Americans consume 20 tons of aspirin a day, so they need pleasure at the end of the day, and many are getting it from reading their children "A Light in the Attic," poems by Shel Silverstein. Amazingly, this volume concerns neither sexual gymnastics nor a sauerkraut-and-fudge diet, but nevertheless is near the top of the best-seller list. So a lot of moppets are being read Silverstein's "Prayer of the Selfish Child":

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep,

And if I die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my toys to break.

So none of the other kids can use 'em. . . .

Amen.

A generation reared on such searing knowledge of the human heart may turn out a bit grim, or may become the Emerging Republican Majority. But it will be better for having known "The Little Boy and the Old Man":

Said the little boy, "Sometimes I drop my spoon."

Said the little old man, "I do that too."

The little boy whispered, "I wet my pants."

"I do that too," laughed the little old man.

Said the little boy, "I often cry."

The old man nodded, "So do I."

"But worst of all," said the boy, "it seems

Grown-ups don't pay attention to me."

And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.

"I know what you mean," said the little old man.

Silverstein's sales and, even more, the sales of C.S. Lewis' "Narnia" series, suggest that many parents are giving their children the two essential things: thought and time. It helps if children have two caring parents, but in the 1970s births to unwed women increased 50 percent and now amount to one in six births. This scandal is a calamity because the more we learn about children, the more certain we are that many things (emotional stability and social competence, to name two) depend on attentive, skillful parents.

It is often difficult to be such a parent at the end of the day. But it is principally by the quality of their attentiveness that parents help children achieve the serenity and self-esteem that can enable children to be masters of their destinies.

All of us, big and small, are, to an annoying extent, influenced by our physical natures--by our chemical and electrical mechanisms. Studies now link minor nutritional problems in infancy and in pregnant women with emotional instabilities when children reach school age. The emotions of adults, too, can be determined physical phenomena. Hot, dry winds like the sharav in Israel and the Santa Ana in southern California alter the ion concentrations in the atmosphere of a region, producing increased tensions, irritability and slower reactions. High levels of positive ions raise, and high levels of negative ions lower, the blood levels of a hormone important to behavior. Concentrations of both types of ion seem to reduce brain levels of the hormone, and reduced levels of the hormone have been found in the brain tissue of suicides.

You may resent evidence that suggests we are, to some extent, marionettes dangling at the ends of long strings that run back deep into nature. But high-quality parental attention can be scissors that snip some of those strings. It enhances a child's self-esteem, and hence self-control, and thus expands the range of real autonomy, at the expense of physical determinants.

All children have a sweet tooth for praise, and there is no praise as sweet as being taken seriously, for example by a parent who reads to you. But most of all, children like the sense that their parents are realists and truth-tellers. How else can children value their parents' praise? So it is good for their souls to hear a parent read Silverstein's poem "God's Wheel," in which a child is speaking:

God says to me with kind of a smile,

"Hey, how would you like to be God awhile

And steer the world?"

"Okay," says I, "I'll give it a try.

Where do I set?

How much do I get?

What time is lunch?

When can I quit?"

"Gimme back that wheel," says God,

"I don't think you're quite ready yet."

The smile, part shy and part sly, that flickers across the face of a listening child--a smile of rueful recognition --is, for an adult, more therapeutic than aspirin ever can be.