Orlando Sentinel

Don't be stupid about at-risk kids

By Kathleen Parker
Columnist
Published in The Orlando Sentinel on December 8, 1999.

When my son was a boy, he loved the books about The Stupid Family. The Stupids did all sorts of stupid things, which the writer refreshingly described as, well, "stupid."

The stories elicited gales of laughter from my child, who found delight, as we all do, in declaring a stupid thing stupid. President Clinton got elected on the force of such bluntness: "It's the economy, stupid," he said.

I was reminded of the Stupids while watching a recent television talk show, CNN's Both Sides, about children at risk. The discussion was led by host Jesse Jackson and included comments from representatives of the National Association of Child Advocates and the Family Research Council.

None of these individuals is stupid. In fact, they're so smart you wonder why they don't get it. They talked, for instance, about all the risks facing today's children: drugs, violence, pregnancy, truancy, abuse, neglect, absentee parents, inadequate child care, lack of adult supervision.

Then they talked statistics: one in three children is born to an unwed mother; one in four children is born into poverty, and so on.

They talked about the need for more day care, more poverty programs, more help for unwed mothers -- the usual stash of Band-Aid remedies. Surely you see the problem. They were confusing the symptoms with the disease, as though teen pregnancy and absentee parents are equal risks when, in fact, one is a predictor of the other.

We can all understand the limitations of resolving broad societal problems in a half-hour of televised sound bites, not to mention a 600-word essay. But not once did anyone suggest that irresponsible, immoral adult behavior is the reason children are at such unprecedented risk. How can we expect to solve a problem if we refuse to identify it?

We refuse because to identify the problem is to judge morally. It is to say, you are to blame for your circumstances; you have to change your behavior. We dance around the truth as though it might bite us.

The truth is that out-of-wedlock "parenting" and paternal absence form the disease that leads to most of the symptoms. The greatest predictor for poverty, for instance, is no father in the home. Likewise for discipline problems, promiscuity, poor school performance, drug experimentation and crime.

Of juveniles in long-term correctional facilities, more than 70 percent are young men who grew up without fathers in their homes, according to David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values.

Any way you dice it, children need two attentive parents. Those children at greatest risk are in that situation largely because they don't have anyone at home. Government can't fix that problem except by supporting incentives that strengthen marriage and by eliminating those that don't.

Which is not the same as saying we shouldn't help the helpless. We should. Feed the hungry and house the homeless while we're at it. But we also have to begin to reverse the cycle of shamelessness that permits behaviors detrimental to society.

It is shameful to bring children randomly into the world when you have no means to support that child. It is shameful to abandon a child you have produced. It is shameful to treat children as one more possession rounding out the home decor.

Unless we address the disease -- divorce, illegitimacy, fatherlessness -- behind the symptoms, we can look forward to more at-risk children. And more stories about stupid families.

[Posted 12/07/1999 8:35 PM EST]

Copyright 1999 Orlando Sentinel Online.