What Do Children Really Need? : Families: Do kids care which parent earns more or gets home first? Well, yes. But experts say practical needs--like peace in the house--are more important.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In or out of the spotlight, at peace or at war, parents of the '90s are, as Dr. Benjamin Spock once lamented, "exquisitely challenged."

And for working parents in a custody battle, this can be excruciatingly obvious.

The lines were drawn recently when prosecutor Marcia Clark--who is putting in long hours on the O.J. Simpson trial--asked her soon-to-be ex for more money to pay for evening and weekend baby-sitters. Gordon Clark, claiming his children were suffering from long absences from their mother, answered by demanding primary custody.

While few have intimate knowledge of the Clarks' personal parenting styles, that has not silenced the public speculation--much of it outspoken and accusatory--about what their family troubles mean for men, for women, even for the institution of divorce.

But ultimately, the Clark case (like every custody case) is not about mothers or fathers. It is about children.

Do young children--the Clark boys are 3 and 5--really care which parent makes more money, who gets home first at night, or whether they go to Chuck E. Cheese's every Saturday?

Although there's no telling on the Chuck E. Cheese question, experts believe children have a variety of very real needs, whether it's a plate of nutritious food, an inspirational role model or a government that guarantees access to health care.

Here are their views.

David Royko, psychologist, clinical director of Cook County (Ill.) Marriage and Family Counseling Service, the nation's largest court mediation service:

"What children need more than anything else, though it might sound kind of glib, is peace. They need peace. Especially for children going through custody disputes, there is a tremendous amount of conflict and children inevitably feel torn apart like little wishbones.

"Whoever gets the larger half is most important for the parents, but for the children, it doesn't really matter. It is all incredibly painful. What children in or out of divorce need is a relatively conflict-free set of parents or parents who can at least keep the conflict completely separate from the child's life.

"Children need harmony, and to a kid that means being with their parents. When we ask kids here their three wishes, almost always, one wish will be for their parents to be together, no matter how horrible it might have been when they were."

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Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, Harvard University pediatrician, best-selling author and host of Lifetime TV's "What Every Baby Knows":

"What do children need? I can tell you that there is no single formula, and anybody who says there is one is crazy! I would never tell parents there is only one correct way to go about parenting. That sort of advice makes people feel so guilty they become immobilized and useless to the child. Mothers and fathers feel guilty enough as it is.

"What we know is that children need both parents to be passionately involved with them. Passion! Energy! That's what children need. And time? Well, maybe time is not as important as quality of the time. Parents who don't have a lot of time to spend with their children can still do a damn good job by being passionate and dedicated when they are with the children and (by providing) good child care when they're not there."

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Sherry Smith-Hampton, program director for Bienvenidos children's home, West Covina:

"(Children need) to grow and thrive. I'm afraid we often forget children need real basics--they need a plate of food to eat, a roof over their heads, clothing on their backs. It can be easy to forget that some children do not have even these basics. Those are the children we see here.

"Their parents' lives have broken down and they can no longer give their children what they need just to survive. They've lost their jobs or their unemployment has run out or they have serious medical problems. Parents can snap under such stress and they may take it out on their children. Nearly every child here wants desperately to be with their parents. Of all the children who can articulate such things, there is no great need expressed for wealth, or toys, or whatever. They love their parents. And they want to be with them."

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Wade Horn, child psychologist, former U.S. Commissioner for Children, Youth and Families, and a founder of the National Fatherhood Initiative:

"When I was in Washington, I was the administrator for most of the federal programs for at-risk kids, and what struck me was that what most of these kids really needed, what was missing most from their lives was a father.

"Children need fathers in their lives; they need both parents. We're trying to believe that if we can only get this custody thing right, children will flourish. Well, I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that is wrong. Whenever I talk about the Marcia Clark case, I am reminded of this collective fantasy we're all pursuing that somehow if the custody is joint, sole, shared, whatever, my child will not suffer from the choices we make. That is simply not true, however hard it is to hear."

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Judith Wallerstein, psychologist and best-selling author of books on the effects of divorce on children:

"I've spent 25 years studying children and listening to them, and I know what children need. What they need in their parents are role models who will behave toward each other with civility. They don't need them not to fight. They need more than that. They need to have parents who treat each other with morality and recognition of their importance as a parent.

"What they need is to feel their parents are rational and moral people who are faithful to them and haven't forgotten them and will always take care of them. Remember, human children more than any other species need parenting to survive. They're not like puppies. They are very much in need and they know that. If they are not taken care of, they'll die."

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Virginia Weisz, directing attorney, Children's Rights Project, Los Angeles:

"What children need, what they want, is continuity--not to be uprooted and put in a strange place. . . . Children have the right--and they need--to be heard. As for the other things we tend to think all children need--being tucked into bed and kissed by their mothers every night, for example--need to be put into perspective. It depends on what you are used to.

"We are working with some children now who were used to sleeping in a car and eating whenever their mother could forage food to feed them. These children, like all children, need love, care and continuity--but only when it's a good continuity. Kids need to be listened to. If we listen correctly, you'll hear them when they say, 'Hey, I need help.' "

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Jayne Major, founder, the Parent Connection, a Los Angeles parent education group:

"Let's just get past this idea of gender wars. . . . What children need are loving, nurturing caring parents. Two parents--a mother and a father. Biologically, it takes two to make a child and it takes two to raise one.

"More than anything in the world, children fear abandonment. When one parent disappears, drops out of their life, they are terrified. Parents, even those who are divorced, need to get along with each other and show their children that there are two people there for them, and who will continue to be there for them for life."

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Marian Wright Edelman, director, Children's Defense Fund, Washington, D.C.:

"Children need Congress to cut child poverty, not child nutrition and child care. Congressional leaders are determined to take food out of the mouths of hungry children, deny safe homes to abused and neglected children, strip child care away from infants and toddlers whose parents are trying to get off welfare or keep a job. . . .

"Children need Congress to pass real welfare reform that gives their parents the tools they need to work and lift their families out of poverty--tools such as jobs, child care and health coverage."

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