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Recruiting to rescue parents

Picture a desperate parent reaching up from an earthen pit, barely able to touch the child she loves and yearns to take care of. Now picture a society that offers this deal: We'll lower down to you a basket of money with which to meet your parental obligations, but you must send up a basket of dirt in exchange.

This, I think, is a fair analogy of the trap in which more and more parents find themselves. They know they need to spend more time nurturing _ not merely providing for _ their children. And yet they don't see how they can; the providing-for takes so much of their time, energy and emotional resources they can't quite manage the nurturing.

But suppose the dilemma is not their fault _ not the result of bad choices, unaffordable lifestyles or false priorities but of forces beyond their individual power to resist. That's the comfort and promise of an ambitious new book _ one is tempted to call it a manifesto _ by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West: The War Against Parents.

The authors assert that ". . . None of the economic reasons for raising children (help on the family farm or in the family business, support in old age) hold true today. On the contrary, in the modern world children are hugely expensive and yield little in the way of economic return to the parent."

One result of this economic disutility is that child-rearing is not much valued by the society at large _ which means that many parents (particularly those who have college or professional training) learn to seek their rewards in outside careers. This isn't mere "self-actualization," by the way. Fewer and fewer couples are able to give their children what they think they need (including ever more expensive college educations) on a single income. Some 6-million American homes have two adults holding four jobs, leaving the parents with precious little time for supervising their children's homework or even talking to them, no matter how important they know these things to be.

Economics are only part of the matter. West, a black American from Tulsa, and Hewlett, from a mining valley in Wales, say they were surprised to learn how similar were the support systems of their childhoods. "Everybody had dads, and the dads had jobs," Hewlett sais in a joint interview last week. And not just jobs, West added, recalling the intense 11-year involvement of his father with a father-son baseball league during his boyhood.

In those days, they agreed, parenting was valued without regard to its economic utility, which meant that the vital role of home-staying mothers was valued as well. And until 30 or 40 years ago, children were the greatest tax shelter most Americans had.

Nowadays, child exemptions are trivial in a federal tax scheme that actually penalizes marriage. And our most powerful cultural influence _ television _ no longer portrays parents as wise and protective but (particularly fathers) as ineffectual fools.

It is, as their book is at great pains to show, a war. But it's a peculiar sort of war, one in which they propose _ through a grand parents movement they hope to launch _ to enlist everybody to their side. After all, they argue, parents everywhere, across all divisions of race and class, share their misgivings. If they could only unite . . .

The problem, of course, is that parents are not merely parents. They are also shopkeepers, manufacturers looking for a competitive edge, CEOs hoping for an improved bottom line. They are both the warriors West and Hewlett would enlist and the enemy against whom they would battle.

Both in their book and in person, they make a strong case for America's need to change the way it deals with children and families _ a sort of plea for "family values" from the left. I wish I could be more hopeful that they've figured out how to bring that change about. The pit is getting deeper.

Washington Post Writers Group