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Kathleen Parker: Making Sense of Things

Only parents can fix broken families

By Kathleen Parker

Published in The Orlando Sentinel on July 7, 1999.

Grab your cliches and hang onto your platitudes -- the great family values stampede is about to begin.

Presidential wannabes have never loved children so much. Forget kissing babies. In the next year we can look forward to candidates tying toddlers' shoes, blinking away tedium as they try to squeeze into classroom desks, awkwardly hanging around video game parlors looking for opportunities to bond with teens.

If I had a penny to gamble, I would invest in Dramamine. We're going to need boatloads to get through this nausea-fest. Consider a sampling of what's to come:

"Polls show that a majority of Americans think that getting kids off to the right start should be our No. 1 national priority," Democrat Bill Bradley says with searing precision. "Politicians like to talk about children. Just throw in a mention of children, and you get an applause line."

Noted. Meanwhile, other presidential candidates have indicated they'll be playing the children card.

"We must make family life work in America," Vice President Al Gore says.

"Families are broken," Republican Lamar Alexander declares. "We've gotten busy. And we're not taking care of the kids."

Candidates of all persuasions seem to agree on the problem -- not enough parental responsibility, not enough parental involvement in children's lives, not enough parental time at home -- but no one's willing to translate the words into meaning.

What it all means, of course, is that parents are doing a lousy job of raising their children because, basically, they're selfish, greedy and immature. You've got goosebumps, right? Truth has that effect on honest people.

Instead, the candidates talk about absences, lacks and imbalances as though they're some abstract impositions cast upon the dumbfounded by external forces beyond voters' control.

"Yes, we've got a mess on our hands, but it's not your fault," they imply. "And since it's not your fault, darling voter, you can't fix it. But if you elect me, I'll make it better."

The promise of government fixes -- more afterschool, preschool, prenatal, postnatal, midteen, intertoddler programs -- will get the votes of people too intellectually lazy to acknowledge their own roles in broken families. Nothing soothes a guilty conscience like: It's not your fault. You didn't do it.

But then, who did it? Who is to blame? If there is an external force to be reckoned with, it is precisely the suggestion that government can fix problems that only individuals can repair. Good families don't happen in between appointments or two hours before bedtime, no matter how good the nannies, sitters and after-school programs.

They happen when two adult parents put their hearts and minds -- and especially their time -- to the task. Show up, be there, follow through -- those are the slogans one longs to hear.

And this: Children don't raise themselves, and hired strangers are first to admit they can't do the job of parenting. Parents need to decide early on who's going to stay home with infants and toddlers, who's going to be there when children come home from school, how labors will be divided so children's needs are met, so behavioral guidelines are established and enforced.

Government and institutions can't do those things. But parents can't either if their time and resources are tied up paying for yet more government programs that promise a fix they'll never deliver. Just once, I'd like to hear a candidate say that. Such a person might get elected.

Kathleen Parker's column is distributed by Tribune Media Services. Her column also appears Sunday in the Sentinel's Insight section. Mail: The Orlando Sentinel, MP-72, P.O. Box 2833, Orlando, Fla. 32802-2833. E-mail:

[Posted 07/06/1999 5:41 PM EST]

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