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Cherishing the Child

ABUSE and neglect of children cannot go on where children are cherished. As society faces up to the tragedy of fatal child abuse, we all have a responsibility -- and an opportunity -- to protect children by cherishing them and the qualities of innocence and purity they embody.

These are points to keep in mind as we consider the report on child abuse recently released by the US Department of Health and Human Services: ''A Nation's Shame: Fatal Child Abuse and Neglect in the United States.''

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According to the study, some 2,000 infants and young children die at the hands of their parents and caretakers each year in the US. ''Violence towards very young children has reached the level of a public health crisis and is similar in scope to the destruction of teenagers by street gunfire,'' the report notes. And yet fatal child abuse gets much less attention.

The report, by the US Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, makes recommendations, including improving the training of ''front-line professionals'' for recognizing signs of abuse. But the public needs to be careful not to let the issue become the province of just the professionals.

Each of us has a role in looking out for the children in our lives, and for cherishing childlike qualities in our own thinking, such as love and joy.

Everyone who has cared for children knows what wonderful lessons they teach. But children can be very demanding, too, especially for those already feeling pressured by job insecurity, for instance. Society must find ways to challenge the economic pressures and social isolation that strain marriages and families.

Some questions may help get to the underlying causes of child abuse, and promote healing. Do we find time to pay attention to the children next door and to appreciate their exuberance and vitality? Old-fashioned neighborliness, open and friendly but also alert to signs of trouble, can prevent problems. The doughnut-shop networking that helps somebody's nephew find a job, for instance, may do more to prevent child abuse than we would ever know. In the words of an African proverb, ''It takes a village to raise a child.''

This isn't about intrusiveness but about building bridges and about helping serve, in the Biblical phrase, ''as an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest.''

At a deeper level, we all need to express more the tenderness, the enthusiasm, the purity so evident in a little child. These heal the heart and help society cultivate its own spiritual values. Mary Baker Eddy, founder of this newspaper, indicated the contribution of children when she called them the ''bulwarks of freedom, the cement of society, the hope of our race.'' A clear way out of the cycle of abuse is for each of us to cherish the child.

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