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Do We Have Any Idea What We're Agreeing On?


In books, bringing back "family values" sounds simple enough.

People from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Dan Quayle agree that our social problems are the result of families failing to teach their children basic values. Democrats, Republicans and people who devise school curricula even agree on what many of those values are: character traits like respect, responsibility, self-discipline, honesty and kindness.

As it turns out, however, the people who are nodding in agreement often have vastly different definitions in mind.

Take respect: Are we talking about the "yes sir, no sir" type of obedience or the ability to see another's point of view?

In Quayle's book, "The American Family, Discovering the Values That Make Us Strong" (HarperCollins, 1996), respect is illustrated by an African American father, Dan Burtin from Chicago, who says he demands respect from his children and the teenagers he has led in sports teams and Boy Scouts. When they say, "Hey man, yo yo yo, you know," Burtin replies, "Excuse me, time out. I am Mr. Burtin. Your name is . . ? and I say, 'You are Mr. Smith. I am an adult. You are a young man and I will treat you as such if you treat me as such in return."

In "Seedbeds of Virtue" (Madison Books, 1995), contributing author Judith Martin, a.k.a. "Miss Manners," also advocates respect for authority. But in addition, she calls for teaching children how to respect one another by "settling disputes through face-saving compromise."

And what about responsibility?

William J. Bennett, in his "The Book of Virtues" (Simon & Schuster, 1993), uses that word to mean that people should be accountable for their actions. Responsible people, he says, are "mature people who have taken charge of themselves and their conduct, who own their actions and own up to them--who answer for them." For instance, rather than leaders in Washington, D.C., saying "mistakes were made," someone there ought to say, "I made a mistake."

But then, Colin Greer and Herbert Kohl, editors of "A Call to Character" (HarperCollins, 1995), make it clear that what they mean by responsibility is taking the initiative for the benefit of other people. "Responsibility is . . . about understanding how much of what needs to be done or what we would like to see done can be in our own hands," they write. "Responsibility can begin by paying due respect to those we love and care about."

Even the oft-quoted African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child," can have completely different implications depending on which leader uses it.

For Clinton, author of "It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us" (Simon & Schuster, 1995), it means the whole society needs to provide for children--from business and religious leaders to legislators.

But to Quayle, the phrase is valid "only if the 'village' is friends, extended family, neighbors and other privately assembled groups who can reinforce the lessons of home."

These discrepancies are not surprising at a time when well-meaning neighbors in villages like my own have trouble finding common social norms. One parent concerned about trash TV wants to turn it off; another thinks she should watch it with her children and talk about it. One mother forbids her children to attend unsupervised parties; her husband believes attending fosters the independence needed to grow up.

Three years after he raised a public twister by proclaiming single mothers like the TV character Murphy Brown mocked the importance of fathers, Quayle now can bask in the glow of public support for his ideas that family values matter.

In his new book, he asks another overdue and pertinent question: "Do we really know what they are?"

* Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Please include a telephone number.

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