Many major social problems are linked to family disintegration. While the government cannot replace stable two-parent families, it can reinforce them.

We need a new family policy that transcends the polarized debate between liberals, who emphasize economic pressures while neglecting family structure and behavior, and conservatives, who preach family values while neglecting economics. Here's what Washington can do:- Restore the children's exemption.

For young children in low- and middle-income families, the personal income tax exemption should be tripled to between $6,000 and $7,500, which would approximately restore the value it had in 1948.

- Create a non-poverty working wage. Because many working families do not earn enough to benefit significantly from an increased children's exemption, they should receive a guaranteed working wage through an expanded earned income tax credit tied to the number of dependents in the home.

- Reform divorce laws to put children first.

Divorce laws should be changed to defer division of "marital property" until adequate provision has been made for minor children. Uniform standards for child support should be established in order to reflect the cost of rearing children and the impact of motherhood on women's earning capacities.

Support payments should be collected automatically through wage withholding, remitted to a federal fund and disbursed by the government directly to custodial parents. Braking mechanisms such as mandatory cooling-off periods and counseling should be instituted for parents of minor children contemplating divorce.

- Promote parental responsibility.

Other states should follow the lead of California and Arkansas, which now hold parents legally responsible for the education and behavior of their children. Policies that exclude pregnant women from drug treatment programs must be reversed, and states and localities should be empowered in some cases to make participation mandatory.

- Make the workplace "family friendly."

The private sector should help relieve the conflict between child-rearing and work outside the home through flexible work schedules and (wherever possible) on-site child care and home-based employment.

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1990, which would establish a uniform family leave policy, was unwisely vetoed by President Bush. If the new Congress passes the act again, the president should sign it into law.

- Develop alternatives to foster care.

Multiple foster-home placements inflict psychological damage on children. We must emphasize home-based strategies designed to help parents deal with acute stress - before crises force authorities to permanently disrupt the parent-child bond.

This approach to children won't solve every social problem. But it can place family policy on premises suggested by common sense, sustained by the evidence of research and consistent with the moral intuitions of most Americans. It is only on this basis that we can make progress toward putting children first.