"Hi Mummy," said one of my children over the phone. "Are you almost home?"
"Not yet," I said, "Still some errands to run."
"Well, I forgot my math book at school, so can you drive up there to get it?"
"Can't you call a friend for the assignment?"
"It's too much to do over the phone," the child said dolefully, and then her voice brightened. "Wait, I know! If you call X's mother, she can photocopy the pages and send them to us by email!"
There was something not quite right about this solution, but for a moment I didn't see what it was.
"I'm not sure I have her number on my cell -- " I had started to say, when the Genie of Good Parenting gave a surprise tap on my shoulder. Actually, it was more like a blow to the head.
"Hang on a minute," I said. "Actually, I don't need to be involved in this. Nor does anyone else's mother."
"But it would be so easy -- "
"Darling, you'll need to sort this out by yourself. It's your math book, and your grades. You figure it out."
"Really?" said the child.
"Really," I said, adding, after a quick prod from the genie: "I know you can handle it."
Well, of course she could get obtain her math assignment without dragging in anyone's parents, and pretty quickly she did. That the genie had to whack me several times in order for this to happen, however, I will tell you that it has not often enough been the practice in our household for children to solve their own small conundrums -- not in our household, and anecdote suggests, not in many others, either.
A friend of mine got the same sort of reminder a few days ago when she received a text from her college-aged son, who was on a bus en route to his grandmother's house for the weekend. "Pls tell gnma im gna b 1 hr late," it said.
My friend had automatically started dialing her mother's house when the genie suddenly kicked her in the shins. She hung up the phone and texted back to her son: "Best for u to tell her."
A moment later, the young man texted back his assent: "k".
It was that easy to return to the young man a responsibility that should have been his all along, but it took supernatural intervention. Too often the good-parenting genie is snoozing in his oil lamp, and grown-ups unthinkingly jump to rescue children when they're confronted with a moment's tedium or struggle.
When did children become so widely accustomed to having their mothers do tiresome tasks that they themselves could easily manage? For that matter, when did mothers and fathers agree to surrender themselves en masse to the job of being their children's executive secretaries?
Teachers and coaches see this manifested in the phenomenon of over-involved parents; employers see it in the lackadaisical work ethic of young hires.
A third anecdote, which I heard second-hand: Not long ago a professional man had a small task he needed done as part of a larger project. He turned to a new employee, a young man fresh out of college and in his first salaried position.
"How about you handle this," he suggested.
To his amazement, the young man let out an exasperated sigh.
"Can't you get an intern to do it?"
The genie, I fear, had not spent much time at that particular young man's house.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.