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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Rebuilding the Parent/Child Bond over Homework

Last year, I worked on a project that swallowed all of my time. Emails came throughout the night that had to be answered first thing the next morning, I got calls very early in the morning, there were many requests for weekend conferences, it was sort of what I imagine working at the White House would be like. When you work with people like that, it's hard not to work like that as well. For weeks, I didn't even have time to leave my office.

I finished the project and learned a very valuable lessen about business and the types of projects I should work on. But the most upsetting part was the effect that working like that had on my relationship with my 11 year-old daughter and 15 year-old son. My daughter was starting 6th grade, and I was so busy I forgot about her middle school orientation. Just plain forgot. And she reminded me too.

For some people work is their life and that's a choice they make. They decide not to have children, or they do and follow an example set by their parents that seems natural to them. Their kids are raised by hired help or hopefully the other parent who doesn't work like that. For single parents it's even harder, and I know they struggle with finding time for their kids. But even a few minutes a day of your complete attention is better than someone who is either not at home, or not paying attention when they are.

I don't believe it takes a village to raise a child, although if you have enough money you can certainly hire one. But I do believe if kids have two parents, both of them should be there as much as they can. My mother died when I was 13 and my father disappeared into a new marriage. I know what it feels like to not have parents. You go out and search for the love and attention you are not getting in ways you shouldn't or you turn to drugs and alcohol to make yourself feel better, which works for a short time but then does not.

I explain this not to rant, but because our family lost a great deal of trust last year. Even though I was present, I was barely there. I spent the mornings of our summer vacation working. If my cell phone had worked in the Vermont valley we stayed in, it would have been worse. I missed a lot of school events and activities. Dinner was thrown on the table, and often interrupted. My kids felt abandoned and quite frankly, they were.

The repercussions from that time are going away and I saw it the last two nights doing school work with my kids. I was struck by how much power there is in those types of interactions between parent and child. The need to study for a test, which my daughter was doing, or prepare for a mock legal case, which my son needed, are moments when you can strengthen your relationship in ways that many other interactions can't. And I think that's one way we can keep our kids from turning to drugs and alcohol to search for something they can't find at home. It's also a way to demonstrate love in a less obvious, and intrusive manner than trying to get them to talk with you, when they simply don't want too.

My son's project was to argue a Supreme Court case that lifted the ban on handguns in the District of Columbia. He had a plan for how he would argue his part of the case. He knew what to do. What he needed was someone to sit with him for a couple of hours and go over the questions he would ask, the answers that might be proffered and the logic of his argument. It was late and we were both tired. I made a few suggestions, some of which he took and others he didn't. In between, I scrambled to find and clean his dress clothes, which I didn't know he needed until 8:00 at night. And I didn't complain because I didn't want to interrupt the moment.

I pretended to be witnesses and he did direct and cross-examinations on me. His enthusiasm was contagious. When he came home yesterday afternoon, and the first thing he said was that his team won and he got an A, he was so proud, I had tears in my eyes. Why anyone would choose work over that moment, I cannot imagine.

Last night my daughter had a test to study for on economic systems. They've been learning the basics all year, learning about different types of economies, market-based systems, authoritarian systems, etc. Although she knew quite a bit of it, there were some things she just couldn't quite get through her teacher. She was able to admit that to me, and we figured it out together.

The teaching materials, as is quite a bit of the sixth grade curriculum, were poorly written and not very clear. But we spent about an hour going through it and then tackled Chinese dynasties, which believe it or not were easier. She's also a very smart kid, and remembers everything, but sometimes she just doesn't understand a concept and is not comfortable asking about it in class. She needs examples and explanations that make sense to her. We discussed supply and demand using the example of the IPad one and two, and how Apple drives demand for new technology. She got that much more quickly.

Unlike last year, I was able to give them my time and undivided attention those two evenings. They were  once again confident enough I'd say yes, to ask for it. They both finished their school work knowing they would do well the next day. And I realized that not only had they forgiven me, but that our relationship and family is once again what they know they can count on.

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