It's 4:00 p.m. Do You Know Where Your Children Are?" asked Newsweek in its April 27 issue. Late afternoon—not late night—is when kids are most likely to get into trouble or be victimized by others, said the magazine as it tried to provoke concern for kids who are home alone after school with little or no adult supervision. "Three out of four mothers of school-age children work outside the home. So it's not so surprising that by the time they are 12 years old, nearly 35 percent of American children are regularly left on their own," the report said.

Many kids fill this time alone by watching TV—1,500 hours a year, on average, compared to 900 hours a year spent in school. Good parenting includes passing on our faith and values, but where is support for biblical values on TV? The entertainment media teach our youth that sex outside marriage is routine, and homosexual relationships are normal. In films and news shows our children see violence used to resolve conflicts or to get one's own way—and senseless violence is glamorized. They learn from advertising that happiness can be found through acquiring material things. These messages eat away at the foundations of our culture like termites, and our young seem to be especially vulnerable to the appetites of these voracious insects. Media critic Michael Medved goes further, arguing that TV as a medium (never mind the content) inculcates short attention spans, encourages a gloomy outlook on life, and teaches self-gratification by projecting fun as the highest goal of human existence. There is good reason for the uneasy conscience of American parents.

Lack of adult supervision is just one deprivation that plagues our children today. Just as frightening is a lack of moral guidance. Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, who usually champions liberal causes by scorning conservatives, now lauds social conservatives for "leading the current renaissance in character education—those [school] programs … that emphasize the development of virtue, ethical thinking and moral behavior. Children don't magically acquire such things any more than they magically learn long division." Writes Zorn, "A kid who grows up without a good moral education is disadvantaged, too, just like a kid who grows up poor, who gets lousy medical care, who attends shabby schools."

Tough job assignment
There never has been a Golden Age of Parenting. Yet our culture seems particularly unfriendly to families and children. "One of the best-kept secrets of the last thirty years is that big business, government, and the wider culture have waged a silent war against parents, undermining the work that they do," Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West argue in their recent book, The War Against Parents. This is especially true because our society measures everything by the bottom line. Children don't earn their keep as they did in an agrarian society. Instead, they cost money and threaten personal liberties and career goals in an age of individualism. As a result, Hewlett and West conclude, parenting has become a countercultural activity.

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It would help, of course, if the culture supported our values. We wish for government leaders to emulate biblical virtues, for schools to teach our children right from wrong, and for mass media to portray positive role models of people who really do work hard and play by the rules. But we haven't time for that kind of cultural turnaround. It will take a generation or more, waiting and working, for that to happen. Christian parents must do something for their children now.

Should we even expect our culture to prop up our values and serve as moral nanny for our kids? The biblical way, from Israel to the church, runs in the opposite direction—the people of God are a light to the world, salt and yeast in the dough of our culture. We are to influence the world and its structures positively, not clamor for government or the public schools or the dollar-driven media industry to be a light to us. Ironically, this disparity of values is an opportunity, as Rodney Clapp put it, for "the Christian family to be Christian, to live freely and unabashedly out of its particular story."

Job description posted
Christian parents who want to swim against the tide need to be especially intentional in several areas:

Time in. Values are like viruses: they are caught in the environment in which they reside. But how are children "catching" Christian values if the significant adults in their lives have so little time for them and with them—after school or any other time?

Newsweek's interest in the kids who are home alone after school seems aimed at creating public interest in after-school programs that engage children in wholesome, safe activities. But Newsweek did not ask the more radical questions that Christian families should be asking themselves: Is it really necessary in all cases that both parents work outside the home? And if so, is it because we are chasing the American dream of a big home in the suburbs with two late-model cars in the driveway?

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This is not to argue that a woman's place is only in the home. In a child's earlier years, Mother usually has to be the primary nurturer; but many couples find creative ways of sharing responsibility after their children's infant years. While some couples must have dual incomes just to put bread on the table and a roof over their heads, Christian parents who are willing and able to live on less than two full salaries are to be commended for putting family ahead of career or lifestyle.

Preach what we practice. Besides spending time with their children, Christian parents also need to teach them to discern right from wrong and the biblical reasons behind the differences. Our children need more than injunctions; "Just do it" is not sufficient motivation for doing the right thing. As they grow older, children must have explained to them the biblical logic of the commands to love God, neighbor and enemy, the common sense of the Golden Rule, and the sanctity and sanity of sex within a lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual relationship. The commands of God are not just law; they are also grace, for when we live within the ways of God we grow and thrive, personally and together. No wonder David said that God has placed the boundary lines at pleasant places (Ps. 16:6). He should have known since he transgressed them numerous times (see "Bathsheba-Gate," p. 38).

Extend the family. Aristotle believed that the good society was one in which the moral education of the young was shared by the whole society through its laws, practices, and mores. It was a task too important and too encompassing to be left to schools or families alone. If it doesn't take a village to raise a child, it at least takes a church.

In the absence of a supportive society, Christian families need this communal effort in the corporate life of the church. Parenting cannot be left to two adults, much less to one in the case of single parents. Children need the mentoring of other adults in their lives, while parents, too, need the support of older adults who can pass on their wisdom about parenting or give them respite from the strains of child care.

Most evangelicals do not name godparents—sponsors who take a special interest in the growth and development of those being baptized. Yet something like that is happening with congregational mentoring programs that match children with adults who commit themselves to relating one on one to a particular child, giving him or her another adult model to emulate, someone to whom the child can turn when communication breaks down between parent and child. Perhaps churches also need to consider "godgrandparents"—senior adults who can provide support and relief to parents.

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In our mobile society, when so many nuclear families are removed from their extended, biological families, the community of faith must function as an extended family. Through this family of God—through its corporate worship and service and nurture—children take on an identity and choose a God-oriented way of life.

Time spent well
"Child rearing is not some mysterious process," write Hewlett and West. "At the heart of the matter is time, huge amounts of it, freely given." Based on national research they conducted, they claim that a majority of parents realize that most of what their children need, such as love and character development, cannot be delegated to others.

Lamin Sanneh, professor of missions and world Christianity at Yale University, understands this well. As an African living in Western culture, he senses very keenly the tension between child rearing and professional involvement. In a recent dinner-table conversation, he told CT what "family values" have meant for him and his wife: "We believed two things were necessary in raising our children: showing them unconditional love, no matter what. And being there for them. One of us always arranged to be home after school, not just to look out for them, but also to talk with them about their day, to process what went on at school."

That is parenting worth emulating. And it's an investment of time that no government or private funding can buy.

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