Good afternoon and thank you for your invitation to join you today. I am particularly pleased to be here today to talk about families and "The Ties That Bind." Family was once described as the nucleus of civilization, but as we all know so well, today's families face many pressures in their struggle to care for their children and remain whole.
I thought I might start by telling a personal story about our family which illustrates an emotion that many parents feel nowadays -- and one that I suspect many of you are very familiar with -- and that is guilt. Yes, guilt is not something that is reserved only for Jewish mothers. About a year ago, Al and I were having dinner with our son Albert when he asked which of us would be coming with him to "Play Day" the next day. Well, this was the first we'd heard about it and Al and I realized that we had both scheduled activities -- I was appearing on the Diane Rehm Show -- a nationally syndicated radio talk show and Al was scheduled to meet with a visiting Head of State of a foreign nation. First thought, of course, was guilt. Second thought was, what do we do? Al decided that his schedule was probably easier to switch than mine so the Head of State (who was a father, too, so he understood) got rescheduled and Al and Albert went to Play Day. I'm happy to say that they won the three-legged race.
I think Golda Meir summed up this particular type of guilt best when she said: "At work, you think of the children you have left at home. At home, you think of the work you've left unfinished. Such a struggle is unleashed within yourself."
Today's parents are indeed struggling with this and many issues every day. We all know it's not easy being a parent and making time for all the things that need to be done to keep a family together. And, it seems to be especially challenging for today's generation of parents. Our lives have changed so much from the days when the norm included two-parent households, extended families, only one parent in the workplace, and strong community and religious ties.
At that same time, pressures on children have increased too. The pressure of growing up too quickly. Pressure from peers to take part in risky behaviors. The pressure of violence that fills our news and our entertainment.
SIDS, AIDS, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, tobacco, violence, hunger, poverty -- the list of health risks can be daunting. At a time when we are making stunning advances in technology, new drugs and new cures, we still have so far to go in teaching parents and children to avoid risky, often life threatening behavior.
How can families cope? More importantly, how do we help our children cope in our increasingly complex and scary world?
As parents, we know it is difficult to stay in tune with every aspect of our children's lives. I am a strong advocate of parental involvement on many different levels, particularly education. All too often, there is not enough connection between a child's home and school. Parents struggling to balance work and family may find it hard to find the time to help their children with homework, or read to their children. And for overworked teachers, that telephone call from the parent may feel like an intrusion, rather than an invitation to work together on a joint mission -- the education of a child.
It's important to understand that many different parts of our children's lives -- the schools they attend, the neighborhoods they call home, their families and the friends who comprise their social world -- each play a crucial role in shaping our children's values, health and well-being.
I am convinced that if all of us -- moms and dads, schools and communities -- create and innovate and make the commitment to work together, to find the ties that bind us, to re-connect to each other -- our children will have the values, the skills, the knowledge, and the confidence they will need to succeed as workers, parents, and leaders in the 21st century.
There is an old Jewish proverb that states: "God could not be everywhere and therefore he made mothers." But, as we all know too well, mothers and fathers can't be there every second of every day to make sure that a child is safe and protected. In too many places, violence takes its toll on our children. In fact, homicide is the leading cause of death among inner city children. How can parents protect their children from the violence on the streets?
First, parents need to understand that they do not have to face these problems alone. Everyone needs to be a part of the solution. As my friend Hillary Clinton so aptly pointed out in her book, it truly does take a village to raise a child.
Working together -- with our children's needs always in mind -- we can make a difference. We can combat the violence and provide the resources communities, parents and families need to feel safe.
Helping parents learn about the importance of educating their children about the risks of drugs, alcohol, sexually-transmitted diseases, and tobacco is an important first step toward addressing these risky behaviors. While efforts begin in the home, they need not stop there. Educational efforts must be supported through community resource organizations, schools, other institutions and also through government policy.
For example, we are making real progress on a major public health issue in America -- tobacco use. Nicotine addiction, which lures more than 3,000 children every day and will cost 1,000 of them their lives, is the nation's number one preventable cause of death. We know that if our children don't start smoking by the time they turn 19, they're unlikely to start at all. But once they start, it's hard to stop: 70% of adult smokers want to quit but can't. This Administration has made huge strides in restricting access of tobacco products to minors. Under the leadership of President Clinton and my husband, we have developed a plan that calls for full authority for the FDA to regulate tobacco products, changes in the way the industry does business, and a comprehensive approach to reduce teen smoking that includes tough penalties is youth reduction targets are not met.
It is up to parents to teach children right from wrong from their earliest stage of life. Experts note that children establish their values systems even before the age of five. If we wait until they are teens, we are too late. Discussing values is vitally important for our children -- to show we care and to show that human beings have a responsibility to themselves and to each other. The columnist Georgie Ann Geyer once noted: "There is a peculiar American utopianism that refuses to see the need for family authority, for the realistic socialization of children, and for the deliberate passing down of value systems from generation to generation." She's right -- and we can't be afraid to set values and limits for our children. That is one of the primary roles of the family.
Al and I have been active in leading an ongoing family policy initiative through family reunion conferences we hold each year. Our goal is to seek ways that we can understand the needs of families and communities and build on their strengths. The Family Re-Union Initiative seeks to "reinvent" family policy so that it reflects the realities facing families and government today -- a reality we all know is changing almost daily. For example, in response to one of the conferences on the role of men in children's lives, private sector organizations have acted on the Vice President's concept of a national "Father to Father" program that has resulted in several initiatives promoting father involvement on a wide range of issues impacting children.
In addition to family issues, one of the areas I have been especially involved in is mental health. Children are the least likely to receive treatment for mental disorders, with only 20 percent of those with problems getting care -- and in many cases, inappropriate care. That leaves up to 11 million children with untreated mental illness. Children also have the greatest risk of suicide, which is the second leading cause of death among adolescents.
Parents must have frank and open conversations with children, even young children about depression and other issues. Clinical depression is a treatable disease -- and as a society, we must continue to work to erase the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding depression and mental illness.
We are making progress on all fronts. Violence is down and crime is at the lowest level it's been in a decade.
And thanks to President Clinton and my husband, working parents have the protection of the Family and Medical Leave Act to ensure that they can still care for a sick child and maintain their place in the workforce.
This summer, President Clinton signed the first balanced budget in a generation -- that includes the largest investment in health care for children since the passage of Medicaid in 1965, including a provision for mental health coverage, of which I am especially proud.
Of course, we know good policies make a big difference, but parents still are the critical ingredient in their child's life. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that the love between a parent and child is the strongest influencing factor in a child's life, above peers, teachers, and media. I guess love does conquer all after all.
Keeping a family together and strong is a complex, all-consuming task. No one automatically knows how to be the best parent. As a society, it is time to bring our best institutions to bear to help prepare parents and children with the skills, the knowledge, and the love they need to thrive in the next millennium.