Snow Tests Parents On 'Quantity Time' - And Many Don't Pass

The Everest-like snowbanks have begun to shrink. Commuters no longer trade horror stories about stalled cars and slow trains. News reports about ice dams and sagging roofs have moved off Page 1, and weather forecasters' frenzied voices have returned to normal. With each passing day in the Northeast, the Blizzard of '96 becomes more memory than reality.

Yet one icy remnant of the storm refuses to melt. It involves another kind of blizzard - this one a blizzard of words tumbling from the lips of parents trapped at home with children.

Up and down the East Coast, newspapers, networks, and local TV stations carried interviews with parents frustrated by too many snow days and too much enforced togetherness. Cabin fever became the malady du jour.

To escape their children, fathers headed for the gym. Mothers fled on cross-country skis to visit friends. One couple even begged each other for the privilege of shoveling so they wouldn't have to entertain offspring.

One New York father quipped, "I was ready this morning to drive Max and Danny to school at 8 and pick them up at 3, school or not." And a mother of three said, "I pray every day that school will be open." Another man in Washington confessed that being home with two sons made him think of the snowbound, ax-wielding father in Jack Nicholson's "The Shining." Instead of doing anything murderous to the children, he joked, "We just throw them in the snow."

Chalk up some of this black humor to the strain of a major storm. Excuse it as the reaction of parents caught between the demands of bosses and the needs of children. Or simply write it off as parental honesty, 1990s-style. Whatever the motivating factors, it undoubtedly masks the love these parents normally feel.

No one can underestimate the challenges working parents faced last week. Nor can anyone pretend that being housebound for days, with or without children, doesn't test the patience even of serene adults. Even John Greenleaf Whittier, who immortalized a 19th-century blizzard in his poem "Snowbound," rejoiced when, at the end of a week, "Wide swung again our ice-locked door,/And all the world was ours once more!" And he didn't even have a mall, a McDonald's, or a video store luring him out.

Still, it is one thing for parents to share their frustrations privately with a spouse or a friend, as generations of mothers and fathers have done. ("These kids are driving me C-R-A-Z-Y!") It is another to broadcast them to a reporter, knowing the remarks will reach a wide audience.

Ironies abound here. Irony No. 1: Bolstering youthful self-esteem has been a recurring theme among American parents and teachers for more than a decade. But what happens to children's collective self-esteem when they hear parents - their own or someone else's - voicing attitudes, however humorously intended, that portray them as burdensome?

Irony No. 2: Never have so many children been so indulged with material possessions and advantages: clothes, toys, computers, lessons, travel. At the same time, perhaps never have so many been as deprived of parental time and attention as they are today.

Evidence mounts that parental time, not money, is the precious commodity children long for. In her new book, "It Takes A Village," Hillary Rodham Clinton states that "unhurried time" is the most important thing adults can give children. Queen Elizabeth II is criticized in a new biography by Sarah Bradford for spending only two hours a day with her children. And last week, in releasing a report on teenagers' worries about violence, John Calhoun, executive director of the National Crime Prevention Council, observed that "kids really long for and need adult connections."

"Quality time," that dubious legacy of the 1980s, has been discredited in the 1990s. It would be the worst irony of all if "quantity time" became unendurable, with or without imprisoning snowdrifts.

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