Attention to America's children

June 06, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

WASHINGTON -- Early Monday morning The Mall by the Lincoln Memorial is as quiet as dawn. The only signs of life are runners in knee braces and families of adolescent ducklings along the edge of the Reflecting Pool.

There are few reminders of the event that brought a quarter-million folks to this site Saturday to pay the rare currency of attention to America's children. The only leftovers are some food wrappers and rows of portable toilets waiting to be removed.

On the ground is one hand-painted yellow banner -- ''Stand for Children'' -- that bears the autographs of the kids who came to carry it. They too have come and gone. Gone back to school, back home, back to normal.

This place that has seen so many other marches, rallies, speeches, dreams, seems to have absorbed this one, too. On this back-to-work morning, I wonder whether this rally for children will leave more than a temporary mark on the landscape.

Saturday went off as flawlessly as its intentions. It was less a march than an amble. It was less a rally than a revival meeting, with babies, strollers, picnics and testimonials. The closing sermon by Marian Wright Edelman, the organizer and the head of the Children's Defense Fund, was no less eloquent for being so familiar.

''Revival'' was the operative word. The people I met seemed to be less passionate about an agenda for change than frustrated by the conscious national neglect of children.

The adult leaders of contingents wearing T-shirts that read Girl Scouts or Head Start or YWCA came looking for a restoration of personal energy as well as the country's interest. The parents and church groups came to be counted, wearing green heart-shaped stickers announcing: ''I Stand For Children.'' But more than anything else, people came to get their hopes up.

Never mind what you read of squabbles between think-tank members of right and left over the politics of the gathering. This was a bipartisan event -- for the right reasons and the wrong. It was bipartisan because kids are not political-party players; they are, as a poster read, ''everyone's future.'' It was bipartisan, because the truth is that neither party has put children at the top of its priorities.

Just days earlier, the Republican candidate for Father of Our Country had blamed family abuse on welfare. In turn, the Democratic incumbent, the baby-boomer dad, made another pitch for the hearts and minds of parents by taking a stand for curfews.

A day like every other

If Saturday was a day like every other day in America, 2,660 children were born into poverty, 8,493 were reported as abused or neglected, 15 were killed by firearms, 2,833 quit school. One out of 10 children live in what is called ''extreme poverty,'' half the official poverty rate.

Yet most politicians pick at the inconsequential margins of this disaster. And we let them.

All afternoon, I had tried to understand why this tragedy -- tragedy in the making, tragedy already made -- has yet to set off national alarm bells. What does it take?

Slowly, over time, we seem to have wholly privatized children. We've lost confidence in our collective ability to raise the next generation. Fully two-thirds of our households no longer have any member under 18. To many of ''us,'' kids have become ''them.'' And if they threaten us at 16 or become criminals at 13, we can always do away with childhood and declare them adults.

Even at this revival, the call seemed curiously muted. Those who came to ''stand for children'' were not asked to sign on to an agenda, but rather to pledge to ''do my part.''

So in the afterglow of this event, before the park workers have finished cleaning up the litter, I have come back to take another look for hope as if it were a missing cap. I remember the high spirits that came from the children. I remember that here, for a time, the greatest threat to childhood was an errant Frisbee.

Maybe this isn't an era for 10-point programs, but for a one-point program. It is time -- long past time -- to greet every piece of policy or behavior with the same unembarrassed and urgent question: What does this mean for children?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/06/96

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