared stories like this: “My daughter, a freshman in high school, has always gotten A’s without cracking a book,” wrote Roe Leone. “She was stunned when she got a D in Spanish. I saw it coming and bit my lip until it bled. Nothing I could have said would have had the impact of actually receiving a D.”

But then there was this, from a mother who believes her son owes his future to her ability to become his cyber-shadow: “My son just went off for his freshman year at college. . . . He was lazy, unmotivated, the classic slacker. It look a lot of checking up and hounding him [in high school] to keep him on track.”

She logged on to her school’s version of Parent Connect every day. When her son cut class, she took away his car. Missing homework got him grounded. Good grades earned him a later curfew. “It worked. I don’t know that he really cared about the grades, but he did well enough to get into UCLA.”

That’s part of what makes it tough to decide just how much academic freedom to give our children -- our grand ambitions for their futures, the increasingly tough road to college, the competition for their attention from everything from MySpace to the outlandish antics of Britney Spears. Will a C in freshman biology translate to a rejection from Harvard four years later?

If I accept that times have changed and school is now a high-stakes endeavor, why is it so hard for me to gratefully accept something that promises me access to my child’s academic life? Danny Zeibert of Parent Connect said that in high school, students use the service far more than parents. “It’s another tool to help them do their best,” he said.

Thinking of it like that, it’s not so different from the calculator. Twenty years ago, there was much hand-wringing over its use in math classes. Kids would never learn their multiplication tables, percentages would remain a mystery.

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Today, most math classes use calculators. SAT proctors allow their use on the college entrance exam. We’ve accepted that they allow us to escape tedious steps and calculate better, faster and more accurately.

Maybe Parent Connect and its online ilk are just one more step into a future that’s already made things, like learning cursive, obsolete. Do kids really need to write the assignment from the blackboard into their planners? Must parents rely on garbled phone messages or notes stuffed in teachers’ office mailboxes to figure out how their children are doing?

I’m still grappling with a basic question: What is the parent’s responsibility, and what is the child’s?

But now that we’re heading toward a C in an important class, I don’t feel so smug.

I’ll be at school this morning, signing up to join the snoops online.

--

sandy.banks@latimes.com


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