39. "High-Tech Parenting," The American Enterprise Institute Magazine, (January/February 1998), p. 15.


The parental crisis is over. Salvation has arrived in the form of technology that opens up a whole new world of Remote Parenting. One pioneer of the movement is attorney Mary Croft. Too busy to talk with her 12-year-old daughter about the happenings of a school day, boy-and-girl things, or permission to stop over at a friend’s house, Ms. Croft purchased a pair of beepers so the child could cue her mom "talk needed" as the mother-attorney raced around taking care of her clients. Alas, the beepers didn’t prove efficient enough. The elder Croft often found that when her daughter needed a response, the phone booths on street corners or in airport stalls were occupied. So a pair of cellular phones were added to the mother-daughter relationship.

Parents are not to worry that beep-and-ring relations are less affectionate than old-fashioned talks-and-hugs on the way to Little League, or while stacking dishes in the washer. Reassuring experts ranging from professors to electronic device-makers insist that "teleparenting"—or, more advanced yet, "virtual parenting"—is the wave of the future. For long-distance parenting to succeed, psychologists promise, children need only have clear routines. Once those are in place, parents can click in to check that the TV has been turned off as scheduled and homework turned on; that the wholesome tuna sandwich has been prepared; and that the dog (who does not get the beep-and-ring thing yet) has been let out. Those who fear that children will learn to game the system—turning off the idiot box when the phone rings, claiming to be home on the third beep while they are actually in a friend’s liquor cabinet—need not panic. Surely the industry is hard at work designing cellular picture phones armed with place-identifiers, using satellites to verify the exact location of the speaker.

"Quality time" has long since replaced quantity time in many high-powered homes. The notion that a child opens up to parental guidance at unpredictable times—during a long walk, a prolonged conversation—is discounted by careerist parents. Many now seem to believe that they and their children can "relate" on demand, during times set aside for that purpose. Today’s new twist is that even the truncated face-to-face "quality time" is being replaced—by quality phone calls. Tax accountant Jane Maddow says cellular phones are an indispensable part of her parenting. Almost every day, even at the busy peak of tax season, she will push other things aside so that she can talk, for as long as five minutes, to each of her two boys when they return home from school.

Computer scientists at Rice University are working on something called the cyborg blanket, with the aim of freeing parents from the heavy responsibility of tending infants. The "blanket" will play soothing music or pre-recorded warm words from mother or father when an infant engages in "low-intensity" crying. High-intensity crying will lead to a beep being broadcast to parents.

Parents had better keep these marvelous gizmos in good repair, because family get-togethers may soon be replaced by conference calls. Expect a beep and a ring at future wedding anniversaries or other big days. Cost will be no problem, because the children have been well trained to keep phone calls short, constantly reminded by the clicks of call-waiting that others compete with them for their parents’ time. And as parents grow old and find themselves installed in a nursing home, they had better take a modem with them; e-mails from their children are sure to follow. As time allows.

—Amitai Etzioni is University Professor at George Washington University

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