It takes a global village to raise today's children

Monday Review

March 21, 1994|By Adele Paff Fryer

CHILDREN FIRST. By Penelope Leach. Alfred A. Knopf. 303 pages. $22.

CHILDREN First" supports exactly what its title suggests -- viewing the world through the needs of children.

It comes by way of Penelope Leach's understandings and assumptions, bolstered by her vast professional experience. The book is a must-read for anyone involved in the care of children and, through Dr. Leach's analysis, that should include everyone. She gives a new sociological explanation for the African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child."

Unlike her well-known parenting primer, "Your Baby and Child," this book is not a "how-to." Rather, it is an unflinching explanation of why we, in Western societies, are not caring for our children. Though we may not want to recognize it, society governs the care of children by structuring the environment within which families function. Dr. Leach challenges us to make our institutional, social and financial systems user-friendly to children and their parents.

Asserting that Western civilization's main goal is for "money and more money," she shows how this bottom-line orientation affects each developmental stage in a child's life.

In straightforward, logical terms, she leads us to an understanding of how our children are lost in the push for financial security simply because, in the short term, they are a cost and not a profit.

Dr. Leach is careful to explain that none of this is intentional, particularly the fact that much of the money we do spend on children results in ineffectual, short-sighted programs and services -- crisis management at its worst. Children do not earn money. Therefore, they are not part of society's priorities.

Equally clear is Dr. Leach's approach to good parenting. Her message is: Relax. Enjoy. Let the child develop naturally, surrounded in love and support without needless comparisons and the resulting feelings of inadequacy. Recognize that all children have their own timetables, talents and interests. Be prepared to question and grow in your own values and feelings in order to effectively pass them on to your children. Understand and develop a teacher-apprentice relationship with your child, requiring that you set limits and keep them.

These are not new arguments, but much of Dr. Leach's reasoning is. More important, her methods for correcting the problems we are creating for parents and children are uniquely designed for our society. "Our," to Dr. Leach, is Western Europe, Britain and North America, all with more similarities than differences in the care of children.

The author raises some points that many child-care advocates would dispute. For instance, she cites as ideal the socialist program for children in Sweden, a program in danger of collapse under a huge financial load. Moreover, she draws many of her conclusions of what is best for an infant on the assumption that all mothers want to be, and should be, exclusively caring for their children -- a point many working mothers would seriously question.

One weakness of Dr. Leach's analysis is her 1960s approach to financing these sweeping changes; she says simply that we can afford it if we want it enough. In this line of reasoning, the sure cure to poverty is money, and any limitations on welfare (work requirements, age restrictions, etc.) run against family values. She doesn't address the damage these give-away programs do to self-esteem and productivity.

The strength of "Children First" is Dr. Leach's ability to make us examine what we do and don't do for our chilren -- from the bedrooms to the boardrooms and everywhere between. In her ideal world, children's needs are met despite cost, time or social views, in a utopia that will strike many readers as socially and financially unrealistic.

But some idealism is warranted. Society can make sweeping changes if enough people push for them. And there is no question that we need to raise our standards for the care of children. We also need to realize that these issues are not just for parents, teachers or child-care advocates, but for everyone. "Children First," despite its utopian tendencies, helps us understand this.

Adele Paff Fryer is director of Home Play School, a network of Baltimore area family-based child care programs, and author of numerous research papers on early childhood development.

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