When mothers work

America's children need thoughtful public attention. With mothers surging into the labor force, millions of youngster today receive less than adequate care during much of the working day. Finding creative ways of dealing with this problem should be the concern of all who look on the family as the basis of a healthy and stable society.

The Monitor's recent series "Who caresm for the children?" by American news editor Curtis Sitomer found that the revolution in the work place is having a far more profound impact on children than is yet fully perceived. The numbers alone are staggering. In the US, some one-third of 44 million school-age children have mothers who work full time, largely out of economic necessity. Millions more have mothers who work part time. This means that they must be sent elsewhere than their homes for the morning and afternoon hours. Some of these children are placed in day care centers, some go to school or industry-related pre-school or after-school programs, some visit relatives or neighbors.

At the same time several million are so-called "latchkey" children who must fend for themselves before and after school when no parent is at home. It is these children -- often left for hours at a time with no one to talk to and with no one to provide supervision, let alone a tangible sense of a mothering or fathering presence -- who most need society's attention. The question of who cares, or should care, for them is urgent, for 11 million more women are expected to enter the US work force in this decade, adding their own children to the now swelling numbers of youngsters without either parent at home during the daytime hours.

Fortunately, some solutions exist and others can be found. Americans are a resourceful people. They are also a family people, who have historically valued children. The latchkey problem may in effect be salutary if it forces parents to think more deeply if it forces parents to think more deeply about their relationship to their children and how the bonds of affection and communication between the generations can be strengthened.

Devising workable solutions to the latchkey problem is best left to parents and individuals, rather than government, as is the case in some European nations. That does not mean that government, both federal and at the state level, does not have a role to play. But finding appropriate placement for the children of working parents is essentially a family responsibility, and solutions should be as flexible as possible to fit the needs of each family unit as well as each child. A more regimented approach, such as a nationwide or state-mandated day care system, would only create more problems than it would resolve in a society so diverse.

What then can be done? A number of alternatives warrant attention:

* While mandated federal or state programs, including licensing, seem questionable, lawmakers should give careful consideration to requiring registrationm of day care or other private child care services to ensure that environmental conditions are safe and that there is less likelihood of child abuse. Congress should also review existing federal laws relating to day care and update them where needed. Lawmakers might also consider enacting legislation introduced by Rep. Barber Conable that would liberalize and expand the current tax credit for the care of dependent children.

* Industries should provide both personal and financial assistance to employees to help find day care facilities. Using work sites is not always appropriate, considering the possibility of safety, insurance or health problems. Naturally a worker who feels comfortable about where his or her child is during the day is a better worker.

* Communities as a whole, working through service clubs, professional groups, schools, and public assemblies, must fashion alternative approaches to day care. However, letting any primary governmental agency, such as the schools, absorb such programs, might become counterproductive. Children need a sense of refreshment and variety in their lives, not regimentation. Day care programs are not school programs, and should not be allowed to become such.

Most important, children need to experience a sense of love from those tending to their needs in the hours spent away from the home. Whether it is a neighbor, a grandparent, a church member, a friend, or a day care worker caring for them, they need to feel valued, loved, watched over, supported. These, after all, are the qualities that they normally feel at home. If a proper sense of home accompanies them elsewhere -- no matter where they may physically be situated in the early morning or afternoon hours -- they can continue to flourish.

In the final analysis, the question "Who cares for the children?" must be met by each American with the response "I do."

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