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A Case for Respecting Children's Rights

ON a brisk November Saturday, eight boys in our suburban neighborhood are playing basketball in the street. Dressed in jeans, sweat shirts, and backward baseball caps - the all-American uniform - they take turns dribbling the ball and lobbing it toward a curb side hoop. Only when a car needs to get through - in this case, mine - do they take a reluctant break.

Exercise, fresh air, companionship, sport - who could ask for more wholesome activity? Look Ma, no couch-potato slouch here.

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Yet if a group of adults in Stafford Township, N.J., had prevailed last week, this pleasant game might have disappeared from local streets. A nonbinding referendum, initiated by residents calling themselves the Coalition to Dispose of Street Basketball, sought to ban backboards on private property next to rights of way. Organizers objected to young players retrieving wayward balls from their yards. They worried about potential liability. And they complained about noise and profanity floating through the suburban air. As one opponent of curb side basketball put it, ``All we want is to live our lives in peace and tranquility.''

In a world where the decibel level seems to rise by the day, that stands as a legitimate desire. But equally worthy is the viewpoint of a Stafford Township mother, who probably spoke for many parents when she said that she wants to be able to look out the window and see her children playing.

Residents defeated the measure by a margin of 56 to 44. Playing basketball will not have to become a subversive activity. The good news is that this referendum represents only one case of organized opposition to street basketball. The bad news is that it hardly stands as the only example of antipathy toward children and teenagers.

In a country where juvenile crime and youthful alienation rank as serious problems, what is a young generation to do if its members are denied safe places for entertainment?

Well, there's always the mall. That option just got easier in Massachusetts, where residents voted down the state's blue laws last week. Now stores can add Sunday morning to their list of ever-longer hours, and students can spend even more time hanging out at the food court.

Or can they?

In parts of California, Florida, Illinois, and Virginia, among other states, the welcome mat is no longer out for young people at certain malls. Managers, citing instances of juvenile crime, rowdy behavior, and lack of respect, are banning unaccompanied teens under 18 from public areas and food courts. Students, understandably unhappy about being excluded, counter that it isn't fair to punish the majority for the behavior of an errant few.

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Elsewhere, other evidence of antichild sentiments shows up in the attitude of an unhappy traveler, who has suggested publicly that airlines offer child-free flights. This, she points out, would spare other passengers the horror of being confined at 35,000 feet with crying babies and restless preschoolers.

Finally, in California last week, residents voted to keep children of illegal immigrants out of school as part of Proposition 187, although for now Gov. Pete Wilson has ordered principals not to exclude anyone.

Is the whole country on the verge of posting a giant sign reading: ``Young People Keep Out''?

Is the adage ``Children should be seen and not heard'' undergoing a revision, with the new version recommending that children should not even be seen?

This ambivalence toward the young has negative effects on parents as well. For all the talk about family-friendly businesses, too many companies still create a climate that makes working parents reluctant to admit they need time off to go to a school conference, attend a school play, or stay home with a sick child.

Perhaps the time is politically ripe for another coalition - a Coalition to Dispose of Negative Attitudes Toward Children. Age discrimination, though the subtlest of prejudices, is regularly unmasked and acted upon with due process when it affects seniors. Why shouldn't such discrimination be treated with equal vigilance when younger Americans' rights are infringed?

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