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Lessons of Life: Mrs. Clinton Urges Focus on Children

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Washington

Families, communities, politicians, and institutions need to stop pointing accusing fingers at each other and come together to give children what they need to thrive in today's society, Hillary Rodham Clinton argues in her new book.

"One of the reasons I wrote this book is because I think there is a readiness on the part of many people to get beyond old ways of thinking and the categories that often paralyze our actions," Mrs. Clinton said in an interview last week with Education Week.

"I don't really know whether people will agree with what I propose, and that's not so important to me as that they go out and start talking among themselves about what they can do differently," she said.

What the first lady proposes are numerous ways that families and communities can re-evaluate and reinvigorate their roles in raising healthy and productive children. She urges parents and institutions to support each other in doing a better job.

It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us owes its title and philosophy to an African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child."

The adage has become a catch phrase to convey the belief that society needs to re-create a sense of community in polarized neighborhoods and fragmented families that have lost their support systems.

The book weaves research in education and child welfare into what is essentially a personal discourse on effective practices that Mrs. Clinton has observed in her travels around the country and the world.

She also draws heavily on her experiences as a parent and those of her own and President Clinton's families.

The Clintons' daughter, Chelsea, figures prominently in many of Mrs. Clinton's anecdotes.

Family vs. Government

In her book, Mrs. Clinton raises concern that American society is too often compelled to pit family responsibility against government intervention.

"Let us stop stereotyping government and individuals as absolute villains or absolute saviors, and recognize that each must be part of the solution," she writes.

The book, published this week by Simon & Schuster, comes as Mrs. Clinton is facing a new barrage of questions about her legal work for an Arkansas savings and loan association and her role in the 1993 firings of White House travel-office employees.

She said last week, though, that she would not be diverted from the book's mission by the controversy. "I have to answer questions about it, but it is not distracting me because this time next year that will be gone and our children's needs will still be foremost in my mind," Mrs. Clinton said. "It is not anywhere near as important to me personally, or I think to most Americans, than trying to figure out what we all can do to help our children more."

Mrs. Clinton said she is troubled that the increasingly negative tone of political debate and escalation in anti-government rhetoric is turning many young people away from government. Many Americans, she said, are too young to have witnessed the victories of "positive collective action" in such struggles as World War II and the civil-rights movement.

Schools, she argued, can help not only by doing a better job of teaching civics, government, and history, but also by "explain[ing] to children what it is that binds this diverse, pluralistic country together."

In a chapter on education, Mrs. Clinton, who led an education-reform campaign in Arkansas while her husband was governor there, says that low expectations and a failure to recognize children's diverse learning styles continue to undermine efforts at school reform.

While citing an array of promising reform strategies and noting that nearly every education problem "has been tackled successfully somewhere," the book acknowledges that it has been hard for schools to move past piecemeal solutions.

'Nothing New'

The biggest obstacle to improving education, Mrs. Clinton said last week, is "the sense on the part of both school patrons and educators that there's nothing new--that everything we need to do has already been done, and it's just a question of making the particular students you are working with do what you want them to do.

"There are bureaucratic constraints just as there are in any institution in which people are concerned about their turf or their resources, and are reluctant to try anything new because they're afraid they'll be burned if they deviate from whatever they've done in the past."

She also made a pitch for charter schools--independently run, publicly funded schools--as a way to encourage public schools to organize and manage their programs around children's needs.

Mrs. Clinton called for strong discipline policies, including removing habitually disruptive students from regular classes and using metal detectors or other security measures to keep classrooms safe and to restore order.

She also urged stronger and more welcoming parent-involvement policies and partnerships with community agencies to meet an array of family needs.

"I don't want the school to become a social-service agency, but I want the school to work in partnership with parents and with other people who are concerned about children so that no child falls through the cracks," she said.

Learning Lessons

Her book showcases lessons from research on child health and development and findings on what helps children survive and thrive in difficult conditions.

Mrs. Clinton makes the case that basic staples of well-being, from early immunizations to adequate child care, aren't put into practice because children's issues are considered "soft."

The book highlights practices and policies used in other countries--such as extended, paid family leave--that she says demonstrate a strong commitment to family life.

Economic conditions and business practices in the United States have had a detrimental effect on parents' time and ability to concentrate on child rearing, Mrs. Clinton said, but she cites examples of businesses working harder to respond to parents' needs.

The book outlines many ways that families, schools, and religious communities can build children's character: by encouraging service, helping children assume responsibility for their peers and siblings, and enforcing strong but loving discipline.

Some critics have charged that unanswered questions about Mrs. Clinton's role in the Clintons' Arkansas business dealings and the travel-office matter may send a mixed message to children--one at odds with the book's message about accountability.

"It's very sad that people feel compelled to engage in that kind of personal attack," she said last week, "instead of joining the president or me or any of us who have different views on the issues in a discussion about what we can do that would make life better for our children."

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