Quality, not quantity


IT'S THE "Murphy Brown" flap all over again, only this time it is even more off the mark.

Somehow the outcry over a need for family values, which reached a fevered pitch during the 1992 presidential campaign, has been resumed. But this time the fingerpointing is not coming from former Vice President Dan Quayle and the culprit is not a fictional television character who became pregnant out of wedlock and decided to have the baby and raise him alone.

This time the attacks are being launched by people as politically TC and philosophically diverse as Donna Shalala, President Clinton's secretary of health and human services, and conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr.

The object of their scorn: "single parents."

Since neither is known as a staunch supporter of political correctness, it is safe to assume they are not simply using the phrase to refer to unwed teen-age mothers. Ms. Shalala opposes single parenthood as bad for kids; Mr. Buckley attributes to it society's failure to breed responsible, educable young people.

For the moment, exclude from the discussion individuals who have no plans to ever marry but want to have children; clearly they would be single parents, but so too are people whose spouses have died. Are these critics of single parents suggesting that widows or widowers are not fit to raise and care for children?

What about divorced couples? If they have children, they too are single parents. Is the assumption that separately, or collectively but living apart, neither of these adults are fit to be good parents?

Have our critics of single parents never known intact families where the parents were too busy to spend time with the children? Have they never heard tales of married people who abused their kids?

Exactly what is their point?

If the issue is that too few children in today's society are receiving appropriate care, guidance and love, I agree; it is a serious problem. But that has little to do with single parents and everything to do with the quality of parenting.

It amazes me that our society, which regulates almost every part of our lives, has no prerequisite for people having babies. Even marriage requires a license, which requires a blood test and a fee. Having a baby, however, can require nothing more than a single sexual encounter.

Imagine the reaction if parenting were included in the school curriculum. Educators now rightly argue that there is a limit to what schools can do; if they are to be held responsible for social needs, how can they meet high academic standards? But if schools don't take on at least some responsibilities that should belong in the home what happens to children who are neglected, or who have poor role models?

I have known well-educated, affluent couples whose interests do not include making sure their children are eating properly, mastering their school work or learning right from wrong. I also have met hard-working impoverished adults who may not speak English but make sure their children do well at school and respect the law.

I'll bet that both Ms. Shalala and Mr. Buckley know of married couples with highly questionable lifestyles and significantly deficient judgment. They also probably know people who would have made wonderful parents but never married. It is simply too easy to pin even some of society's problems on single-parent households.

Poverty has been shown to be a factor in why some children fail and others succeed. Affluence, however, is no guarantee of success. Rich kids, poor kids and those in between, may experiment with drugs and alcohol; they may get their hands on weapons and hang out with the "wrong" crowd. Sometimes children with dedicated, sensible and loving parents make disastrous choices.

The households that most likely will breed calamity are those where the parent or parents are themselves children; where drugs and/or abusive behavior is the only lifestyle mom or dad has known; where doing the right thing is less important than having the right things.

Of course, two loving parents are better than one, though they needn't always be in the same household.

Family values are important, but all it takes to make a family is a parent and a child.

Deirdre S. Channing is editorial page editor of the Advocate of Stamord, Conn.

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