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Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other
by Mary Eberstadt
(218 pages, $25.95, hardcover)
reviewed by W. Bradford Wilcox
The United States is engaged in a massive experiment with its children, according to Mary Eberstadt.
This “separationist experiment” is designed to see how well American children fare without much attention from one or both of their parents. This experiment is largely driven by adult needs and concerns—the desire for professional accomplishment, material success, individual fulfillment, or some combination thereof—and is manifested in such diverse phenomena as children relegated to day care 30 hours a week or more, children left home alone after school, and children growing up in families without fathers.
The bottom line, according to Eberstadt—one of our nation’s most gifted and incisive observers of American family life—is that American children are not getting the attention, affection, and direction they need from their mothers and fathers.
The price that children pay for the separationist experiment is high, including the emotional and medical trauma experienced by infants and toddlers who spend 30 hours or more per week in day care, high rates of teenage sex and obesity, and the “pharmaceutical outsourcing of childhood”—namely, the surge in the prescription of psychotropic drugs for children who are not getting enough love, time, and discipline from their parents.
Take the toll associated with day care. Eberstadt points out that children in day care are much more likely to get sick than children raised at home, both because they have contact with a lot of other children and because they are less likely to be breastfed, which offers children important immunological benefits. As a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics pointed out, children who spend lots of time in day care are more likely to suffer from ear infections, the common cold, gastro-intestinal problems, eye infections, and a range of other medical maladies.
More fundamental, however, is the emotional toll that day care takes on small children. Psychological studies suggest that children who spend more than 30 hours a week in day care are significantly more likely to be aggressive with their peers and parents. They are also more likely to display elevated levels of the hormone cortisol, a key indicator of psychological stress. So, long spells in day care are making all too many American children sick, both emotionally and physically.
Likewise, because so many teenagers are left home alone after school by working mothers or absent fathers, adolescents are getting into a lot more trouble than they once did. One indication that children do not receive enough supervision at home is that almost 70 percent of teens have sex by age 18; another indication is that the United States now sees an epidemic of sexually transmitted disease (STD) engulfing its young adults.
In 2000, almost half of the 18.9 million new cases of STDs were among young people between the ages of 15 and 24. These diseases carry significant long-term health consequences for young adults, especially girls; that is, young men and women who are sexually active outside of marriage face much higher rates of anal cancer and hepatitis B than young adults who are chaste, and girls suffer higher rates of infertility, complications during pregnancy and delivery, and cervical cancer as well.
What’s the connection between teen sex and the separationist experiment? Eberstadt shows that latchkey children—that is, teenagers who spend large amounts of time unsupervised in any given week—are much more likely to have sex, and to have sex in their own home or their lover’s home, than children who are properly supervised by their parents after school and on weekends.
In Eberstadt’s words, “Looking again at that breakdown of where kids have sex, you may be wondering: Whatever happened to the proverbial backseat? Well, who needs a cramped plastic bench when your family’s (or girlfriend’s) adult-empty home is so much more comfortable and convenient?”
She also reports that girls who grow up apart from their biological father experience much higher rates of teenage sexual activity than girls who have a flesh-and-blood father looking out for them, keeping predatory boys at bay, and modeling a good relationship with mom that they can use as a template for their own approach to opposite-sex relationships. So mothers who stay at home and fathers who stick around are, in her words, “the ultimate prophylactic” against teen sex.
Eberstadt also makes a compelling case for the notion that the separationist experiment is implicated in the surge in adolescent obesity. Because kids are a lot less likely to live in neighborhoods with parents who are around to keep an eye on them, they are also less likely to get outside and play football, ride a bike, or play hopscotch. Hence, one reason that they are piling on the pounds is that they do not live in communities where it seems safe to go out and play in the way that kids typically have.
Home-Alone America conveys important and impolitic truths about the price that children pay when parents put themselves, rather than their kids, first. But the book does not convey two important nuances about the state of contemporary parenting to its readers, nuances that somewhat complicate the book’s basic argument.
First, despite dramatic changes in women’s labor-force participation, American children are actually spending about the same amount of time with their mothers as they did in the 1960s. How can this be? Research by sociologist Suzanne Bianchi indicates that mothers, especially mothers who work outside the home, have cut back on sleep, leisure, time with their husbands, and housework in an effort to make sure that they spend quality time with their children.
Of course, the downside to this is that working mothers try to shoehorn their quality time with their kids into evenings and weekends in ways that are often artificial and can drive a wedge between them and their husbands. More subtly, the character of contemporary mothering often takes on a manic character, as guilt-ridden working mothers try to make up for their lack of unstructured time during the day with their children with violin lessons, intense late-night conversations, and all manner of enriching child activities.
Second, there are dramatic class-based differences in parenting and family structure. Middle-class and upper-class parents are much more likely to get and stay married, and to involve their children in an array of activities, than are poor parents. Poor parents, by contrast, are much less likely to get and stay married, and they are more likely to take a laissez-faire approach to parenting that accords their kids a great deal of freedom to do as they please during the day.
Thus, in important respects, the separationist experiment that Eberstadt writes about is an experiment focused most on poor children. In other words, one of the most tragic ironies of our day is that the kids most likely to be left home alone in America are children living in some of our nation’s worst neighborhoods.
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