FROM the steadying hand for a toddler to a frank talk with a 16-year-old, parenthood demands attention, commitment, patience. Few can claim unqualified success. As this week's series by Monitor writer Marilyn Gardner makes clear, successes are getting harder for many American parents. Drug addiction passed from mother to infant results in lives seemingly tied to failure. One-fifth of babies in the United States are born to families with incomes below the poverty line of $9,435 for a household of three.
At the other end of the social scale, affluent Americans agonize over whether to put infants in the care of others so mothers can go back to work. Questions about kinds and availability of care have been asked for most of a decade. Answers still aren't clear-cut, and perhaps never will be. Family needs and resources differ widely.
Thousands of people employed in caring for children lack background, training, and adequate salaries.
Government action could help brighten that picture. Child-care legislation failed to get through Congress this year. It includes provisions to upgrade training and help less-well-off parents afford higher-quality care. In 1990, legislators should put differences aside and pass the bill.
Expanded funding for Head Start, a program shown to give kids surer footing in school, should be passed, too. Congress is taking a harder look at the social tragedy, and economic burden, of ``crack babies.'' Services to young women who bear these children - to get them off the drug habit and provide prenatal care - have to be improved.
Always, the individuals involved must be treated with respect. Families have to be strengthened, not superseded by social workers or by experts.
The Monitor series illustrates the gulf between wealthy and poor when it comes to child- rearing options. At one extreme children come, unplanned, into deprivation. At the other, every step is planned, researched, and lavishly funded. But each parent carries a similar, basic responsibility.
Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper, drew on biblical imagery to ask, ``Is not the propagation of the human species a greater responsibility, a more solemn charge, than the culture of your garden or the raising of stock to increase your flocks and herds?''
For parents and for society, investing in a child's future - through love even more than dollars - is a key to self-respect and progress.