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A better century for children?

Every new era produces its share of cloudy crystal balls and failed predictions. Nearly 100 years ago, for example, progressive reformers intent on improving the well-being of children confidently declared that the 20th century would be the "century of the child."

It was a "noble vision," as longtime family advocate Barbara Dafoe Whitehead puts it. But, she adds, "You can't say that noble vision has been fulfilled even partially."

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Instead, the gap between rich and poor, advantaged and disadvantaged, continues to grow. "The middle is beginning to drop out," observes Ms. Whitehead, who is co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

She describes a troubling divergence. At the high end, she says, "We have more affluence and more two-parent families who are deeply invested in their children. They have a lot of money for private lessons and services, and tend to gravitate to schools with rigorous standards and courses, with a guidance counseling staff dedicated to getting 98 percent of students into good colleges."

Clustered at the lower end of the economic and social spectrum, by contrast, are single mothers, working and trying to care for their children. But as Whitehead notes, they live in communities with fewer activities after school, stressed-out teachers, overburdened schools, and "a guidance staff that just has to put out fires rather than help kids get good internships and find their way into colleges."

Constance Williams, an assistant professor at the Family and Children's Policy Center at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., sees other disturbing disparities that fall along racial lines. Using last month's tragic high school shootings in LIttleton, Colo., as an example, she says, "The media offer a much more sympathetic view of white children who get into trouble than they do of minority children. The chasm is very wide."

Referring to the two students who opened fire, killing 12 other students and a teacher, Dr. Williams adds, "There were so many danger signals. But those danger signals were less alarming because the kids were white, from two-parent families, and economically secure. Their homes were beautiful." Unlike students in the inner city, they were insulated from anything resembling a "disturbing environment." Although the boys had been arrested for breaking into a van, a court officer released them early because they were good students.

Much of the hindsight discussion and reflection, Williams notes, has centered around soul-searching questions: "What were the signs, and how could we have missed them?"

She offers one explanation: "These signs just get missed because we've made a decision that if you're economically secure and from a professional family, what could be wrong? We have a lot of ideas about what are acceptable activities for kids. We don't tend to look deeper." Trench coats don't send the same signals as urban gang insignia.

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Even computer literacy, she adds, "is considered a good thing for our global economy. But it depends on what they're doing on the computer."

Whitehead and Williams were among more than 100 researchers, academics, and family advocates who gathered at Brandeis University last week for a conference on children's rights. As the curtain falls on the 20th century, they and others around the country are already searching for ways to ensure greater equality for children. Among other goals, they want to narrow the gaps in opportunity - economic and educational - and end what Williams calls "a double way" of looking at these issues.

"A lot more reflection needs to happen," Williams explains. "We need to have all these children considered our children." Only then, advocates say, will 21st-century activists have a chance of fulfilling the "noble vision" of progressive reformers of the early 1900s, and legitimately conferring on a new era the title "century of the child."

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