July 21, 2013

Falling trust within the parent-teacher organizations

Just poking around a box of old things and found the school directory from my final year of elementary school, 1991-'92. But it's not a directory of phone numbers for the administration or teachers. Instead, it has every student's home phone number, address, and name of the parent or parents they're living with. You can even tell if a kid's parents are divorced -- only one parent's name is listed, or the parents are listed on separate lines with separate addresses and phone numbers. Students are grouped under their teacher, whose name heads the page.

It's a nice sturdy booklet that was drawn up, printed, and distributed by the ____ School Association, whose name makes it sound like an unaffiliated parent-teacher organization. *

Can you imagine such a thing being circulated these days? Like, cuh-reepy! Invade my privacy much? Did you seriously just post my home phone to the whole school? I mean, really? -- letting other parents know we're divorced, really?

For yuks, I went to the website of this same ____ School Association (can't believe it still exists), and they don't mention anything about such a directory. Not that they'd post the thing online, but no mention of putting it together, distributing it, letting parents know how to get it, or referring to it at all.

Parents can't support one another without any means of contact, so the disappearance of such a directory shows how fragmented the community has become in just 20 years. Your kid is your business, and my kid is my business, and someone else's kid is their business. My kid isn't going to have any kind of social life, so why would he need to know any of his schoolmate's phone numbers or where they live? When they're in high school, they can get a Facebook account and interact with their peers online. I'll require them to make me a friend, so in effect he won't get to carry on any kind of interactions that I don't approve of.

In the good old days, children had an active social life -- I remember using the directory several times when I'd made a new friend at school and wanted to call them up to make plans to hang out. With the address info, you could totally stalk the boy or girl you had a crush on, though I don't remember anyone doing that or even talking / joking about it. We weren't that awkward around each other like kids are today.

More importantly, though, the parents were a lot more connected to each other. I'm sure they used that directory way more than their children. Growing up in the '80s and even the very early '90s, we enjoyed a lot more allo-mothering than children who grew up in helicopter parenting eras like the mid-century or Millennial periods.

Our older female kin, especially mother's sister and mother's mother, were there to help raise us a lot more than they are now (because of maternal paranoia, not an aversion among would-be allo-mothers). Hiring babysitters used to be common, and they often stayed with us for hours after school to keep us from falling into latchkey kid behavior.

And then there were all the other mothers in the neighborhood. They saw the neighborhood kids as everyone's responsibility and enjoyment. Hence inviting them to sleep over, hosting them at birthday parties, taking part in trick-or-treat on Halloween, and so on. Well, that less exciting "and so on" stuff involved keeping in touch with other parents. How else can they be each other's eyes and ears? I'm sure some used the directory to start gossiping, but gossiping has its place in policing communal norms. Not to mention in case of an emergency.

The Reagan and Bush years really were the height of communal involvement in child-rearing. How odd that history will associate the mid-'90s with the view that "it takes a village to raise a child." Most of the libs took away a bureaucratic and technocratic message from that book, while the new majority of pseudo-cons got their panties in a bunch about how it only takes a nuclear family to raise a child. Yeah, look where that got you, with your stunted and bratty Millennial spawn.

Actual face-to-face involvement from folks outside the home is too practical to appeal to today's ideological liberals, and too bond-building to appeal to today's cocooning conservatives.

* Something to keep in mind when you hear about declining PTA involvement during or after the 1960s -- they're missing all those local ones from the '70s and '80s that were not part of a national umbrella group. Why? Because the parent-teacher relationship doesn't scale up above the school or perhaps district level. Beyond the local level, it just becomes an abstract advocacy group, not a group that negotiates between actual parents and teachers.


  1. I remember my middle school PTA directory was like this. The funny thing was that, if you were serious about it, you could have caught all the kids whose parents had used, say, a grandparent's address to get the kid zoned for the school since you would either see an address on the other side of town or see one that you knew wasn't where that person lived. Of course, no one ever did this.

    Facebook was actually a lot like the directory you describe in its first year or so of existence. Since it was closed to only other college students at your ivy-league or similar university, who cares if you post all your contact info or let everyone see your entire profile? I mean, it originally replaced the purpose served by the college directory anyway.

    But Mark Zuckerberg had to slowly change it over to a network with everyone and their mother participating, so you get corresponding decreased levels of sharing and social ties. I sometimes wonder if the business model would have worked if it had stayed in its original niche. It obviously wouldn't have grown to as many users but they might have found some way to charge fees to the universities for increasingly integrated services.

  2. I remember as a kid such a directory was used for "phone chains". A set of parents gets calls from the school administration, and they are in turn supposed to call a number of families each to let them know schools is canceled that day or some such.

  3. Off-topic, but since you've talked about changes in popular media over time this episode of Bloggingheads "Mind Report" seemed relevant. The first part deals with "nostalgic preferences" toward movies/TV, and I had just come across an example of just that phenomena with one person writing in 2012 that 1995 was "the best year ever for movies" while someone from that same year was arguing the latest crop was lame and superseded by quality TV shows.

  4. My 6-year-old goes to a very religious private school, and there's an all-school directory (including names, phone numbers, addresses, names and contact info for non-custodial parents, the works) on the school's website, but it's password protected. The same password you use to retrieve your kid's grades, homework assignments, etc., gets you access to your kid's classmates' contact info. I'd bet a lot of private schools do that -- if you're cool enough to be in our in-group, however that's defined, you're in the circle of trust, at least that far. Maybe public schools in smaller, less diverse communities, too.

    The local public school here doesn't do that. Probably at least one part of the reason is that the school is majority minority. Some of the kids who go there, I wouldn't want their parents, random uncles, or even the kids knowing where my kids live. Call it cocooning or call it trying to keep my kids away from welfare bastards trying to sell them drugs or beat them up. I had enough of that growing up in the 80s in Los Angeles.

    Possibly another part of the reason is school-specific. The public school here (suburban east coast, between DC and Boston, and maybe shouldn't say any more) goes out of its way to alienate people like me. Sex-ed starts in kindergarten, lots of propagandizing in favor of various forms of deviance, there was a (white) 7-year-old expelled last year under "zero tolerance" because he brought a butter knife to school to cut up an apple in his lunch, "fights" between students (translated as black kids kicking the crap out of white kids) make it into the local newspaper every few months. If I had no other alternative, I guess I'd have to put up with that, but trust is a two-way street, and I wouldn't trust the school administration farther than I can throw them. Hence, private school.

    -- RL

  5. "Call it cocooning or call it trying to keep my kids away from welfare bastards trying to sell them drugs or beat them up. I had enough of that growing up in the 80s in Los Angeles."

    The racial make-up of the suburb where this elementary school is (outside of Columbus, OH): 92% white, 5% Asian, 3% NAM. Median household income in 2007 was $88,000 (for families, $113,000). Only 2% of the pop is below the poverty line. Total pop ~33,000.

    There are a few private schools in the area for children, but just about everyone goes to public school from K-12.

    Those statistics are not very different from when I was growing up there, yet so much has changed.

    People in NAM-troubled areas tend to attribute too many of their problems to NAMs. If they're regional or local problems, and don't affect flyover country, then maybe that's it. But if it's a national problem, NAMs aren't causing it, and moving to flyover country wouldn't help.

    Young people in flyover country are also socially isolated, thin-skinned, awkward, dorky, bratty, and Peter Pan-y.


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