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Being Hip to Parenthood : The father of Rolling Stone magazine--and three boys--introduces Family Life, for parents who are determined not to lose their cool.

August 10, 1993|BOB SIPCHEN

Remember the Woodstock Era? Remember the folks who dropped acid, painted their faces and groped naked in the mud while Crosby, Stills & Nash sang, "Teach your children well?"

Well, they and their younger siblings have finally grown up.

They've had kids.

And now they must ask themselves a tough question: Is "hip parent" synonymous with "embarrassing dork" or merely an oxymoron?

As if to disprove the conventional wisdom that parents are by definition uncool, Jann Wenner, the father of Rolling Stone magazine and 8-, 6-, and 3-year-old boys, has just launched a new family publication. It will, Wenner says, dish up "the Rolling-Stone sensibility for the Rolling-Stone generation."

Family Life cannonballs today into a pool already swimming with baby and children's magazines--about 70 regional parenting publications, including L. A. Parent, and a rapidly proliferating field of national titles, from Family Circle to Parents, Parenting and Family Fun. Family Adventures couldn't stay afloat and just ceased publication.

But Family Life, says editor-in-chief Nancy Evans, has staked out a sophisticated corner that similar publications ignore.

"Just because people become parents," she says, "doesn't mean they lose their brains, lose their sense of humor, lose everything they learned in school."

Evans, who comes from a solid editing and writing career, left her position as president and publisher of Doubleday in 1990 to spend more time with her young daughter and work on her brainchild: a family magazine that doesn't treat Mom and Dad like babies.

She has other distinctions of tone and voice in mind for the $2.50, Rolling Stone-size, perfect-bound publication, which Wenner's Straight Arrow Publishing Inc. is giving an initial run of 300,000 copies.

The magazine, planned as a bimonthly, takes a casually multiethnic world view that includes a fairly even gender mix in the faces represented and the writing. It even offers an essay on finding children's books that feature decent dads.

"I wanted a magazine men would feel comfortable reading," Evans says. "I still don't think men are going to rush to the newsstand to buy it or that they'll write out the check to subscribe. But once it's in the house they won't be embarrassed to read it."

In her editor's note, Evans says she would like the magazine to be "the national kitchen table where we can talk about everything from how to entertain the kids at the next birthday party to how to make our schools better." Ann Pleshette Murphy, editor-in-chief of Parents magazine, is skeptical: "I don't feel this is a kitchen table . . . it's more like a bulletin board."

Murphy says Family Life is making a mistake similar to one another rival made at its inception. Parenting magazine, she says, "was predominantly essays by extremely hip parents, and not much service."

That changed, Murphy says, when the editors came to a realization: "You can be the hippest guy around . . . a Hampshire College graduate, a rock musician making $300,000 a year or you can be a polyester-leisure-suit guy who's right of Attila the Hun, and when your kid is screaming at 3 in the morning, you're in the same boat."

Wenner says Family Life's targeted readers, people with children ages 3 to 12, have little patience for publications that dwell on parental anxieties: "We presume they're already comfortable being parents--they're not concerned about . . . 'how to tell if the baby-sitter is a serial killer.' There's none of that dumb, looking down at the reader; none of that information-free pablum. It's the goods. It's the stuff."

Some goods in the premiere issue are standard kid and parent 'zine stuff--a back-to-school guide, health advice, investing for college--done with the snazzy graphics and reportorial flair that at least one breed of baby boomer has come to expect.

But Family Life distinguishes its credentials in cool with content, not with chirpy pop references, as is too often today's custom.

For example, in discussing "dyssemia"--a panoply of mild behavioral aberrations that can get kids labeled "spaz" or "loser"--Melissa Fay Greene's "The Left-Out Child" doesn't stray far from the parenting magazine mode.

But Parent or Family Circle or Child just wouldn't quote gay author Paul Monette on his youthful pain at being an outcast so offhandedly. Article themes aside, deeper issues are bound to be stirred when a once-controversial cultural icon such as Rolling Stone offers to raise the nation's children. You know times are a changin' when it's possible to envision Bill and Hillary reading this magazine with Chelsea, while toe tappin' to old Fleetwood Mac tunes. But that vision may make some Americans pause to consider once again the matter the presidential candidates left largely to Murphy Brown and Dan Quayle.

In fact, Family Life is most interesting for this unspoken debate that permeates its pages--for its serious grappling with the meaning of family values for a generation of Rolling Stone rebels-turned-caretakers.

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