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ROBIN ABCARIAN

What Does It Take to Raise a Child? More Than Political Platforms

August 28, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

There seems to be some confusion in the land over what it takes to raise a child.

Does it take a family?

A village?

An empathetic gorilla?

The confusion stems, of course, from the rhetorical cherry bomb lobbed in prime time two weeks ago by Bob Dole at Hillary Clinton, author of the bestseller "It Takes a Village."

Said Dole: "We are told that it takes a village--that is, the collective, and thus the state--to raise a child. . . . It does not take a village. It takes a family."

I swore I heard him say, "We are told that it takes a village--that is, socialism."

"You fell for the subliminal message," chided a colleague. "That's what Dole wanted you to hear."

Ah, well, kudos then, to Dole's anonymous speech writers.

My search for an answer to what it takes to raise a child--because as a mother, I'm too tired to figure it out on my own--led me to the platforms of the two major political parties. There, in black and white, an unshocking answer: Both come down squarely on the side of families, with allusions to neither villages nor gorillas.

Republicans: "We are the party of the American family. . . . We believe that strengthening family life is the best way to improve the quality of life for everyone. This is the clearest distinction between Republicans and Clinton Democrats: We believe the family is the core institution of our society."

Democrats: "The first and most sacred responsibility of every parent is to cherish our children and strengthen our families. The family is the foundation of American life. . . . Today's Democratic Party knows that governments do not raise children, parents do."

What we've got here is a failure to differentiate.

*

I can't remember when I first heard the charming and suddenly controversial proverb that is usually ascribed, somewhat vaguely, to Africa.

But I can tell you that over time, I have come to associate it--not with Hillary Clinton's bland if sincere treatise--but with some generous adults in this city whose lives demonstrate the irrefutable truth of the words.

They are teachers, college students and business professionals, all volunteers, brought together by a privately funded group called Los Angeles Team Mentoring, which has adopted the proverb as its motto. The group had planned to use the motto on a new billboard thanking its donors, but opted for a different slogan in the wake of recent events.

"It offends me that something gets twisted like that," said Barbara Lehrner, LATM executive director. "Especially when you have this beautiful concept of the community coming together to work with our children. It doesn't have anything to do with the state or government."

Every other week for an entire school year, the mentors work with vulnerable middle-school children. In the beginning, the mentors don't know the kids, they just know there are children in need of direction, children whose parents need help.

This year, more than 1,000 local children will benefit from the mentoring, as will their families, as will their . . . villages.

*

Last fall, the Carnegie Corp. issued the dismal findings of a 10-year study on adolescents: Nearly half of the country's 10- to 14-year-olds are at risk of wrecking their lives through harmful behavior. These are children whose parents work, who have outgrown day care and who fend for themselves after school. Their developmental struggles, said the report, make them particularly resistant to parental authority, particularly ripe for mentoring.

As parents are pushed off welfare into low-paying jobs, and provided precious little help in the way of day care for their smallest children, it may be this older, vulnerable group of kids who will suffer most. And trust me, these self-absorbed youngsters won't care who's running the country as they begin their experiments with sex, drugs and violence.

Politicians won't be splitting rhetorical hairs; they'll be wondering where to stick all the new prisons.

It has become an election-year article of faith that America was once a place where kids could fearlessly ride their bikes all over town, where kindly but stern grandmas kept watch from front porches, where children's unruly impulses were kept in check because they knew their misdeeds would be telegraphed home by busybody neighbors.

I don't know if this America ever really existed--it sure wasn't like that in my suburb--but I do know that folks have a lot invested in believing that it did, and in believing that it can exist once more.

The only hope we have of creating--or re-creating--it is by acknowledging the truth of the now-beleaguered proverb, by accepting our responsibilities to children as elders of their worlds.

It takes a family.

It takes a village.

In an emergency, it can even take a gorilla.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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