HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Parents Need to be Lobbyists

With the end of the holiday season, parents can relax. No more pressure to sit around a fireplace, playing games. No more frenzy to take the kiddoes skiing, skating, swimming, hiking. No more need to rack up credit card balances in pursuit of fun-time with children: a variation of parent-as-playmate is parent-as-Santa Claus (but a Santa who is beholden to big bank creditors). In this modern era, a “good parent” is a playful parent. Indeed, a billboard near my house exhorts: Be a Dad. The picture shows a boy, holding hands with his father, as they walk, baseball gloves and bat in hand, toward an afternoon of quality parenting.

How about another kind of archetypal parent: parent-as-lobbyist. A good parent leaves the playing field, the ski slopes, the video game, for the legislature. He or she recognizes that decisions made, not just in Washington, D.C., but in state capitols and town halls, will influence the health of his children. And he morphs into parent-lobbyist, exhorting elected officials to pass laws that protect children.

This winter offers lots of opportunities for parent-lobbyists to show their power.

For starts, the paid lobbyists are clustering around the Congressional solons who are mapping out the details of the recently-passed health insurance reform package. Those details are crucial: Will there be a cap on insurance payments? When will the insurers have to shelve “pre-existing” condition exemptions? What will be the income-guidelines for subsidies? What will be the subsidies? Representatives of insurance companies are speaking out loudly. Citizen-parents should be louder, arguing on behalf of their children.

At state legislatures, officials are debating seat belt laws: Should police officers be allowed to stop people who are not wearing belts (a primary offense), rather than waiting for drivers to give officers another reason to pull them over. Parents who recognize the proclivity of their children to flaunt adult strictures should urge passage of these laws. Ditto for roadblocks to catch drunk drivers, penalties for people who sell alcohol to minors, and penalties for minors who try to pay for alcohol. Mothers Against Drunk Driving should be Parents Against Drunk Driving, and its campaign should draw support from all parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

On to sex. Teenagers — even those schooled in all the risks, all the admonitions — sometimes have sex. And they get pregnant, they get venereal diseases, and occasionally they get HIV. Sex education is not a panacea, but communities that expressly bar discussion of contraception, favoring abstinence-only approaches, do those not-yet-adults grave harm.

Obesity is a national health epidemic. Children are developing obesity-related diseases, like diabetes. At the same time, school committee officials are debating the costs of mandatory physical education classes, after-school sports, and healthy food (soda is not part of the US Department of Agriculture’s recommended food pyramid). In this time of government retrenchment and shrinking revenues, costs can easily trump health in legislators’ calculus. Parents must speak out.

If parent-lobbyists meet up with unresponsive legislators, those parents can run for office. Parent-candidates might give their children more interesting role models than parent- playmates.

We consider ourselves a child-friendly nation. We have sated our children with toys, must-have gizmos, and electronic wizardry. But a better mark of our concern for children lies in the laws and regulations we adults craft. On that measure, we could do better.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 1, 2010

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