'Children First' admirable but unrealistic fTC

March 31, 1994|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Staff Writer

"Children First." Anyone who has children knows that's pretty much how children think: Me first.

Now Penelope Leach, the British child psychologist who helped so many of us survive our children's babyhood, is demanding that society start thinking that way, too.

In this book, Ms. Leach makes the case that society holds parents responsible for turning helpless babies into productive adults and blames them bitterly for any failures, but does not support that effort.

"Everything parents can do is clearly not enough," she writes.

This is not a manual or a how-to baby book in the manner of Dr. Benjamin Spock or Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, or even in the manner of Ms. Leach's four earlier books, including "Your Baby & Child: From Birth to Age Five."

"Children First," rather, is a social manifesto. She is addressing parents -- she is a mother, too, and the resonance in what she writes is the best part of it (" . . . while finding a child fascinating is no substitute for loving her, it could be a most useful support at 4 a.m. when there is not much love around"). But she is also addressing policy-makers and employers, who, she believes, have failed in their social contract with parents. She would move children to the center of societies' priorities -- and parents along with them.

She thinks it is absurd that workers with children be expected to compete with workers without children. She is appalled that a working woman must leave her infant at six weeks -- or even six months -- when every instinct tells her not to. She finds it ridiculous that a whole product line has sprung up to enable women to produce breast milk in one place for a baby in another.

And Ms. Leach thinks the government's fascination with institutional day care is at cross-purposes with the need of a baby or toddler to identify with a single care-giver -- be it Mom, Dad, Grandma, a kindly lady for hire, or another mother with a couple of kids of her own.

Parents do put children first, Ms. Leach believes, but in so many ways, society does not support those parents. What good is the new family and medical leave policy that President Clinton signed into law if no one can afford to take this unpaid leave? What kind of an option is part-time work if it will leave you destitute or ruin your career? What kind of a society would require women to lie to their employers and say they are sick when their child has a fever?

The more parents give to their children, the less they can give to their work and the less money they can make. Society is exacting economic penalties of good parents, even as it stakes its very existence on how good a job parents do.

Ms. Leach offers a set of solutions both broad and narrow. She invokes the controversial Swedish model of parental paid leave. She would also keep families intact at extreme cost -- bringing every form of aid to an at-risk family rather than splintering the children off into foster care until the mother gets it together.

But considering the current preoccupation with welfare-cost reductions, Ms. Leach's suggestions for a nurturing utopia for children are as unrealistic as they are correct. This country cannot even agree that everyone should have access to health care when the two most powerful voices in America -- the president and his wife -- demand it. What chance do children, with such small voices, have to pass their agenda?

Parents like those Ms. Leach writes about -- devoted to their kids but finding themselves thwarted in that devotion by employer and government -- will only read this book and feel worse.

I am one of those parents. If society needs a massive, socialistic overhaul in order for my children to grow into adulthood, and if I cannot make that happen, how can I feel any other way?

True, she does suggest home remedies -- and I will take them to heart. The best is her suggestion that parents offer children a kind of adult apprenticeship.

She urges parents not to send their children off on automatic pilot during their middle childhood, age 7 and up, when they are no longer in imminent danger of falling down the steps or swallowing small objects. It is then that they must be kept closest to us, she writes, to listen to us talk, to hear our explanation of life's daily dramas, learning the values and behaviors that can only be known by modeling adults.

When we shuffle them off with their unwise peers in day care, or ask overburdened schools to teach our values, we are offering children an incomplete picture of the adult behavior we expect, and we will get just the kind of results you might imagine.

Ms. Leach's hope that government and business will ever place children first is a dim one. But as long as parents place children first, there is still some hope.


Title: "Children First: What Our Society Must Do -- And Is Not Doing -- For Our Children Today"

Author: Penelope Leach

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 265 pages, $22

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