The quality of American family life has been the topic of heated debate by and between liberals and conservatives for 20 years. Liberals tend to argue that it has changed, principally as a result of the surge of women into the work force. Conservatives tend to argue that it has deteriorated, principally for the same reason.

What no one is arguing is that the quality of family life has improved markedly. Children are spending more time in front of television sets and video games than they are spending with their parents or in class. Some 6 million youngsters go home to empty houses every afternoon. They are emerging from schools ill-equipped for the modern work force. Divorce claims one out of every two marriages. A fast-growing area of mental health is the treatment of adolescents. Parents complain that they cannot get enough time with their children and that they are under constant stress from trying to balance the demands of family and work. Time is their most precious commodity.

While women cherish their careers and their economic independence, they feel the pull between their traditional caretaking responsibilities and their newer professional responsibilities most acutely. Yet, they feel threatened by the conservative agenda, which has had the husband-housewife model as the centerpiece of its family policy recommendations. In an era in which less than 10 percent of American families have mothers who are full-time homemakers, this is a model that is both economically unfeasible for most families and professionally undesirable for many women.

There is a hopeful sign, however, that conservatives are going to be addressing the stresses on modern families more realistically and more creatively than they have. And this is an important development because it offers hope of some meaningful exchange between the two sides, and perhaps the evolution of some policies and programs that will support and strengthen families.

This optimistic forecast results, in part, from an article by William R. Mattox Jr. in the winter issue of the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review. "The biggest problem facing American children today is a lack of time and attention from their parents," Mattox writes, citing a study that found that parents spent 30 hours a week with their children in 1965 and only 17 hours a week in 1985.

Mattox, a policy analyst who concentrates on work and family issues for the Family Research Council, offers a number of insightful reasons why families ran out of time. "One of the supreme ironies of recent economic developments is that while America has experienced steady growth in its gross national product, the economic pressures on families with children have risen significantly." He points out that wages have stagnated: During the last two decades, constant dollars earnings of American husbands grew at less than 1 percent a year, compared with a real growth rate of 3 percent a year in the '50s and '60s. Meanwhile, taxes have soared. "In 1950, a median-income family of four paid 2 percent of its annual gross earnings to the federal government in income and payroll taxes. Today, it pays 24 percent. In addition, state and local taxes, on average, take another 8 percent from the family's gross income."

One of Mattox's recommendations is to dramatically reduce the tax burden on families with children, a time when family income is usually at its lowest and the time children need with parents is typically greatest. Further, he writes, "policy-makers should encourage flexible hours, part-time work, job sharing, and most especially home-based employment opportunities." He recommends loosening restrictions on tax-deductible home offices, pointing out that rules forbidding the use of the area as a guest room, for example, are particularly burdensome on young families who don't have much space.

He suggests that the pattern of sequencing family and career be encouraged "by calling upon employers to give preference in hiring to parents returning to the labor force after an extended stint at home with children," much the way veterans are given preference in hiring when they return to work.

This is the exact opposite of what happens now. One of the reasons mothers stay in the work force is they are afraid they won't be able to rebuild their careers if they stay home with young children. Mattox has come up with an idea that would give parents more choices about how to balance their work and family life. This is what families need, and it is particularly encouraging to find conservatives recognizing that and adding innovative ideas to the debate about how tax and workplace policies can be modernized to help families make time for children again.