Families of the World, Unite!

December 05, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

As millions of American parents know by now, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton has a comforting explanation for those moments when a well-adjusted young child suddenly reverts and everything falls apart.

Rather than allowing the tantrums and tears to send an entire household into trauma, Dr. Brazelton urges parents to tune in to the child's physical, emotional and mental development. He points to these crises not as failures on the part of a parent or child, but rather as ''touchpoints,'' predictable times in the long journey from utter dependence to self-sufficiency when parents can actually watch a growth spurt begin.

Touchpoints are times of both crisis and opportunity, times when, as Dr. Brazelton says, parents can ''understand the child more deeply and support his or her growth.''

If the analogy can be stretched a bit, it may be that Dr. Brazelton is encountering a touchpoint in his own crusade to provide the encouragement and support so many parents seem to miss these days.

Most anyone who's seen him in action would take Dr. Brazelton for an optimist. His faith in a child's ability to master her environment and, especially, his faith in parents' instincts and capabilities shines through.

So is it surprising to find him somewhat discouraged during a visit to Baltimore this week for a board meeting of Parent Action, the national organization he dreamed up several years ago as a vehicle to give parents and families more recognition and political clout. As inspiration, he points to the lobbying power represented by the American Association of Retired Persons with its 33 million members.

But with only 9,000 families signed up so far (1,000 of them in the Maryland chapter alone), Parent Action has a long, long way to go, and that seems to be the source of Dr. Brazelton's dismay.

Are parents letting him down?

Not everyone thinks so. It may be that Dr. Brazelton, like an over- anxious parent, is expecting too much too soon. After all, Parent Action has been seriously organizing for only a year or so. It's beginning to see progress, especially after cutting the annual dues by more than half, from $25 down to $10.

Even so, it's easy to understand Dr. Brazelton's impatience. With so many forces wearing families down these days, here's an organization designed to help them by bringing more attention to family issues, by helping parents learn how to be more effective advocates for their children and, not least, by enabling them to save money with membership discounts. Why aren't they rushing to join?

Clearly, any organization with AARP-size dreams needs to mount some major marketing campaigns -- and that will take big bucks. Building a big, powerful organization is the work of decades, not years or months. Moreover, marketing the idea is difficult when the target audience consists of people with a shortage of leisure time and an excess of stress.

That handicap is obvious even in political calculations. Senior citizens vote at a far higher rate than parents with children at home. Politicians pay attention to trends like that -- and it shows.

But here's some good news: Dr. Brazelton's public-service announcements on cable television, which began only last month, are bringing hundreds of inquiries each week. And a number of businesses, concerned about being ''family-friendly,'' are signing up and providing membership for their employees. Since membership gives families access to a home-mortgage program and discounts on everything from long-distance phone service to hotels, car rentals and theme-park admissions, that can be a welcome benefit.

Dr. Brazelton should take heart. There's been enough rhetoric about family issues that policy makers are beginning to search out groups that can claim to represent them.

One example: When Maryland Parent Action -- so far, the most active state chapter -- sent out a petition circulated by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., asking network executives for a voluntary curb on television violence, the chapter produced 1,000 signatures in a matter of days.

Senator Conrad was impressed. As a result, Rosalie Streett, the organization's executive director, was invited to represent parents' interests at a meeting on media violence with Attorney General Janet Reno. That's not AARP-size clout, but it's a start.

Touchpoints. They occur in the lives of children and, in different ways perhaps, for adults and organizations as well. Families don't yet have the influence they ought to have on the public policies that shape their lives. But a big, nationwide, grass-roots organization is no longer an impossible dream.

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

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