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Adolescent angst pales next to parental variety

What kind of parent am I? I often ask myself that question - especially after another phone call from one of my kids teachers.

Just kidding. Truth is, we rarely get such calls. Changing our phone number every couple of weeks seems to do the trick.

Anyway, I've discussed the matter extensively with my teenagers, and from their point of view there are basically two kinds of parents: cool (for example, all their friends' parents) and uncool (their mother and me).

I agree that parents can be divided more or less neatly into two distinct groups, but my categories differ slightly. After years of highly scientific observations conducted at ballparks, school open houses, and McDonald's Playlands, I've concluded that there are those parents whose lives are completely wrapped up in their kids, and then there are those who can't be bothered.

The latter type seems to get the most attention from the media. Fathers, especially, have so often been portrayed as indifferent to their families that the workaholic, never-at-home dad has become a Hollywood stereotype. Over the years, movie dads have missed more ballgames than Braves season ticket holders.

Nor are mothers immune, if we're to believe those television advertisements featuring impeccably groomed female jet-setters singing lullabies or listening to piano recitals via cell phone. Obviously, as modern women, they're free to be just as self-absorbed and emotionally distant from their families as men.

But it's the other type of parent that's really more common these days - and more dangerous. These are the parents who hardly seem to have lives of their own, whose entire sense of self-worth depends on the accomplishments of their children. We'll call them "vicarious livers," not to be confused with chicken livers, although certain similarities may exist.

I say these parents are more dangerous because I fear we're raising an entire generation of young people who will never emerge from Piaget's "egocentric" stage, each going through life thinking he or she is indeed the center of the universe. Everyone knows the center of the universe is no one individual but rather Gwinnett County as a whole.

I mean, if the parent is merely a body caught in orbit by the child's gravitational pull, why should anyone else be any different? All of us - teachers, peers, public servants, hotel clerks - must therefore exist solely to fulfill various needs.

While that perspective may be acceptable in a toddler, it isn't healthy for a 9-year-old, much less a 30-year-old professional athlete - not that I have anybody particular in mind.

I guess what I'm saying is that too many parents, faced with the polarizing pressures of home and career, gravitate toward one extreme response or the other: Either they neglect their children shamelessly, or they spoil them beyond all good reason.

Personally, I prefer to take a more balanced approach to parenting. I do both.

Rob Jenkins is associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College. E-mail him at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.