Family in the '90s - A New Commitment

THANKSGIVING is a time when the family reassembles as a regular act of love. It can also be a time when those gathered around the table quietly reassess their family and come away with a clearer sense of their place in it.

On a larger scale, that kind of reappraisal lies at the heart of a new position paper on the American family, prepared by a bipartisan group called the Communitarian Network in Washington, D.C. As it outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the family and reaffirms the family's central role in American society, the paper mercifully avoids the shrill divisiveness that tainted pre-election discussions about the family.

Led by Amitai Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University, communitarians describe themselves as "a new environmental movement that seeks to shore up the moral, social, and political environment." As one way of accomplishing that goal, they are calling on President-elect Clinton to make pro-family policies a mainstream theme for his administration.

The group maintains that parents hold primary responsibility for children's well-being. They see the two-parent family as the cornerstone of a moral society but emphasize that they are not trying to "put down" anyone whose family doesn't fit that model. They state: "The weight of the historical, sociological, and psychological evidence suggests that, on average, two-parent families are better able to discharge their child-raising duties if only because there are more hands - and voices - available for th e task."

Recognizing the first year as vitally important to infants, they recommend a two-part "dovetailed" policy in which babies under a year old would stay home with their parents, and child care would focus on older children. Although they regard the congressional push for 90 days of unpaid leave as "a step in the right direction," they suggest a gradual shift to six months of paid leave, followed by six months of unpaid leave.

Rather than increasing tax exemptions for children, communitarians suggest a child allowance of $600 per child, which would be taxable. Tax credits, they argue, favor rich and middle-class households and discriminate against families in which one parent stays home.

They believe divorce laws should be modified. Instead of dividing assets between separating parents, they recommend allocating assets to ensure that children's needs are met. The custodial parent would control assets of minor children.

To ease the tension between work and family, they urge corporate leaders to allow flextime schedules and home work arrangements. And while they readily acknowledge the economic pressures that force many parents to work long hours, they caution that cultural pressures also play a part by encouraging "excessive careerism or acquisitiveness."

Some parents will undoubtedly regard these recommendations as too conservative, fearing that the subtle message to working mothers is: Abandon your careers. Others will argue that some proposals, such as staying home for a year after the birth of a baby, are economically unrealistic.

Yet communitarians insist that the new family model they envision does not involve a return to the traditional Ozzie and Harriet version. Their efforts to accommodate the emotional needs of children and the financial needs of parents will require a radical shift in attitudes, laws, and corporate policies. But with supporters across the political spectrum from Betty Friedan to Jack Kemp, they make a persuasive case for putting children first.

With family, money is never the bottom line. Mary Ann Glendon, a professor of law at Harvard University and one of the paper's authors, explains that in focus-group discussions, parents repeatedly said that their primary worry "is not economics, but the struggle for the moral development of their children: `How do I pass on my values, whatever they are, to my own kids?' "

That question can seem easy to answer as families plant their feet under the Thanksgiving table and share common bonds. But next week, when parents go back to work and young children return to their child-care settings, the need for what communitarians call "a coherent pro-family agenda" will again be obvious - something that can apply 365 days a year.

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