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Parents' Day Deserves More Than Just a Card

New 'holiday' aims to recognize the national importance of good parenting skills

Circle the date - July 23 - and add another event to the list of annual American commemorations: National Parents' Day.

With a minimum of preliminary fanfare, the fourth Sunday in July now ranks as the newest family-centered observance. Its purpose, according to a congressional resolution, includes ''recog- nizing, uplifting, and supporting the role of parents in the rearing of their children.''

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Why another event, when Mother's Day and Father's Day already involve family celebrations?

''Neither of those days really serves to address the issue of parenting,'' says Robert Grant, president of the National Parents' Day Foundation in Washington. ''They've become times of sentiment, and that's fine. But we hope this will be a time for serious thought about the problems that relate to parents and families. We hope it will force a national conversation on these issues.''

Dr. Grant regards the loss of parental influence as ''the fundamental problem underlying so much of the social pathology that besets us.'' He adds, ''As the role of parents has declined, the incidence of youth behavior that all of us find appalling has increased. There's a need to reemphasize strong, legitimate parenting influences in the lives of children.''

Grant spearheaded the drive for an annual event and sought congressional support. The measure was co-sponsored by Rep. Floyd Flake (D) of New York and Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana. The House and Senate passed it unanimously, and President Clinton signed it last October.

Now, Grant says, the task for supporters ''is to popularize and 'enculturate' the day into the American psyche.''

To increase public awareness, the foundation plans three inaugural activities in Washington this weekend. Friday morning, political and religious leaders will gather for an interfaith prayer breakfast at the Hyatt Regency. On Saturday, a picnic and children's festival at Fort Dupont Park, co-sponsored by the National Park Service, will draw an estimated 10,000 people, primarily African-American families. And Sunday afternoon, an awards ceremony at the Old Post Office will honor eight programs serving families around the country.

The group is also enlisting support from governors and mayors, encouraging them to plan activities this weekend. In Raleigh, N.C., families will gather Sunday for a picnic in a city park. And tomorrow in Phoenix, state legislators and community leaders will honor two organizations serving children and families.

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''People realize this is really an area where we have to do something,'' says Mark Anderson, a Republican state representative in nearby Mesa, noting the support he has received from businesses and politicians.

Nicholas Chiaia, a lawyer in Oakland, Calif., initiated Parents' Day celebrations there. ''Oakland is a city that has many problems,'' he says. ''People are often focused on the negatives. This is something that's very positive and will encourage parents, who often go unrecognized for their sacrifices.''

Among other projects, parents organized an essay-writing program in Oakland schools. They invited students to write 100 words on why their parent or guardian should be recognized as a good parent. Participants received a certificate of recognition and on Friday, a local celebration will honor their parents.

Will Parents' Day become a greeting-card holiday? ''I hope so,'' says Grant. ''Greeting cards help to move the culture.''

Yet he and other supporters emphasize that any observance must go beyond tangible remembrances, however well-meaning.

''This is not just a day to buy a card for your mom and your dad,'' Representative Anderson says. ''It's really about the whole role of parents and how we as a society need to recognize the importance of parenting. We need to focus a lot more attention on how to be good parents and how to train people to be good parents. We haven't valued it enough.''

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