The federal government's latest report on child abuse shows a startling hike in the number of children abused or neglected in this country.

At least 1 million children a year are victims of abuse or neglect, according to a study by the Department of Health and Human Services. That figure represents a 60 percent increase over 1980 estimates.The report attributes the sharp increase to more vigorous reporting of the crime and not an actual increase in incidents of abuse. But whatever the reason, we learned this week that more than twice as many children are being abused in this country than we thought.

In 1980, the federal government reported that 625,100 children suffered "demonstrable harm" from maltreatment. According to this week's report, that figure jumped to 1,025,900 in 1986.

In addition, another half million children were endangered through abusive or neglectful treatment. The two categories - "demonstrable harm" and "danger to health and safety" - raise the total to 1.6 million child victims.

The tragic increase underlines the desperate need for good parenting.

The effects of abuse are incalculable. It doesn't just destroy the child, it destroys generations after him. Studies show that abused children become abusive parents, faithfully reflecting the only role model they have known. Their children, in turn, become abusive parents.

These shocking new statistics emphasize the need for strong homes where children are nurtured and protected. We need to teach our young people good parenting skills as urgently as we need to teach them algebra and grammar.

Our nation's future depends as heavily on our children's emotional health as it does on their sound education.

We must treat the victims of abuse and rehabilitate their parents. We must also teach our young people to be good mothers and fathers as assiduously as we teach them to be scientists, engineers and teachers.

The sad statistics released this week remind us that none of the roles we may play in our lives can be more important than the role of parent.