NOTHING collects three cheers faster than a statement to the effect that children are our most precious national treasure. But the unanimous constituency tends to evaporate when questions are raised about how much dedication (and how much money) will be required to preserve this ``national treasure,'' not to mention to save the next generation.
The National Commission on Children, chaired by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D) of West Virginia, has been touring the country with the specific intent of reconciling idealism with strategies and agenda - giving political purpose to the pieties.
Talking informally with the editors of this paper prior to a public hearing in Boston on high-risk youth, Senator Rockefeller reported on what he and the other 35 members of the bipartisan commission - including child health and development experts - have discovered in the course of visiting 10 communities across the US.
It has been ``a real growth experience for all of us,'' Rockefeller remarked. During the 18 months the commission has been operating, preconceived theories have shattered, he noted, as members ``begin dropping ideologies and start dealing with kids and facts and realities.''
``A lot of things are going well,'' he declared, citing Head Start programs in particular. But a lot of things aren't. The commission's recurring topics speak for themselves: alcohol, drugs, ``premature sex,'' and juvenile crime.
Rockefeller is determined not to confuse symptoms with causes nor to develop a straw villain, though he points out that television is being used as the easy explanation for all that's wrong with American children. ``You can't always hype it off on television or bad actors on the corner,'' he says. ``At some point you're an adult, for good or for ill, or you're becoming one, and you've got to begin to accept responsibility.''
When it comes to a specific issue, like prenatal care, Rockefeller says, ``We're going to do this, it's going to be a billion, 700 million dollars, and we're going to pay for it from the cigarette tax.''
But the problem taken as a whole - the well-being of an entire beleaguered generation - is of a breadth and depth and complexity to defy simple solutions. ``Part of the sadness of all this,'' Rockefeller confesses, ``is that we haven't reached recommendation policies'' for the commission's report, due March 31, 1991.
The firmest preliminary conclusion: The salvation of the family depends on the family. ``Parents have responsibility,'' Rockefeller says, ``and at some point, kids have responsibility.
``It begins with parenting, and the recognition that parenting, no matter what the pressures, has to somehow supersede all of these problems that are swarming over the family.''
To push the country to do more than give the usual three cheers for children, Rockefeller believes Americans must be made as ``broadly moral and broadly angry'' as the commission, and perhaps equally desperate.
When asked if the problem is growing faster than its solutions, even as the commission talks, Rockefeller said, ``Berry Brazelton [a pediatrician on the commission] and I had a discussion about this. I said we've lost a generation of young people, and he said no, we've lost two.''
If the child crisis is beyond hope of a quick fix, that in itself is perceived as a cause for hope. The more the commissioners investigate, the more they see their challenge as so fundamental that nothing less than a fundamental response will do. Nobody quite talks of saving the nation's soul, but the word ``values'' is freely used, and how a nation treats its children is obviously seen as a test.
Rockefeller will feel the commission has done its job when his fellow citizens grasp that the ``wandering worry'' about functional illiteracy and the state of the schools and the ``usual comparisons with Japan and Germany'' and the ``real fear that we're losing it in this country'' all really center about one thing: the physical and spiritual well-being of the nation's children.
He sums up by saying, ``I think the question is, Do people want to spend money? And if they do, on what, and does it reach the children?''