Urie Bronfenbrenner has a vision for all American work places, be they factories or offices: Install two telephone lines, one incoming and one outgoing, and put a sign over them that says: Family Calls Only.

"The important thing is the knowledge that they're there, that you can be reached, or that you can reach your family. They probably wouldn't even be used that much."

Sure, it's a gimmick, or perhaps a metaphor, but one with conscious implications. The telephones would be a statement, an acknowledgment by both employers and employees that the family is important, and that it is connected to the work place.

Bronfenbrenner -- PhD, professor (now emeritus) at Cornell University, recipient of five honorary degrees, a founding architect of Operation Head Start, member of distinguished advisory boards and father of six -- is one of a small band of child development experts trying to answer the questions of why the rates of drug abuse, child abuse, teen-age pregnancy, infant mortality, divorce and delinquency in the United States keep going up. Now almost 71, he is still fueled by the passion of the true believer, one who feels that governments as well as individuals have a moral imperative to do something about human problems.

The current candidates for president almost to a man call for a "comprehensive family policy" of some kind, but Bronfenbrenner regards them with a slightly weary sense of de'ja` vu, such as a veteran of numerous hearings by congressional subcommittees can feel. They issue position papers, he complains, but they haven't pushed the issue front and center.

Indeed, a review of available position papers shows remarkable agreement. They cite similar statistics about our infant mortality rate (the worst of 20 industrialized nations), divorce rate (highest in the world), lack of health insurance (37 million are without). They generally agree that the Head Start program was a success, with graduates more likely to get a job and less likely to become criminals, and they promise more money for day care and for training day-care workers, and support for parental leave (unpaid) for the birth, adoption or illness of a child.

And Albert Gore Jr. says he would open a child-care center in the White House basement.

"I'm not excited about any of them," Bronfenbrenner said.

Actually, while he was in town the other day to give two speeches, Bronfenbrenner almost sounded like a candidate himself.

"The principal horsemen of modern times are poverty, chaos, isolation and abandonment of our responsibility to love our neighbors," he says. He turns an audience into a classroom, throwing out questions to see who has done his homework, or, as he put it, to test how well the mass media have been keeping up.

"Two hidden revolutions have been taking place in this country," he told a sellout crowd gathered under the auspices of the Smithsonian Resident Associates and Cornell alumni. "The first is a revolution in society, the second a revolution in science ... What are the three greatest and most consequential changes in American life in recent years?"

The first comes forth without much trouble. "Working mothers."

"May I rephrase?" says the professor. "Working mothers and fathers."

The second, too, is easy. "Single parents."

But "the big one, the most consequential," is a long time in coming. People shout out "mobility" and "the loss of the extended family," and "people having fewer children." None of these gets the teacher's nod of approval. "Isn't this interesting?" he says. Finally a woman gets it right.

"Increased levels of poverty," she says.

"You got it!"

Bronfenbrenner was born in Moscow and emigrated here at the age of 6 with his family. His father, a neuropathologist who also had a doctorate in zoology, was hired at a state institution for the "feebleminded," as they were called then. In those days, as he writes in the preface to "The Ecology of Human Development," "the patients spent most of their time out of the wards, not just in school classrooms but working on the farm and in the shops of the 3,000-acre institution. There were cow, horse, pig, sheep, and chicken barns, a smithy, carpenter shops, a bakery, and a store house from which food and goods were delivered around the village in horsedrawn farm wagons driven by inmates."

He recalls his father's "anguish when the New York City courts committed to our institution, out of error or -- more probably -- sheer desperation, perfectly normal children. Before he could unwind the necessary red tape to have them released, it would be too late. After a few weeks as one of 80 inmates in a cottage with two matrons, their scores on intelligence tests administered as a compulsory part of the discharge process proved them mentally deficient: that meant remaining in the institution for the rest of their lives."

These children had a major influence on Bronfenbrenner when he began to study human development. After getting a bachelor's in psychology and music from Cornell, a master of education degree in psychology from Harvard and a PhD in developmental psychology from the University of Michigan, and spent World War II as an Army psychologist. In 1948 he returned to Cornell, and began his continuing research into child development in the College of Human Ecology.

Along the way he fathered six children, four girls and two boys, and is now the active grandparent of seven, with two more on the way. Part of his ability to empathize with the middle-class parent as well as the plight of the poor comes from his observations of his own children.

"What I'm seeing is how much harder life with children is for them than it was for us," he said. "When my grandchildren are with us they are different kids -- not because we are better parents but because we can take the time."

"Hecticness" in American life is a primary cause of the instability and chaos he sees as one trigger of adolescent alienation, and as such qualifies as a serious problem, he said. Just the demands of transporting mother, father and a child to and from their daily occupations is a strain, he said.

"A friend of mine from Hungary once said to me, 'It is very interesting, in America the children are being brought up in moving vehicles.' "

He cites a Finnish study that followed a group of children from age 8 to age 30 and showed "instability" in a family was the strongest predictor of later antisocial behavior. By instability he means frequent changes in day-care arrangements, or in parental employment, location or schedule.

"The engine of development is a progressively more complex ping-pong game between two people {parent and child} who have irrational feelings about each other. They're crazy about each other. But for it to work it has to get going for a while," he said.

He then acted out a familiar situation: Parent settles down to read Junior a story, only to be interrupted several times by the telephone.

To counteract the daily difficulties of playing the ping-pong game, he recommends that parents schedule times "that allow the process of reciprocity." It could be a walk or a trip to the zoo -- as long as the parent realizes that what is important is not necessarily the activity itself but "what's in between," time when a child might initiate something, when a conversation might take place or a game be played. Vacations should not become exercises in sightseeing, but an "extended time to, in a sense, get bored doing something interesting."

Parents need to "arrange for the presence of your absence," by having rules for children to follow when they aren't there, as well as rituals and patterns that are respected, and frequent phone calls.

It is important, he said, to realize that a child will teach the parent. "They are wired to create and sustain the environments they need to grow," if a parent will pay attention.

Bronfenbrenner brings forth these suggestions in response to the urgent requests he gets from the various groups he speaks to around the country, audiences who are generally middle class and members of two-career or single-parent families. Talk about public policy and the "disruption of family life" on a national level is fine, but after a while "the middle class wants to know, 'What about me?' " he said.

He's not about to suggest that the stress of an overscheduled, overworked middle-class family is any better or worse than the stress of a family that doesn't know where its next meal is coming from, but his list of priorities begins with a national health insurance system, employment for the "breadwinner," "truly adequate resources for those unable to work for legitimate reasons," "houses that aren't hellholes" and quality day care for all who need it.

To those who say that throwing money at social problems doesn't work, Bronfenbrenner says that enough money has never been thrown. The notion that people earning less than the poverty level set annually by the Agriculture Department are getting a full range of welfare benefits is incorrect. He cites statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Children's Defense Fund to argue that the percentage of families with children under age 6 who live in poverty was the same (25 percent) in 1986 (the last year for which numbers are available) as it was in 1959. In 1969, following the War on Poverty, the percentage had declined to 14 percent.

But after a while the numbers begin to numb, conjuring up the picture of a dismal present and a dismal future. His cold statement remains: The only way out is to raise taxes -- which, not being a politician, he can say. The industrialized nations that have better numbers for prenatal care, infant mortality, birth weight, maternity leave, day care and so on, all have higher taxes, he notes.

But Bronfenbrenner recognizes cultural forces are at work here, too. "In the first half of the 19th century we became the most individualistic and the most volunteeristic society on earth. Who emigrated here? The kind of people who couldn't stand authority or who authority couldn't stand. We have this idea that if you fail it's because you didn't have the right stuff. And {we think} the thing to avoid at all costs is interference {by the government}. In a crisis, like in the Great Depression ... we got organized as hell. But that ... was a crash, and this damn emergency eats at our society by a fraction of a percentile point a day."

He sees a few small signs of hope that family issues are coming to the forefront, however. Just the other day he heard two Southern governors say on television that the candidates hadn't been talking about the issues that really concerned their region; one cited low birth weights and the other infant mortality.

Concern for family issues, he says, "has reached a critical mass. At least when I talk about these issues to an audience now, they know what I'm talking about."