IF a children's-rights activist had to draw a map of the world, it might look something like this: In the foreground looms a mountainous rock pile labeled ``Children's Issues.'' But detouring neatly around this challenge, a yellow brick road winds dreamily toward the horizon, following a signpost that reads: ``Somewhere Over the Rainbow.'' As activists see it, the most heart-rending and least abstract of social issues -- needful children -- is approached, or rather, avoided, by means of fairy-tale hopes and song-and-dance rhetoric.
``We know the rhetoric: `Children are our most important natural resource,' '' says Edward Zigler, director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale. ``We keep thinking, if you just say that, it will make everything OK. But where is the support for families?''
Sitting in his office at Yale, 15 years after serving as chief of the Children's Bureau under President Nixon, Dr. Zigler reflects on a time when support at the federal level was far more substantive.
``In 1970, when I was in Washington, we had a children's committee in the Senate,'' he says. ``We had a parallel committee in the House. We had a vital Office of Child Development. The head of it answered to the secretary [of health, education, and welfare], who answered to the President. You could see where the pressure points were everywhere. Now you can't. There's no formal committee in the Senate.''
Today, he says, ``We have a gigantic vacuum at the federal level in the executive branch. Who in the federal government is in charge of this problem? There's no place to take these concerns. I'm going to try to reinvent the Children's Bureau.''
That call for leadership has echoed through interviews with politicians, academic leaders, and child advocates across the country. Their perspectives and proposed solutions vary, but many agree on one basic point: the need to move children's issues higher on federal and state agendas.
``There are so many things that ought to be worked on for this to be a child-friendly society,'' says Harold Richman, director of the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago. ``There isn't only one answer. There has to be very strong political or civic leadership. You just don't see that at the city level, you don't see it at the state level, you don't see it in the private sector very well. You certainly don't see it in the federal government.''
At the same time, the perceived need for leadership strikes at the heart of a fundamental American debate over the role of government in family issues: Are children a public or a private responsibility?
``With rare exceptions, government attempts to save the family don't work,'' says Allan C. Carlson, president of the Rockford Institute in Rockford, Ill. ``Governments are far better at disrupting families than they are at saving them. That does not mean that some government acts do not have strongly pro-family results.''
Others contend that without government-mandated benefits such as parental leave, day care, and flexible work schedules, many families will continue to struggle with a frenzied, catch-as-catch-can approach to child care, employment, and family stability.
A philosophical balancing is taking place. Just as the Reagan administration led a critical reappraisal of the social programs of the Democrats, now, in turn, there is a reappraisal of that reappraisal, and of its consequences.
Rep. George Miller (D) of California, chairman of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, senses a turning point: ``There's a realization that the disinvestment in our children is getting to be very expensive, a realization that it is in the investment of resources in children and families at risk that the savings will occur. It is not in the withholding of those services. When we do it right and put in adequate resources, the benefits are overwhelming. The flip side is to pay for the failures. Because the children don't go away.''
``It wouldn't be exaggerating if I said there's a fair amount of excitement among legislators about some of these programs now,'' Representative Miller continues. ``We're starting to see people rethink the problem. They're discovering what we already knew to be true. That is, the delivery of well-financed, comprehensive services works. That is true in the delivery of nutritional services, in school lunch programs, in the WIC [Women, Infants, and Children] program. Not only did we end up with healthy pregnancies and healthy babies, but we end up with a dramatic reduction in federal hospital costs and federal welfare costs. In maternal and child health, for every dollar we invest we're getting something like $3, $3.50 back in a reduction in federal medicaid costs.''
Many activists, including Dr. Zigler, are hopeful about passage of a parental leave bill now before Congress. ``That might be a leading cutting edge of this entire development,'' he says. ``Once you take that step, the next thing is for people to say, `Look, you help a family until the baby is six months of age, then what happens to that baby? Then what happens to that mother when she needs child care after that?' My hope is that one thing will follow another.''
Allan Carlson proposes extending the child-care tax credit ``to anybody who has a preschool child,'' arguing that the present credits, in subsidizing day care, ``fail to recognize the benefits of parental care of small children and the sacrifices couples make by not going out for that second income.''
Few advocates believe that government -- federal, state, or local -- can resolve the problems of the American family. Most see an urgent need for reforms that can be initiated only in the workplace. Employers, they say, must see the advantages to themselves, and to employees, of offering flexible hours and benefits to accommodate workers with young children.
``Somehow we must have a set of social institutions to catch up with the phenomenon of working mothers,'' says Dr. Richman. ``That goes the gamut from care for sick children to after-school care to preschool care. We haven't begun to develop, on a scale that's necessary, the institutional response to that.''
Harold Howe II, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recently proposed the creation of what he calls a National Children's Center to develop a ``children's agenda'' for federal and state governments. And the Carnegie Corporation has announced the formation of the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development to study ``the casualties of adolescence'' and ``to stir the nation to improve its treatment of this age group.''
Here is where the thinking of the late '80s differs from the conventional wisdom of the past, whether conservative or liberal. It is now widely believed that, while political and economic reforms are the first indispensable steps, no amount of money, no amount of action by the public or private sector, will change fundamental attitudes and patterns of behavior, and this is the challenge of the future. It is on the cultural side, Dr. Carlson argues, that ``the real battle has to be fought.'' This includes the need to ``reaffirm a literature and art which celebrates children, rather than denigrates them, and which treats sexuality as something that has a linkage to procreation.''
In many American novels of the last 30 years, he says, ``children are treated as nuisances, as burdens. Sex is totally divorced from anything meaningful other than the pursuit of pleasure and self-satisfaction.''
In addition, he asserts, ``ultimately a viable family life will only exist in a society where there is a recognition of religious principles in the normative framework of family life which Judeo-Christian tradition dictates. I wish I could say the churches are doing that. Some are, some aren't. Call churches back to the Ten Commandments as a start, to the commandment against adultery, to the commandment on honoring thy father and mother, and also to a vision of family as the primary social unit of our society.''
Wesley Jenkins, executive director of the Family Service Centers in Clearwater, Fla., echoes that theme. ``If the church wants to instill its values into children and parishioners, it should take an active role,'' he says. He notes that already ``some churches are moving into family life education. They are beginning to get into day care, latchkey programs, family life groups. Those are very positive developments.
``There is an enormous, slow-burning fire moving through churches, schools, and social service agencies, a realization that we must get to families at the time of birth and help parents to be the better parents most of them want to be.''
Are these just the idealistic flights of professional moralists and social philosophers? It doesn't seem so. Irving Kristol, co-editor of Public Interest magazine and a leading neo-conservative thinker, writes in the pragmatic pages of the Wall Street Journal that ``the condition of this culture is something the parents have to attend to,'' making it their urgent priority to ``instill good habits of the heart and spirit'' in the next generation.
Two possible presidential candidates, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, have looked at today's children -- affluent as well as poor -- and declared them impoverished by what Governor Cuomo calls an era of ``no values.'' Until the ``vacuum'' is filled, he maintains, any and all solutions will be nothing but quick fixes.
Earlier this month, at a symposium celebrating Harvard's 350th anniversary, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, a veteran analyst of poor families in America, summed up the case for seeing the plight of poor children as something beyond technical remedies. In so doing he may have struck the keynote of the late '80s -- this turbulent period when the needs of parents have changed so drastically and the needs of children have remained the same. Acknowledging with his habitual irony that poverty, first of all, is ``the condition of not having enough money,'' Senator Moynihan called for broad economic and social programs. ``But,'' he added, ``something more will be needed. Something, frankly, spiritual. These are our children, and we're not looking after them right.''