Attention, working moms and dads: Al Gore would really like you to spend more time with your kids.
Mr. Gore's forthright promotion of more hands-on parenting is emerging as a powerful - yet little-mentioned - sub-theme of his presidential campaign.
On the campaign trail and in a phone interview with the Monitor last week, the vice president has cited his concern about over-extended working parents - and the effect of that on their offspring. It's a theme that dovetails with his goal of curbing environmentally harmful overconsumption.
"No. 1 ... we need better parenting in the United States," the Democratic presidential contender told a crowd of New Hampshire voters recently in response to a question on school violence. "I'm not guilt-tripping anybody," Mr. Gore stresses. "I just think we have got to recognize that children deserve our time, our care, our focus...."
In recent weeks, Gore has repeatedly painted a picture of depleted working parents, dragging themselves home and flipping on the television, which substitutes for dinner-time conversation with the kids. Of the few hours at home "a lot ... are spent in semi-exhaustion," he says.
In 7 of 10 two-parent families, both parents are employed, he says, and such couples are now working 500 hours more per year than they did two decades ago.
But for Gore, this stress spells danger for children, especially the youngest. Calling himself a "big fan" of so-called attachment theory concerning child development, he believes that a child's attachment to a devoted care-giver is essential to lay a foundation for a confident relationship with the rest of the world.
"If parents are so stressed-out that they don't have time to give that sort of attention to the child, it's the rare child who can overcome that and have the feeling of confidence and self-worth that's so important," he says.
As a result, Gore says he seeks to "make it easier" for mothers and fathers to stay home if they choose to, and "empower parents to give more time and attention [to children] in the early years."
Policies he advocates include several to "help a one-income family survive," including raising the minimum wage, expanding the earned-income tax credit, and offering affordable health care to every child. He also calls for more affordable housing and public transportation to eliminate the need for a second car.
To ease pressures on working parents, Gore supports expanding family and medical leave and new legislation to give workers the option to take time off instead of extra compensation.
At the same time, Gore is raising repeatedly and enthusiastically the idea of whether families should shift their values and voluntarily cut back on consumption to gain more time together.
"One of the big variables that is within the control of many families is what level of consumption do they choose," he says. "More ... families are deciding that it's more important to ... have more time at home, more time with the family than it is to buy more."
Gore's views on consumption and parenting also meld with his environmentalist views. "You can't quantify in dollars and cents the value of time with a spouse to stay in love, time with a child to build that child's character, the beauty and cleanliness of the air and water and natural environment," he told a group of New Hampshire voters last month.
Indeed, in his 1992 pro-environment tract, "Earth in the Balance," Gore decries as an unhealthy addiction Americans' appetite for "an endless stream of shiny new products."
In his campaign, Gore has also linked his efforts to help parents balance work and child-rearing to a "livability initiative" announced a year ago to promote walkable communities and green spaces while easing gridlock, urban sprawl, and "that uniquely modern evil of all-too-little time."
"We are taking new steps to ease traffic congestion so parents can spend more time with their kids and less time stuck behind the steering wheel," Gore said last January in unveiling the initiative for $700 million in new tax credits to build "livable communities." Critics have called Gore's proposal quixotic and far too limited to change a decades-old pattern of haphazard urban growth.
Experts on family and work issues agree that the time crunch facing US parents is real and problematic.
"We have a crisis now in terms of how much time work takes and the amount of time needed by children, especially young children," says Fran Sussner Rogers, chief executive of Work/Family Directions, Inc., in Boston. "People are struggling with the workaholic nature."
Among working parents, there is a wide perception "that work has increased and boundaries between work and family life have blurred, so there is a public desire to simplify things," says Ellen Galinksy of the Families and Work Institute in New York.
"I think [Gore] is tapping at something that is on people's minds," Ms. Galinksy says.
Yet many experts say the emphasis should be less on parents cutting back on work and consumption than on employers making better - and more flexible - use of employee time.
Employers need to "change the culture of work" to make greater efforts not to waste employee time, and offer more flexibility on how, when, and where people do their jobs, Ms. Rogers says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society