Fit Bodies vs. Broken Homes
WHEN New York City's Mayor Ed Koch launched Good Health Week last week, organizers planned a high-visibility kickoff featuring everything from a ``Good Health Walk'' to workshops on aerobics and double-dutch jump rope. They even hired a group called the Walker Valley Marching Band to provide oom-pah-pah music for the occasion, which was ``dedicated to public awareness of the importance of a healthy lifestyle.'' By contrast, no similar fanfare accompanied New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's launching last year of the Decade of the Child. Editorial writers dutifully praised the initiative, but by any measure of public awareness, the observance remains largely symbolic.
The difference in approach between the two events - one loudly promoting adults' well-being, the other quietly emphasizing children's needs - neatly illustrates the priorities of the '80s: health and fitness. From cholesterol counts and oat bran to home gyms and personal trainers, the message constantly before the public has been clear: Pay attention to studies showing the risks of fat, cigarettes, and inactivity - or else.
But while Americans have been willing to accept negative data about food and health, they have largely ignored troubling research about children and families. A growing intolerance for junk food and smoking has, in fact, closely paralleled a greater tolerance for new family forms and ``alternate lifestyles.''
Yet the cumulative evidence linking these new family forms with negative effects on children is sobering. During a two-day conference on the social and economic costs of family dissolution, sponsored by the Rockford Institute in Rockford, Ill., speaker after speaker pointed to decades of research relating changes in family structure and child-rearing to problems such as teenage pregnancy, drugs, and suicide among children and teenagers.
As Dr. Armand Nicholi, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, observed, ``It's very clearly documented that what happens when a family breaks up has a severe detrimental effect on children.''
Noting that the divorce rate has risen more than 700 percent in this century, with most of the increase occurring in the 1970s, Dr. Nicholi added, ``Apparently as a society we refuse to accept data that demand a radical change in our lifestyle.''
That refusal may stem in part from a lack of media emphasis. Headlines about research on families appear far less often than those on diet and fitness.
In addition, family experts admit an occasional reluctance to release negative findings that might contribute to public guilt about social trends such as divorce and child care.
As one example, Nicholi says, ``I have colleagues who think mothers should be there for very young infants, but they don't dare say so publicly.''
Other professionals note that researchers who mention the negative effects of the one-parent family are sometimes accused of racism and sexism.
Still, in the same way that repeated emphasis on the hazards of smoking led to widespread changes in public behavior and public policy, a new public willingness to consider the long-term consequences of family breakup and parental absence could produce what Nicholi calls ``a revolutionary concept of the family.''
In the workplace, he explains, this would involve making the family ``the highest priority'' in institutions ranging from the federal government to the corner store. It would mean restructuring working hours to allow families more time together, and permitting parents to work at home as often as possible.
In the home, Nicholi says, this ``revolutionary concept'' would require changing attitudes so that divorce would be considered only as a last resort, after couples had made every effort to resolve their conflicts. He also suggests that ``courts of conciliation'' be established, where lawyers would encourage ``reconciliation, forgiveness, and a new beginning - if for no other reason than for the emotional health of the children.''
J. Craig Peery, a professor of human development at Brigham Young University, put it this way at the Rockford Institute conference: ``We're not dealing with piglets or corn or international trade. We're dealing with the next generation.''
As the '80s come to an end, is it too much to hope that children, not cholesterol, will be the new preoccupation for the '90s, making this truly the Decade of the Child?