Suffer the Children

updated 11/28/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/28/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

The numbers are disturbing: One in three victims of physical abuse is an infant less than a year old; more than 5 million children under the age of 3 spend the day in the care of adults other than their parents; and one-quarter of children are born into poverty. These figures came to national attention in a report issued earlier this year by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a Manhattan-based humanitarian foundation. Together, they paint a bleak picture of the growing number of small children—especially those living in poverty—who are at risk. Beyond the deprivations of poverty, the report found that the realities of modern life—parents who work long hours outside the home, substandard day care and a diminished extended family—can deprive children of the nurturing they need during the critical period from birth to age 3.

"We have been creating a breeding ground for hatred and violence, "says Carnegie president Dr. David A. Hamburg. He lives in Manhattan with Beatrix, his wife of 44 years, also a doctor. Their daughter, Margaret, 38, is commissioner of health for New York City—and the mother of their only grandchild, Rachel, 17 months—and son Eric, 40, lives in Los Angeles, where he works for movie director Oliver Stone. Hamburg spoke with reporter Lisa Kay Greissinger about what the nation must do to give all its children, including the most disadvantaged, a healthy start in life.

In what ways are Americans failing their children?

By most measures—infant mortality, child abuse, low birth weights and premature births, failure-to-thrive syndrome, readiness for school—U.S. performance has declined since the 1970s. What's more, we are running behind other democracies, even though in many ways we are the most advanced country in the world.

Why are we failing?

We haven't recognized that social changes have made it more difficult to be a parent. The press, furthermore, has not publicized our shortcomings. Mistreatment of children is a painful subject. When the data came out that one-third of all child abuse occurred to children under the age of 1, people were stunned. The human child is largely helpless longer than any other creature in the animal kingdom, but this creature can learn to adapt to almost any environmental condition. That learning potential can only be fulfilled, however, if there are huge amounts of protection, nurturing and stimulation. That's years of investment that have to be made.

What prevents us from making that investment?

The underlying problem is that we tend to concentrate on our own children—my family, my children. There is an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. It takes interest, encouragement, attention and support from a lot of people to raise children. This is especially true now when we have so much mobility, so much family change. We have to find a way for the entire society to work together for children.

What sort of support should this "village" provide?

We must ask ourselves, "What does it take for a child to have favorable odds to grow up healthy, vigorous, inquiring and problem-solving—a learner and a decent and constructive citizen?" The answer is that we have to promote responsible parenthood, improve early health care and create a child-care system that has professional standards.

Can parenting skills be taught?

The natural motivation of parents is to look after their children, but it is harder than it used to be. Parents work all day, and there are fewer extended family members with child-care experience. We need to teach about parenting. It could start in life-science classes in the middle schools or in community organizations such as boys' and girls' clubs.

How is health care a family issue?

Early health care—and by that I mean comprehensive primary health care for the baby and the parents—is essential. Obstetricians should be connected with educational or social-service agencies. Prenatal care should connect families with groups that provide support for young parents.

You mention the need for quality child care. What has been the effect of mothers going to work?

Mothers in the workforce are a tremendous advantage for society because they are a huge talent pool. But arrangements have to be made to compensate for their absence from the home. Overall, despite glowing individual accounts, fathers have not picked up much of the slack. What about grandparents? Fewer than 5 percent of American children see their grandparents regularly. Parents are spending a third less time with their children as compared to 30 years ago. More than half of America's families need a substantial amount of outside child care.

Is there anything inherently wrong with child care?

No. Children need a dependable caregiver in those early years, and it doesn't have to be the mother. But the field needs to be upgraded in both status and pay. We need to move toward a view of child care as a profession. When your child is sick, you want a doctor, a competent person. So, too, if you are going to have your child looked after during much of the day by someone outside of the home, you want a person who is educated and has training and skills to care for your child.

What will happen if we fail to make these changes in the way we care for our children?

I'm reminded of what someone said after the Los Angeles riots: "Those hoodlums who burned Los Angeles not so long ago were our children." The way we have been doing things for the past 10 or 15 years is like a breeding ground for ignorance and incompetence, a breeding ground for disease and disability. Since the whole society is affected by the way in which children grow up, the whole society needs to take responsibility for it. Your children are my children. They are our children.

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