PETER LYNCH is the stereotype of the successful American business executive. A financial genius, he built the Fidelity company's high-flying Magellan mutual fund into a huge and successful operation, making millions for his employers, his shareholders, and himself. But it involved 14-hour workdays and a lot of time away from his family. Last year, in his mid-40s, Peter Lynch looked at his lifestyle and asked himself: ``What am I doing this for?'' So he startled his colleagues and the financial world by quitting.
One of the reasons was so he could spend more time with his children. Says Lynch: ``I don't know anyone who wished on his deathbed that he had spent more time at the office.''
The decision by Lynch, and an increasing number of career-oriented Americans, to seek a simpler, more family-oriented life focuses on an issue that seems certain to loom larger in significance. It is the role of parents and family in rearing children in a society where drugs and violence are rampant, and where many of those who produce our movies, our books, our modern music, and our television content seem intent on pushing to the limits our tolerance of the obscene and decadent.
President Bush thinks our educational system needs reform and improvement, and he is right. Japanese and European children often work harder and learn faster than their counterparts in American classrooms. But just as important is the kind of learning that American children do outside the classroom. This cannot be the responsibility of the teacher. It is the responsibility of the parents - or whatever influences the children are abandoned to if parents are not there for them.
Nobody pretends this instruction in morality and principle is easy. We have permitted the creation of a society that, for all its strengths and marvels, exerts extraordinary materialistic pressures upon the young.
The lyrics of popular music often laud the use of drugs and the lure of premarital sex.
Our movies and television have succeeded in exposing teens and even preteens to increasingly raw and violent material that in the past was restricted to older age groups. The X-rated movie has been reclassified ``NC-17'' to permit wider viewing.
On longer airline flights, small children watch R-rated movies that, although edited for in-flight audiences, nevertheless retain questionable segments.
The extensive video-rental business has virtually guaranteed that any child can view at least R-rated, and often X-rated, movies with little impediment.
Violence in movies has achieved a new high - or low. ``Silence of the Lambs'' highlights carnage and cannibalism. A new ``Terminator'' movie is about to explode onto movie screens with ever-more-innovative violence. Its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, does worthy work promoting physical fitness in the schools by day, but who should answer for the impact of his violent movies on children by night?
Meanwhile Stephen King's best-sellers are laden with horror, and when an obscure writer named Bret Easton Ellis writes a book so graphic in savagery and torture that its original publisher declines to market it, it is picked up by another publisher and becomes a best-seller.
Small wonder that in the midst of this desensitization to violence, murders by gun-wielding teenagers have more than doubled in the United States in five years.
A significant contributing factor: The breakdown of family life and an enduring sense of hopelessness, particularly among inner-city youngsters. A survey of public school students in Baltimore revealed that 59 percent of males who came from one-parent or no-parent homes have carried handguns.
The picture is not totally bleak. There are sturdy parental organizations fighting for higher standards on television. There are small companies, some of them church-related, marketing, and even producing, movies for families on video tapes.
But as it has been down through the ages, probably the most significant factor in the moral education and inspiration of children will remain the quality of care from the individual parent.