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Too Many or Too Few Rules for Parents?

July 14, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Do today's parents need more rights? Or more responsibilities?

Amid a lack of any coherent family policy, two national movements are lurching forward, each concerned about family breakdown and each proposing legislation to ensure what its proponents see as proper parenting. Some say they are on a collision course.

The Parent Rights coalition, led by the Arlington, Va.-based Of the People, wants to amend every state constitution with the words, "The right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children shall not be infringed." At least 28 states have proposed such amendments. In some cases, allegedly abusive parents would gain the right to a jury trial before their children are removed from their home.

Similar legislation pending in Congress, the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act, would make it illegal for schools or government agencies to teach sex education or counsel children if they contradict parents' wishes.

Meanwhile, an ongoing movement to force parents to become more responsible is also picking up steam.

In recent years, about 25 states have passed laws or reinforced existing ones to hold parents responsible for their children's behavior. In May, a jury convicted Susan and Anthony Provenzino of St. Clair Shores, Mich., of failing to exercise "reasonable parental control" over their 16-year-old son, who grew his own marijuana and burglarized homes and his family's church.

Since 1994, California parents have been ordered to parenting classes or counseling as a result of their children's actions.

Both movements are essentially driven by conservatives, observers say, but could cancel each other out in some cases. For instance, curfew laws make parents responsible for keeping children off the street after certain hours, but under parental rights proposals, parents could claim it's their right to allow their children on the street.

This latest confusion over how to fix troubled families is typical of what happens when "an issue is framed in political terms by politicians as opposed to being framed in public terms by the way everyday people see the issue," says Ed Arnone, a spokesman for the Kettering Foundation, which organizes nonpartisan public forums nationwide on three public policy issues each year. Discussion guides for the National Issues Forums and a voters' guide look at the American family from the point of view of real people in polls and focus groups.

The organizers' laudable goal is to help citizens sort out family and other public policy issues away from the combative political arena, and then help leaders understand the public's considered point of view, away from quick polls of the ill-informed who aren't really sure what they think.

Interestingly, ordinary people's ideas about family issues did not fall into bipartisan liberal / conservative camps, but rather into three perspectives.

The first is the increasingly familiar call to revive traditional values such as marriage and parents' rights.

The next favors promoting responsibility for children by holding parents accountable. Family planning clinics should be more accessible, divorce laws should be reformed to put children first, child support collection must be improved. Some parental responsibility laws fall in this category.

In the third, people believe responsibility for children is collective and requires substantial public investment as happens in European countries. Societal responsibility should be expanded to include subsidized day care and preschool programs, paid parental leave after childbirth, and equal pay for men and women who hold comparable jobs.

The guides examine each strand of thought and present its pros, cons and trade-offs.

Copies of the National Issues Forums guide, "The Troubled American Family: Which Way Out of the Storm," may be obtained through McGraw-Hill's College Department, 1221 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10020; (800) 338-3987.

For copies of the voters' guide, "Clarifying Issues '96," write to Public Agenda, 6 E. 39th St., New York, NY 10016.

* 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.

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