Waco, Texas -- MANY OF America's most serious social maladies -- crime, teen-age pregnancies, school drop-outs, welfare dependency and unemployment -- can be remarkably improved or even cured with better parenting.
Every difficult social issue comes equipped with two camps of problem solvers.
One camp favors the get-tough approach. It wants to crack down. Boost punishment. Remove rewards. It's the stick approach to behavior modification.
The other camp favors solving social problems by establishing programs to assist the individuals who cause social disorder. Teach them. Assist them. Give them a hand up. It's the carrot approach.
When one approach fails to produce results, or becomes oppressively expensive, public sentiment switches to the other approach. In a cause-and-effect relationship as old as gravity, politicians sense a voter mood change and quickly propose a new, improved solution that matches public sentiment.
Conservatives are more likely to be identified with the crack-the-whip approach, while liberals are more likely to take the helping-hand approach.
But battle-scarred professional educators, police officials and social workers occasionally pause long enough to say that neither approach can cure well-entrenched social diseases when the remedies are applied to disease symptoms rather than the disease itself. They talk about getting upstream. A stitch in time. Prevention.
Getting upstream to treat a problem at its source makes sense. Good old common sense. More than liberal or conservative, it's practical.
But how far upstream can we go from the immediate problem-solving approach that calls for swift and sure punishment to individuals who perpetrate acts of social mischief? It would seem that infancy would be as far upstream as we can go. Better day care. Expanded Head Start programs. Changes in public education.
Actually, upstream remedies should shift more from the individuals who cause social disruptions to the parents of those individuals. We should concentrate on producing better parents.
Children learn more from their parents than a lifetime of lessons from teachers, social workers, counselors and criminal justice officials. With the right sort of parental instruction and support, children are armed with the faith and values needed to overcome practically any obstacle or challenge life throws in their path. That includes poverty, discrimination and just plain bad luck.
Parents have the unmatched opportunity to teach their children lifelong values of hard work, perseverance, honesty, charity, goodwill and responsibility to self, family and community. Parents can do this better than a trainload of teachers, preachers and social workers.
The children of Asian boat people have demonstrated that outstanding academic achievement can be obtained from inner-city ghetto schools despite the fact that their parents arrived here completely broke, unable to speak the language and forced to live in squalid tenements. The parents valued education and taught that value to their children.
It's true that children don't come with instructions, but that doesn't mean responsible and effective parenting can't be taught. It used to be that family parenting skills were passed down from one generation to another. An unscientific, but efficient survival technique.
But skyrocketing divorces, out-of-wedlock births and the breakup of traditional family structures have disrupted that source of parenting education.
Making parents responsible for the socially disruptive actions of their minor children might be one way to jump-start a movement to improve parenting skills.
Rowland Nethaway is senior editor of the Waco (Texas) Tribune-Herald.