Role-Swapping, All in the Family

Article excerpt

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.

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. …