Raising children with a stopwatch

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Spencer Johnson c/o William Morrow & Co., Inc. 6 Henderson Drive West Caldwell, N.J. 07006

Dear Dr. Johnson:

As a busy working mother, I picked up your two new books, ''The One Minute Mother'' and - why not? - ''The One Minute Father,'' with considerable anticipation. I must admit $30 seemed a little rich for two slim volumes - barely 100 pages each, with large print and generous margins. But after reading about your publisher's big plans for the books - an amazing first printing of 150,000 copies each, and an advertising budget of $150,000 each - I figured they must be selling the hottest news for parents since Dr. Spock.

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What a surprise to discover that mostly you've just repackaged the material in your earlier best-seller, ''The One Minute Manager.'' The same three-step communication method: One Minute Goals, One Minute Praisings, One Minute Reprimands. Some of the same full-page mottos. Even the same beginning (''Once there was a bright young woman/man. . .'') and the same ending (''Share it with others'').

All you've done, it seems, is move the stage-set from office to home and recast the characters to include children.

I keep wondering - couldn't you have written just one volume, ''The One Minute Parent''? You carefully argue that differences in roles call for differences in approach. (''Mothers are nurturers, fathers are disciplinarians.'') But why, then, have you merely reversed the order of the three steps in each book? You do print fathers' reprimands in capital letters (''I AM ANNOYED. I AM VERY ANNOYED!'') and mothers' reprimands in italics (''I am annoyed. Annoyed!''). Otherwise I detect very little difference.

Your basic point is well taken - that effective communication between parents and children need not require large chunks of time. You make the standard case for consistency, logic, and fairness in dealing with children. You point out the importance of nurturing their self-esteem and encouraging self-discipline. And you emphasize the need to separate their behavior from their worth.

I know all of this is meant to be reassuring. But somehow your tick-tocking books had the opposite effect on me. Even though you note that being a good parent takes more than a minute, the titles underscore how little time many of us have for what matters most - our children.

That one-minute digital-watch readout on the cover, identified as The Symbol, makes me feel breathless. What have we come to that we need a book and this symbol to remind us to ''take a minute out of our day, every now and then, and look into the faces of our children''?

Your books illustrate what I call the ''microwave mentality'' - the sense that there's a quick fix, an easy automatic shortcut to just about anything. Magazines and books promise us thin thighs in 30 days, gourmet dinners in 10 minutes, and a fast track to the executive suite. ''Quick 'n easy'' has become a way of life.

Parents may be the most vulnerable targets of all. We want the best for our children, and we'll go to great lengths to provide it for them. Yet we're overextended, overcommitted, worried. We've become convinced that we're not equal to the task alone and need an army of ''experts'' to help us raise our children.

There's a certain pathos in the fact that, by one count, over 100 books on ''parenting'' are published each year.

Perhaps if there had been only one book to buy, I wouldn't object so strenuously to your hefty $15 price tag. After all, it's the same price as ''The One Minute Manager.'' But managers can put it on their expense account. Parents can't.

With only 112 pages, your books work out to nearly 14 cents a page. At that rate Tolstoy's ''Anna Karenina,'' with its 800-plus pages, would cost $107. I don't even dare think about ''War and Peace''!

You do offer a money-back guarantee (''We're that sure - IT WORKS!''). But frankly, Dr. Johnson, I'd be embarrassed to send the books back. I'd feel it would be a poor reflection on my abilities as a mother if I had to admit I was disappointed in the response I got from my children. That would produce guilt. And if anything wastes a lot more than one minute of a mother's time, it's guilt.

I guess I feel that what we need is not more books about children but more time with them. Children are funny, Dr. Johnson. They tend to think that ''quantity'' time is ''quality'' time.

Maybe they're not entirely right. But if we parents gave up reading all the books on ''parenting'' - even the short ones - we'd save more precious minutes per day than just one for our 24-hour children.

Sincerely,

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