When Parents Outsource
08/01/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT
It looks like a picture-postcard suburban moment: Jessica Moskowitz wobbles as she steers her pink Huffy—look, Ma, no training wheels!—down a sidewalk in Edgemont, NY. Veering onto the grass, she dodges a telephone pole as the athletic-looking man running behind her steadies the bike.
What's different about this picture? The man is not Jessica's father. Or brother. Or Uncle Ed. He's Aresh Mohit, a professional bicycle coach hired at $60 an hour by Jessica's parents, Bruce and Lisa. "When you're teaching your kid, they have anxiety, you have anxiety," says Bruce, 44. "This takes the pressure off us."
The Moskowitzes are not alone. Neither, for that matter, is coach Mohit. Across the country, thousands of grown-ups are turning to specialists to help with some of the most time-honored tasks of parenting—from potty-training to cupcake-baking to even sewing on Scout badges. Clever entrepreneurs are happy to meet the demand. Mohit, 31, a former college athlete whose services range from Rollerblading to playing catch in the backyard, has been a "bike tutor" (as one mom calls him) to 1,800 kids since he started his business, High 5, in '01. "In the beginning, people were ashamed—they'd do it secretly," Mohit says. Gradually, though, "it became more acceptable, and now it's a big thing."
Sometimes time is the culprit: Parents with two jobs or soccer, band and carpool commitments can't find the time to teach kids skills they themselves learned in more traditional ways. Additionally, in an era where parents are bombarded with advice about how to raise children, some think that in certain circumstances a pro can do a better job. In previous generations "there was a rhythm to raising kids, and much less thinking about it," says Lisa Spiegel, codirector of New York City's SoHo Parenting Center, which offers advice to families. "Now parents are so anxious about being perfect they're constantly seeking guidance."
Yet, some experts say, by farming out tasks to hired talent, parents may be depriving their kids—and themselves—of something far more important than a good jump shot: precious family moments. "We squander the most valuable thing we have with our kids, which is time," says Dr. Elisabeth Guthrie, a child psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. "Kids don't want to get help from the best person. They want to be with us."
Of course, the practice of sharing the child-rearing burden is nothing new—and can have real benefits, other experts say. "It makes sense if you're doing it for the right reasons, which are so you can spend quality time with your kids," says Susan Fletcher, a psychologist and author in Plano, Texas. And parents who have benefited from outsourcing say it can actually bring families closer together. After futile attempts to toilet-train their 3-year-old daughter, Heather and Bill Bardeleben of Hanover Park, Ill., concluded, "We didn't know what we were doing," says Heather, 33. So they enrolled Ashleigh in "Booty Camp," in West Chicago, where 35-year-old Wendy Sweeney—a pediatric nurse known to her students as Miss Wendy—uses a candy-fueled, behavioral-training approach to get kids potty-trained.
At a June class in the kitchen of her home, Sweeney doles out Cheetos, Skittles, gummy bears and juice boxes to Ashleigh and several other tykes seated on the floor, each next to his or her own plastic potty. Suddenly Ashleigh cries out for her mom—she is starting to have an accident—but, as advised, Heather and Bill stay seated just a few feet away and let Sweeney handle the situation. "Listen to your body and go potty on the potty!" she implores, motioning the little girl toward her mini-toilet. Too late. But days after attending the $200, five-hour session (with some follow-up, at-home practice with Mom and Dad), Ashleigh is almost completely trained. "We were having a hard time figuring out what's right, what's wrong," says her mother. "I learned a lot by watching Miss Wendy."
And there's a lot more help out there. Don't have time to bake cupcakes for that class party? Call Beth Andresini, a personal chef in Towson, Md., who, for an $80 fee, will whip up two dozen chocolate-frosted treats in a jiffy. Rude kids? Etiquette specialist Lynda White of the Colony, Texas, does an in-home manners makeover ($200 an hour) in which she instructs youngsters to keep their elbows off the table, chew with their mouths closed and give a proper handshake. White, 60, also outlines proper subjects to discuss with company: "The weather? Yes. Your parents' divorce? No."
There's even a wardrobe-dispute consultant. Debra Lindquist, of Denver, goes shopping with young girls to help them find clothes they think are cool—and that Mom likes too. A recent triumph: getting 15-year-old Katy Knerr, of Del Mar, Calif., who favored Goth garb, and preppy mom Lynn, 50, to work on Katy's new look: vintage clothing and red-dyed, rather than blue-dyed, hair. "I could tell her, 'You look great in that color,' and she would not pay any attention," says Lynn. "That's where Debra was really helpful." Katy calls the experience "really cool," adding, "I don't wear as much black anymore and I stand straighter."
For other parents the needs are simpler. Gary Gash, a 47-year-old lawyer from Armonk, N.Y., and his wife, Jocelyn, 50, an apparel buyer, aren't around during the day to ferry son Jacob, 15, to tennis practice and daughter Sarah, 5, from basketball. Their answer? Joan Corwin, owner of Mother Hen's Helpers, a private bus service in Chappaqua, N.Y. Corwin, who has expanded her fleet from 7 to 15 buses and vans since 2002, does everything from taking nannies and babies to the park to bringing forgotten play costumes to school for a one-way cost of $15. "She's a schlepper; she's a godsend," Gary Gash says. The trade-off? "Someone is supplementing my parenting. That's a regret."
Bruce and Lisa Moskowitz, parents of Jessica—now a confident cyclist—also have mixed feelings. Lisa, 44, an orthopedic surgeon, says she is a hands-on mother to both Jessica and her 3-year-old sister Allison, taking them to play dates and activities and spending as much time with them as she can. The Moskowitzes turned to a coach, they say, after Jessica saw that the kid down the block had one.
But other factors also played a role: Bruce's long hours as an ophthalmologist, Lisa's recent shoulder surgery and her own unfinished efforts to teach Jessica how to ride. Sometimes when they went out, Lisa says, she would get impatient and Jessica would get frustrated. "I think it was easier with Aresh than if my parents taught me," Jessica says. "I'm really happy that I finally learned." But while she's delighted that Jessica can now join her on family bike rides, Lisa admits to a twinge of sadness. "It's like watching her take her first step," she says. "I would have liked to be there."
By Nancy Jeffrey. Jennifer Frey in Scarsdale, N.Y. Leslie Goldman in Chicago. Melanie Kaplan in Towson, Darla Atlas in Fort Worth anc Vickie Bane in Denver