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No Substitute for Listening to Children

September 23, 1996

GARY WALLACH is executive director of the Westside Women's Health Center in Santa Monica. He told The Times:

When Nancy Reagan told teenagers to "just say no" to drugs, did the number of drug users drop? When elders preach from the pulpit that teens shouldn't have sex before marriage, does the number of unwed mothers go down? The answer to both questions is "no." Slogans and wishes simply don't change behavior.

So why, as a society, do we spend so much time thinking up these slogans and preaching to people who don't listen. The reason is that it's simpler to do that than to make substantive changes in the way we live and the way we treat one another and our children.

The "parental rights" movement is a case in point. Parents all over the country are trying to pass legislation to make their children, whom they can't control, "be good." They mistakenly think that if they can change whatever they don't like about education and health care, they can change their children's behavior. They seem to believe that something terribly wrong is happening to their children and they have to stop it. What I suggest is happening to their children is that they are growing up and acting independently, not paying much attention to what their parents or other adults want. And that this is very disturbing to parents.

So, instead of trying to get closer to their children--understanding them and helping them through life's trials--they try to pass legislation that they imagine will give them the power over their children that they haven't been able to achieve.

Every day in our clinic, we see teenagers who feel they have no place else to go for help. They want to know about their health and they want to know about sex. They are too afraid or embarrassed to ask their parents. Would a parental rights law, which might keep many of these teens out of our clinic, make them feel less intimidated by their parents? Would it make these children more willing to share their fears and concerns about growing up with their parents? There's no evidence to suggest that it would, and there's a good deal of evidence that indicates it won't. Is there a current law that's keeping parents from communicating with their children?

I would suggest that the reason children are out of control is that they are disaffected, and no law is going to change that. I could list 10 things that we all could do for our children that might change their behavior. I'm sure, if you think about it, you could too. And, I can tell you that allowing every parent to challenge everything they don't like about their children's education or health care isn't on my list, because it won't make one iota of difference.

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