CHILDREN FIRST: What Our Society Must Do--and Is Not Doing--For Our Children Today by Penelope Leach. (Knopf: $22; 303 pp.) Penelope Leach is the British Dr. Spock; armed with her classic "Your Baby & Child," or more recently, "Babyhood," I can say with some confidence that it is possible to live through your baby's first year. But while the tone of these first books is purposely calming and forgiving, "Children First" is a call to action, demanding first that readers consider the inevitable trade-offs they are making in raising their children, and secondly, the failure of most societies (with the exception of Sweden) to prioritize or even recognize the interests of children.
On another level, it is an appeal as well for children's dignity and their basic rights; not to be neglected or beaten or otherwise denied their childhood. Her feelings about day care are tempered only somewhat (full time is just not good for infants, or, for that matter, 2- and 3-year-olds), her suggestions for national policy changes, under the shadow of Sweden's 18-month leave, 6-hour workday until your child's eighth birthday, and other universal legal entitlement's are equally hard-hitting. Her conclusion that we simply do not value parenthood enough should keep us awake at night.