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What Do Children Really Need? : Families: Do kids care which parent earns more or gets home first? Well, yes. But experts say practical needs--like peace in the house--are more important.

March 16, 1995|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In or out of the spotlight, at peace or at war, parents of the '90s are, as Dr. Benjamin Spock once lamented, "exquisitely challenged."

And for working parents in a custody battle, this can be excruciatingly obvious.

The lines were drawn recently when prosecutor Marcia Clark--who is putting in long hours on the O.J. Simpson trial--asked her soon-to-be ex for more money to pay for evening and weekend baby-sitters. Gordon Clark, claiming his children were suffering from long absences from their mother, answered by demanding primary custody.

While few have intimate knowledge of the Clarks' personal parenting styles, that has not silenced the public speculation--much of it outspoken and accusatory--about what their family troubles mean for men, for women, even for the institution of divorce.

But ultimately, the Clark case (like every custody case) is not about mothers or fathers. It is about children.

Do young children--the Clark boys are 3 and 5--really care which parent makes more money, who gets home first at night, or whether they go to Chuck E. Cheese's every Saturday?

Although there's no telling on the Chuck E. Cheese question, experts believe children have a variety of very real needs, whether it's a plate of nutritious food, an inspirational role model or a government that guarantees access to health care.

Here are their views.

David Royko, psychologist, clinical director of Cook County (Ill.) Marriage and Family Counseling Service, the nation's largest court mediation service:

"What children need more than anything else, though it might sound kind of glib, is peace. They need peace. Especially for children going through custody disputes, there is a tremendous amount of conflict and children inevitably feel torn apart like little wishbones.

"Whoever gets the larger half is most important for the parents, but for the children, it doesn't really matter. It is all incredibly painful. What children in or out of divorce need is a relatively conflict-free set of parents or parents who can at least keep the conflict completely separate from the child's life.

"Children need harmony, and to a kid that means being with their parents. When we ask kids here their three wishes, almost always, one wish will be for their parents to be together, no matter how horrible it might have been when they were."

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Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, Harvard University pediatrician, best-selling author and host of Lifetime TV's "What Every Baby Knows":

"What do children need? I can tell you that there is no single formula, and anybody who says there is one is crazy! I would never tell parents there is only one correct way to go about parenting. That sort of advice makes people feel so guilty they become immobilized and useless to the child. Mothers and fathers feel guilty enough as it is.

"What we know is that children need both parents to be passionately involved with them. Passion! Energy! That's what children need. And time? Well, maybe time is not as important as quality of the time. Parents who don't have a lot of time to spend with their children can still do a damn good job by being passionate and dedicated when they are with the children and (by providing) good child care when they're not there."

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Sherry Smith-Hampton, program director for Bienvenidos children's home, West Covina:

"(Children need) to grow and thrive. I'm afraid we often forget children need real basics--they need a plate of food to eat, a roof over their heads, clothing on their backs. It can be easy to forget that some children do not have even these basics. Those are the children we see here.

"Their parents' lives have broken down and they can no longer give their children what they need just to survive. They've lost their jobs or their unemployment has run out or they have serious medical problems. Parents can snap under such stress and they may take it out on their children. Nearly every child here wants desperately to be with their parents. Of all the children who can articulate such things, there is no great need expressed for wealth, or toys, or whatever. They love their parents. And they want to be with them."

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Wade Horn, child psychologist, former U.S. Commissioner for Children, Youth and Families, and a founder of the National Fatherhood Initiative:

"When I was in Washington, I was the administrator for most of the federal programs for at-risk kids, and what struck me was that what most of these kids really needed, what was missing most from their lives was a father.

"Children need fathers in their lives; they need both parents. We're trying to believe that if we can only get this custody thing right, children will flourish. Well, I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that is wrong. Whenever I talk about the Marcia Clark case, I am reminded of this collective fantasy we're all pursuing that somehow if the custody is joint, sole, shared, whatever, my child will not suffer from the choices we make. That is simply not true, however hard it is to hear."

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