CHICAGO -- If there's any societal group today responsible for the future well-being of our nation that isn't being held accountable enough, it's parents.
Yes, parenting is a tough job -- for the ones who really work at it. That is, the ones who ask for help or devoutly read parenting books and never stop educating themselves, growing old with self-help books such as "How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk" and "How to Really Love Your Adult Child: Building a Healthy Relationship in a Changing World."
The rest, well, I'm not afraid to say they're slackers.
What else could a person divine from the constant news headlines trumpeting parents' selfish, reckless and undisciplined behavior? And I'm not even talking about the truly monstrous ones who make the 6 o'clock news because they've horrifically abused or neglected their children.
Just look at the ones who merely qualify for enhanced knucklehead status. The ones who aren't consciously trying to screw up their progeny but simply don't know better and end up being a destructive force in kids' lives -- sometimes even as they try to shield their children from life's hard knocks.
A few examples: Skin cancer rates are flying skyward -- there has been an eightfold increase in the incidence of melanoma in young women 18 to 39. Yet a New Jersey woman now known as the "Tanning Mom" was arrested last week after allegedly taking her 5-year-old daughter into a tanning booth. She has pleaded innocent -- blaming the sun for the girl's burns -- and said this about the parody of her aired on last weekend's "Saturday Night Live": "It was well done. ... The whole thing was hysterical."
Other clueless parents include those requiring state legislation to keep them from smoking in cars with their kids and those who use public humiliation to keep their children in line. Springing to mind: the dad who shot his daughter's laptop and the Illinois couple who forced their 8-year-old daughter to wear a sandwich board outside her school that said "I like to steal from others and lie about it" after she was caught pocketing others' things.
Some parents are woefully uninformed or willfully ignorant. We have a crippling obesity epidemic threatening children who, it was recently reported, don't respond to common Type 2 diabetes disease management techniques as well as adults.
And yet parents have become terrified of apple juice's tiny traces of arsenic and diet drinks' sugar substitutes instead of being concerned about the pervasively high-calorie content of most beverages. I guess chemical fears trump the rising number of children who need to have risky surgery to get their teeth pulled because overconsumption of sugary drinks rots them before they exit preschool.
Still other parents are well-meaning to a fault. Research has documented the phenomenon of playgrounds becoming so safe, padded and hazard-free that children are too bored by them to play much. Even toddlers are at risk of having their play squashed: the rising popularity of skill-n-drill mills, aka "academic preschools," is making play-centered preschools look, well, childish.
There's really only one good way to blunt poor child rearing, but since "parent reform" would never fly like "education reform" has, we need to start molding future parents when they're young.
Today, select students in a few high schools get to play "mommy" or "daddy" to screeching, wetting "RealCare" robot babies as part of units on child development, but that's too late. We need to slip concrete examples of what good parenting looks like into elementary school students' regular language arts, health and math curricula.
Trust me, there are millions of subtle ways -- through literature, story prompts and even word problems -- to ingrain apolitical, non-moralistic basics that model how to properly nourish a family, how much exercise kids need, how much TV and video game playing is too much and the importance of reading books, eating meals and conversing as a family.
If we could just do that, society would be about one generation away from a populace that graduates high school with a basic knowledge of the care and feeding of children -- and a heck of a lot closer to curbing many of the problems students bring into classrooms from home.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.