Wheeler: Just missing the will to fix families

We know how to fix failing families. We just don't have the willpower.

That was the thread running through responses to last Friday's column, in which I asked how we should address irresponsible parents. In the absence of any workable ideas, I said, we should focus on helping at-risk children succeed in school so they can choose lives different from the ones their parents have lived.

One reader offered a three-point plan: First, ostracize all media, stars and leaders who don't condemn those who have children out of wedlock or before age 21 or before having jobs or graduating from high school.

Second, fine fathers who leave their children and all people who have children out of wedlock or children they can't take care of. If they can't pay, we take custody of the kids.

Third, assign criminal penalties, including jail, to those who defy the societal boundaries set above.

So, we're going to create a system for mass condemnation, fine people who generally are poor to start with, then cart them off to prison and spend $27,000 a year to house each offender?

More sensibly, a Cary reader suggested that we restructure the earned-income tax credit for low-wage earners to favor married taxpayers. Incentives for marriage are good.

Another reader, a college graduate with "red neck certification since I own a pick-up truck and pig cooker," rightly says that for every unwed mother there is a father. Make him pay. I agree. How?

He then suggests we penalize unmarried women who have children by taking away their driver's licenses or reducing their food stamps.

Can we not agree that "workable" includes an obligation not to hurt children? They tend to need to eat.

An online commenter said, "Me wanting to be responsible for my children rather than children I had nothing to do with makes me a bad person? ... What do you have against my children that you want to hinder my ability to provide for them?"

Of course providing for your own children first doesn't make you a bad person. But not understanding that you're choosing for your children to live in a society with (and pay for) even more struggling people if that poverty cycle goes unaddressed makes you an oblivious one.

Another reader, affiliated with a private middle school for at-risk boys, called me naive for expecting "public schools to succeed in addressing the needs of the children you highlight." He touted the great successes of his small, tuition-free school.

Putting all of our at-risk middle-schoolers in small, privately funded schools is workable? Am I naive for thinking that if we helped these children be ready for kindergarten there'd be less need for such schools?

Large-scale "workable"ideas seem to elude us.

On a smaller scale are nonprofits such as Loaves and Fishes, which provides tutoring and enrichment opportunities for at-risk children in Raleigh. Those who understandably want parents invested in the help their children receive should love this nonprofit, which requires parental participation.

Given the agency's waiting list, putting money and volunteer time to work there is one solution - even if only for one child at a time.