No one thing can fix everything, and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.
Let me try to sell you something that won't fix everything but might make a lot of our problems a little easier to handle. Let me try to sell you the idea of teaching parents how to be parents.
I don't have to convince you that too many of our youngsters are falling into the category we have lately started labeling "at risk." Not just the sexually careless adolescents, the high school dropouts or the teenage hustlers, who are, admittedly, easier to worry about than to set straight. I'm thinking about the 6-year-olds starting school in a few weeks who will be "at risk" from their first day in first grade, their younger siblings who will be "at risk" even in preschool and kindergarten, the babies who are in fact born "at risk."
The notion I'm trying to sell is that a lot of that risk could be avoided by the simple device of teaching the parents of these ill-fated children how to get them ready for learning, how to develop in them the attitudes and habits that will give them a decent chance at success -- how to be good parents.
I'm not talking about the tough cases: the crack babies who may be permanently damaged by their parents' drug abuse, the abandoned infants languishing in the foster care system or the abused and brutalized children who have never known a parent's love. I'm talking about the children whose parents love them and want the best for them but simply don't know how to give the best a chance to happen.
I'm proposing that we teach them how.
Parental love is as natural as rain. Parenting skills have to be learned. That simple truth often escapes those of us in the middle class who consider ourselves pretty good at the parenting game although we don't remember anyone teaching us how to do it.
Well, someone did. We learned what we know about parenting from our own parents, and in most cases it serves us pretty well. But an awful lot of young parents -- themselves the children of teenage mothers, half-formed families and unskilled parents -- don't know what we know.
They love their children, and they will sacrifice their own interests in order to buy them expensive toys and dress them in cute clothes. But they don't know how to get them ready for learning or for life.
Interestingly enough, there are people who are expert in teaching these things: child psychologists, early childhood educators and people like Dorothy Rich, of the Washington-based Home and School Institute, who has made a career of teaching parents how to give their children the skills and attitudes that make for school success. I suspect that there are few school districts in America that don't have access to some of these experts.
What is lacking is any routine way of drawing on their expertise. We need to have parenting centers in every city and hamlet, places where parents can go, without charge, to learn how to get their children off to a good start. We need to teach them the importance of reading to their children, talking to them, teaching them not just such "academic" skills as color and shape and letters but also self-confidence, perseverance and personal responsibility -- the things that make school learning possible.
It wouldn't solve the problem of poverty, though it would make it more likely that the next generation would have the skills and attitudes to help escape poverty. It wouldn't cure adolescent pregnancy, but it might help a lot of youngsters to have the confidence in the future that makes postponing pregnancy seem worthwhile. It wouldn't eliminate the scourge of drugs, but it might strengthen a lot of children to resist the lure of drugs. It wouldn't eliminate the need for school reform, but it would give at-risk youngsters a far better chance at school success.
We need to start thinking of our children -- all our children -- as a national resource, and of their academic, emotional and moral health as a national priority. The children need a better chance, and we who talk so much about national "competitiveness" and changing demographics need them to have that better chance.
And, no, I'm not talking about putting another burden on an already overburdened school system. It wouldn't matter whether the centers I am advocating are run by schools, by churches or by local civic groups; the problem affects the entire community, and the entire community ought to be involved in its solution.