Okay, I'm skeptical of pat theories, too -- especially when they promise more than seems reasonable to expect. But if you can suspend your skepticism for a few minutes, you just might find yourself nodding in agreement as Frances Cress Welsing spins out her theory of what has gone wrong with America's children. The problem, says this controversial Washington psychiatrist, is: Too little "lap time."

She is talking about the thing you have observed, and perhaps experienced. A child wants to be held, and the mother responds. "If she's relaxed about it, the child will get into a state of deep relaxation, and then, after a while, will say 'Let me down.' Children know when they've had enough." The problem, she says, is that too many of our children -- black children in particular -- don't get enough at the appropriate age, and the dearth of lap time later propels them into premature sex, alcohol and drug abuse: "What we are experiencing (in drug abuse and adolescent sex) is an epidemic of dependency deprivation among our group."

It's an age-old problem, she says, which perpetuates itself because we tend to learn our parenting styles from our own parents. "Imagine what it was like to be a black baby in slavery. A child cries and cries and cries, but the mother, having work to do, can't pick it up and give it the attention it needs. So the child grows up and becomes a parent without having learned how to satisfy emotional needs, and so it is passed on. "After slavery, given the fact that women found it necessary to function as breadwinners because the men were often denied the opportunity to work, we ended up with overwhelmed mothers who didn't have the time or emotional energy to provide an adequate amount of lap time for their children, who, in addition, may have been too closely spaced."

While Welsing's emphasis is on black children, she insists that her theory applies with equal force to white children. "This culture has attempted to substitute material things for emotional needs, and it doesn't work. And as a result, even children from well-to-do families are getting into all kinds of trouble with drugs and sex. Orientals, on the other hand, tend to give their children a great deal of lap time, and, as a result, they have the lowest rates of crime and adolescent pregnancy and the other things that are plaguing us."

She says she is constantly struck by how often, both in her clinical practice and in her frequent visits to schools, the answer comes back "no" when she asks teen-agers if they got enough lap time when they were growing up.

For the younger ones, she says, she tries to counsel the children to communicate their need for affection and their parents to provide it. For the older ones, she tries to help them understand that they can learn to "be good to themselves -- no calling yourself names and all that." But there really is no substitute for lap time, she insists.

Perhaps she would like to offer some sort of caveat, lest those who hear her conclude that she believes that adequate "lap time" would eliminate all social problems?

Well, not really. "We will be well into the prevention of all the things we call social ills if we understand the critical importance of adequate emotional nurturing . . . . So much of what we see as social problems is really a search for something to kill the pain of longing, of not feeling validated and loved" -- of inadequate "lap time."