WASHINGTON — WHETHER it is the disappearance of the ``Beaver Cleaver-style'' nuclear family, tight-knit neighborhoods, or wholesome heroes, old-fashioned American values are not being communicated to children. That was the consensus of a diverse panel of expert witnesses testifying last week before the National Commission on Children, a bipartisan group charged by the President and Congress with developing a new national agenda aimed at re-weaving the frayed moral fabric of American childhood.
Poverty, deteriorating families, drug abuse, ill-health, and failing education - all at levels startlingly high for an industrialized nation - are the broken threads the commission has found in its 18-month inquiry, due to conclude in April.
This particular hearing, on how children develop values, was an example of how quickly evidence mounts that American childhood has gone astray, while solutions remain elusive.
Among the panelists sat an unlikely pair of bristling opposites: conservative antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly alongside liberal TV producer Gary David Goldberg.
When Mr. Goldberg's Family Ties sitcom first aired in 1982, it was the only nuclear family (mother, father, and children living in one household) being portrayed on prime time, he said. It was quickly apparent that the program was serving as a surrogate family, he continued.
One 7-year-old viewer wrote pleading with Goldberg to call the boy's father because ``he doesn't talk to me like Steven talks to Alex ... and I really want to talk to him.''
This, Goldberg and Mrs. Schlafly agreed, is evidence of the breakdown in traditional family structures: Nearly 25 percent of all children live in single-parent families. More than half of all mothers of babies less than a year old work outside the home.
But Goldberg and Schlafly parted ways on how to promote values. Mr. Goldberg said that, in Family Ties episodes, he tried to offer up contemporary problems - teen sex, abortion, alcoholism - and show how young people could develop their own values about them. Goldberg described an episode on teen-age sex in which a girl decides to abstain.
The process by which the girl arrived at that decision was antithetical to Mrs. Schlafly's perspective: ``Children are never told these things are wrong, bad, unhealthy...'' said Schlafly, who advocated that schools present premarital sex, for example, as wrong rather than an issue to be decided by the child. ``We are erecting a value system in which any value a child selects is OK and they need not listen to their elders ... or the laws of the land,'' she said.
Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan testified that the private sector has to be more active in providing role models for children. Further, he said, the lack of commitment to marriage is to blame for values not being transmitted to children.
`Moral consensus' urged
Offering some middle ground, Ted Ward, a professor at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, suggested that schools adopt a ``moral consensus.''
There are values that do not have to be seen as religiously grounded, but as shared ideals, Professor Ward said. For example, Americans generally agree that it is wrong to be deceitful and dishonest, to take a human life, to take unfair advantage of others, he said.
The hearing was just one facet of the state of American childhood being explored by the 36-member commission. This was the ninth in a nationwide series of hearings since September 1989.
``While these problems are not new, there are new dimensions to them because of the pervasiveness of drugs,'' said Cheryl Hayes, executive director of the commission. She points not only to drug abuse by youths and parents, but also to the crime and violence associated with the drug trade.
At the time of the commission's interim report in April, chairman Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, (D) of W. Va., explained the implications:
``The health and vitality of our economy and our democracy are in danger. Too many of our children and adolescents are reaching adulthood unhealthy, illiterate, unemployable, and lacking both moral direction and a vision of a secure future. They are unable or unwilling to carry out the responsibilities or enjoy the privileges of citizenship, employment, or parenthood.''