Role-Swapping, All in the Family

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SAY the words "role reversal" and most people think of couples trading places - husbands assuming the role of full-time parents and wives becoming full-time breadwinners. Far more common, if less trendy, is another approach involving intergenerational swaps between parents and children.

Some mornings, residents of a certain upscale neighborhood in Cambridge, Mass., have observed a different news carrier delivering their paper. Instead of the 13-year-old boy who usually brings the Boston Globe to their door, they have seen a tall, lanky man whose face is definitely familiar. He is the newsboy's father, who occasionally totes a satchel of papers before going off to his regular job as governor of the state.

Gov. William Weld has filled in for his son when the boy has been ill. So far, the Globe reports, the father has performed well: the paper has received no complaints about late deliveries.

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The governor's unusual duties may be newsworthy because of his high-profile status. Yet he is hardly the only parent to pinch-hit for a child. In cities and suburbs across the country, neither snow nor rain nor sleet nor summer heat keeps some fathers and mothers from their appointed rounds as unpaid substitutes on their offspring's paper routes. This time of year in particular, as children head off to camp, parents may be left quite literally holding the (canvas) bag.

Our weekly suburban paper sometimes arrives courtesy of a mother who expertly lobs papers from her car window as she cruises slowly through the neighborhood. Is her child busy? Ill? Tired of such a low-paying job? Only the mother knows for sure.

Years ago, when patriarchs were patriarchs and matriarchs were matriarchs, this kind of public role reversal probably would have been unthinkable. It would have signaled to the community that the next generation was definitely going soft. Now, as family roles have become less rigid, a new willingness exists to improvise as situations require.

The flexibility goes beyond part-time jobs. What parent hasn't listened as children eagerly promise to do anything - everything! - if only the parents will let them have a pet. Yet what parent has not also witnessed artful disappearing acts when it's time for those same children to feed the cat, walk the dog, or clean litter boxes and hamster cages?

One mother of three in the Midwest has been known to combine two jobs when her sons are away during the summer: She walks the children's dog while she delivers her son's papers at 5 a.m. Other parents willingly type term papers at midnight or help to construct grade-school science projects, especially the ones that just happen to be due tomorrow.

Role reversals can also work in the other direction as children become mentors for adults. Where would many parents be without a kindergartner to program the VCR? And what would they do without a 10-year-old technology expert to teach them the mysteries of a new computer? Or without a teenage auto mechanic to fix the family car?

As one measure of this more relaxed give-and-take between family members, greeting cards now read, "To my mother [or father], my best friend." It is hardly a sentiment that would have applied to earlier generations, when people were less inclined to think of authoritarian parents as pals.

Yet even the best-intentioned role changes can have their limits - and perils. As more children grow up in single-parent families, some find themselves playing unsought parts as youthful confidantes and advisers, serving as conversational substitutes for the absent parent.

It has always been a favorite illusion of every generation of young adults that they will be different and better parents than their fathers and mothers were. It is the special conceit - and terror - of today's post-modern, post-everything parents that they have to reinvent the whole business from scratch: the new father, the new mother, the new family.

Has this, like other "revolutions," been overhyped?

The safest of predictions for families in the '90s is this: The improvisation will go on, but the stability will remain, regardless of which generation ends up throwing those papers on suburban lawns in the early hours of a summer morning.

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