Parents Get Organized

SARA ENGRAM

April 25, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

T.Berry Brazelton, professor emeritus of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the country's reigning baby guru, recounts the time he finally got inside the Bush White House. It seems a young presidential aide was at wit's end, driven to distraction by a colicky baby.

Dr. Brazelton was summoned -- the doctor whose kindly face, beguiling Southern drawl and gift for bringing out the best in babies and parents has made him a multi-media presence in American life. After the consultation he asked the young father whether the president planned to sign a family leave bill.

No way, the aide told him. Businesses aren't ready.

Dr. Brazelton argued a few points, getting nowhere. Frustrated, he suddenly patted his pocket as if it contained an important paper and sputtered to the aide: "You tell the president if he doesn't sign that bill I have the names of 100,000 parents who will rise up and smite him in the next election."

The aide's eye's snapped to attention -- and Dr. Brazelton was struck with inspiration.

Names.

Votes.

Political power.

He didn't really have the names then, but he's well on the way now as co-founder with Bernice Weissbourd and Susan DeConcini, wife of the Arizona senator, of a new group called Parent Action. The fledgling but rapidly growing organization -- headquartered here in Baltimore -- aspires to do for family issues what the American Association of Retired Persons has done for the elderly.

It faces an uphill fight, however. In the last presidential election, senior citizens voted at a far higher rate than parents -- 76 percent compared to 47 percent, according to one survey.

But every movement starts somewhere. Dr. Brazelton, along with other Parent Action founders and officials, gathered at the Towson Center Wednesday night for an evening called The Big Listen -- a time for parents to talk and officials to listen. The event also served as the formal launch for the Maryland affiliate of Parent Action.

Dr. Brazelton had a lot to say about families during his visit, much of it the same message he delivers with increasing urgency in a busy schedule of speaking engagements.

"This is the least family-oriented society in the world," he declares. "Other countries see families as an investment."

As Dr. Brazelton sees it, Americans still cling to the myth that families should be self-sufficient, and if they can't be, they should pay a price for it. Working mothers should pay a price for leaving their kids, and so should families who are mired in poverty. We Americans like self-sufficiency, and we don't have much interest in helping those who aren't.

But the results of these attitudes are all around us -- a growing underclass, violent crime, crumbling relations between races and classes, not to mention stressed, floundering families at every economic level.

The rifts in American society worry Dr. Brazelton, especially after a trip to Croatia last fall brought home to him the dangers of allowing ethnic divisions to fester. Most of all, he laments the hopelessness, helplessness and anger that he sees in poverty stricken families.

"I don't see this kind of poverty in other parts of the world, except for maybe three other places -- South Africa, India and Brazil," he says. "We're doing something special to poor kids in this country. We promise them hope and then take it away from them."

These attitudes are evident in the country's priorities. Dr. Brazelton blames the bias toward self-sufficiency for the nation's preference for wasting enormous amounts of money on Band-Aid solutions rather than spending sensibly on the common-sense things such as preventive health care or early intervention when children and their families run into problems.

Given these skewed priorities, talk of money shortages gets a rise out of a famously mild-mannered man. "A hell of a lot of money is going to waste if we don't do these things," he says, "Our children and grandchildren will be facing these failures in the streets."

That's a point worth pondering. Rich, poor or in between, parents want the best for their children. And affluent parents know, deep in their souls, that their children's futures cannot be separated from those of the children of poverty. There is no such thing as a separate society.

Families -- parents and children -- face more stresses and strains these days with less help from networks of family and friends. But families are the building blocks of any nation, and their well-being deserves to be taken into account in national policies.

I= No family is an island. And no child makes it on his own.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director for The Evening Sun.

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