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LAST FALL the Federal Trade Commission released a report showing what most parents already knew from every trip down the aisle of Toys R Us and every look at prime time television: Entertainment companies routinely market R-rated movies, computer games, and music to children. The highly publicized report detailed many of the abuses of these companies-one particularly egregious example was the use of focus groups of 9- and 10-year-olds to test market violent films-and it unleashed a frenzied week of headlines and political grandstanding, all of it speaking to Americans' alarm over their children's exposure to an increasingly foul-mouthed, vicious, and tawdry media. But are parents really so alarmed? A more careful reading of the FTC report considerably complicates the fairy tale picture of big, bad wolves tempting unsuspecting, innocent children with ads for Scream and Doom and inevitably raises the question: 'Where were the parents?" As it turns out, many youngsters saw the offending ads not when they were reading Nickelodeon Magazine or watching Seventh Heaven but when they were leafing through Cosmo Girl, a junior version of Helen Gurley Brown's sex manual Cosmopolitan, or lounging in front of Smackdown!-a production of the World Wrestling Federation where wrestlers saunter out, grab their crotches, and bellow "Suck It!" to their "ho's" standing by. Other kids came across the ads when they were watching the WB's infamous teen sex soap opera Dawson's Creek or MTV, whose most recent hit, 'Undressed," includes plots involving whipped cream, silk teddies, and a tutor who agrees to strip every time her student gets an answer right. All of these venues, the report noted without irony, are 'especially popular among 11 - to 18-year- olds." Oh, and those focus groups of 9- and 10-year- olds? It turns out that all of the children who attended the meetings had permission from their parents. To muddy the picture even further, only a short time before the FTC report, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study entitled Kids and Media.- The New Millennium showing that half of all parents have no rules about what their kids watch on television, a number that is probably low given that the survey also found that two-thirds of American children between the ages of eight and eighteen have televisions in their bed- rooms; and even more shocking, one-third of all under the age of seven. In other words, one conclusion you could draw from the FTC report is that entertainment companies are willing to tempt children with the raunchiest, bloodiest, crudest media imaginable if it means expanding their audience and their profits. An additional conclusion, especially when considered alongside Kids and the Media, would be that there are a lot of parents out there who don't mind enough to do much about it. After all, protesting that your 10-year-old son was subjected to a trailer for the R-rated Scream while watching Smackdown! is a little like complaining that he was bitten by a rat while scavenging at the local dumpster. Neither the FTC report nor Kids and the Media makes a big point of it, but their findings do begin to bring into focus a troubling sense felt by many Americans-and no one more than teachers-that parenting is becoming a lost art. This is not to accuse adults of being neglectful or abusive in any conventional sense. Like always, today's boomer parents love their children; they know their responsibility to provide for them and in fact, as Kids and the Media suggests, they are doing so more lavishly than ever before in human history. But throughout that history, adults have understood something that perplexes many of today's parents: that they are not only obliged to feed and