If kids had a lobby, they would demand better treatment

April 17, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

If there's anything you can say definitively about Americans, it is that we don't like kids.

It seems like we like them. We spend billions and billions of dollars on our kids, mostly on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

We've all seen parents fight each other over designer clothing for their kids. Personally, I love to see 3-year-olds dressed for success.

We seem to like our kids.

But we don't. You could look it up.

The Carnegie Corp., a group of do-gooders apparently intent on ruining everyone else's good time, has issued a report detailing how badly we treat our children. Let them count the ways.

A partial list:

* One-fourth of all infants and toddlers in America live in poverty.

* We rank near the bottom of all industrialized nations in infant mortality and in child-disease immunization. Forty percent of 2-year-olds are not properly immunized.

* One-third of the victims of physical abuse are children under the age of 1.

The list goes on, giving the bad, bad news on the proliferation of RTC teen-age pregnancy, divorce, single-parent households, etc.

We read the list, shake our heads and do nothing. We say it would cost too much, or something. We need the money, I guess, for the Mighty Morphins. And whatever's left over, we can always spend on jails that many of these kids may visit later in life.

Penelope Leach, the famous child-care author, has written a new book prescribing some ways we could make things better.

For instance, she has this wacky idea that parents ought to get the chance to be with their children. That has become increasingly difficult with mothers forced by economic conditions fancy term for "We ain't got no money") to be in the workplace.

We're not talking about those magazine-cover women who have it all, including enough money for nannies. We're talking about more typical people -- the women who have very little and who have to work in order for kids, say, to eat.

More than half of mothers with kids under the age of 1 are in the workplace. Many of these infants, meanwhile, are in day care.

What Leach wants to do is mandate paid leave for parents for the first six months of a child's life; that's pretty radical, I know -- to give parents and babies a chance to get to know each other.

Today, finally, we have a law that says a new parent can take three months off, without pay, and has to be able to get his/her job back. Unfortunately, many people can't afford to take the time off.

Here's another strange idea Leach is pushing that's actually a law in Sweden. She wants to give parents the right to work a six-hour day -- with pro-rated pay and benefits. This allows at least one parent to be home in the afternoon when the kids get home from school. To talk about school. To help with homework. To be there in case, say, the house burns down.

In America, we do it slightly differently. We specialize in latch-key kids. Makes 'em learn responsibility early. How bad can that be?

For some children, it can be pretty bad. Too many of our children grow up in neighborhoods where violence is commonplace and drug use rampant. If you want to get a sick feeling in your stomach, go visit a middle school in one of your urban centers. Ask how many of the kids know somebody who has been shot. Watch virtually every child raise a hand. Then ask yourself how we let this happen.

All the new research says that a kid's environment in his first three years is all-important, that everything from IQ points to the ability to bond with other humans is at stake. But we seem willing to take the risk that our kids will somehow pull through.

Occasionally, you get something like the Carnegie report, which says that a lot of kids aren't making it -- and that as many as half of the 12 million Americans under 3 are in some jeopardy.

This kind of report will get discussed, particularly on the higher-class news-talk shows. Some politicians will then say the right things. And then nothing gets done.

That's because children don't have any clout. They don't have lobbyists. They don't have the NRA or the tobacco industry or the AARP supporting their cause.

And so they don't have policy-makers who want to make children's concerns a priority.

What the kids do have, though, are all those Mighty Morphins.

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