How Kids Are Suffering Home Alone

Parents “Matter More Than We Think,” Says Mary Eberstadt

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WASHINGTON, D.C., FEB. 27, 2005 ( Less time with Mom and Dad has contributed to more problems for more kids over the last few decades.

So says Mary Eberstadt, a part-time research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of “Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes” (Penguin).

Eberstadt shared with ZENIT how this separation of children and their parents is producing unforeseen negative consequences.

Q: If children are better off materially than ever before, why are they beset by so many troubles such as psychiatric problems, obesity and sexually transmitted diseases?

Eberstadt: “Home-Alone America” is about this paradox exactly. On the one hand, children generally — like adults generally — are materially better off than ever before, particularly in the advanced nations of the West.

Yet on the other hand, this generation of American children is marked by acute problems that either did not exist before, or did not exist in anything like today’s proportions.

Juvenile obesity, for example, has tripled since the early 1960s. Sexually transmitted disease is epidemic among teen-agers and young adults; of some 19 million new cases of STDs reported in 2000, say the Centers for Disease Control, half were found in people between 15 and 24.

Diagnoses of juvenile psychiatric problems such as depression, anxiety and “behavioral” disorders have skyrocketed — and so, too, have the psychotropic drugs used to treat them. Similarly, teachers in various parts of the country, from preschool on up to universities, report an overall deterioration of child and adolescent behavior.

Plainly, for some significant number of kids, life is actually worse — in the sense of riskier, sadder and more problematic — than it was for their parents’ generation. My book tries to understand why.

Q: Is there a common theme that connects the numerous problems of American children today?

Eberstadt: The common denominator is the one that Ockham’s razor dictates: For a variety of reasons — divorce, working motherhood and shrinking family size — children are more separated from their parents and other family members than they used to be; and this separation is producing unforeseen negative consequences.

For example, such separation means that children and teen-agers are less supervised around temptations such as sex and food than they used to be; hence, obesity and sexually transmitted disease are rising.

Such chronic and unprecedented separation is also increasing the misery felt by at least some kids, which in turn affects the psychiatric and pharmaceutical statistics.

I also argue in a chapter devoted exclusively to teen-aged music that this generational unhappiness is fully and unmistakably demonstrated ad nauseam by almost every top-selling rock and rap musician in America; the many lyrics quoted there speak for themselves.

Both the empirical and cultural records of what’s happening with many kids prove that there has been downward emotional mobility for this generation. Tracing those links between child problems and absent family is what my book is all about.

Q: Is the rise in mothers working outside the home a result of economic necessity or human choice?

Eberstadt: I observe in my book, and genuinely believe, that there is no “one size fits all” answer to the question of out-of-home parental employment. That’s something that only individual families can answer for themselves.

At the same time, if we step back from individual choices and anecdotes we can see clearly that as a society, we used to be much poorer; and yet the typical household still sacrificed financially to keep a parent in the home. Moreover, many also sacrificed emotionally to keep parents together “for the sake of the kids” — an idea now widely, and in my view wrongly, derided.

Today, again generally speaking, homes are larger than ever, food is cheaper, cars more luxurious and families are smaller in size — yet the social expectations are exactly reversed; two-income families are assumed to be the norm.

How much of that move toward two incomes is necessity, and how much is an increase in material expectation and desire, are questions that haven’t yet come in for much scrutiny. But in a society as well-off as ours, those questions have real spiritual, as well as economic, weight.

Q: What developmental problems occur in children who spend large amounts of time in day care?

Eberstadt: Children are individuals, and of course different children respond differently to institutional care.

It’s safe to say that this kind of care has been shown to raise the risks to some kids of an increase in aggressive behavior. It is also known to raise the risks to some kids of an increased likeliness of infection brought on by exposure to so many other children. Kids in day care are roughly half again as likely to get sick as are kids cared for at home.

Now, are there long-term effects of these short-term problems? This is the kind of question on which expert attention has been focused, and not surprisingly, given the number of variables involved, it is difficult to determine the answer.

But I think we should ask a different question than that of long-term outcomes. Surely there are other measures of whether institutional care is a good idea for mothers and fathers who do have a genuine choice.

To put the distinction in philosophical terms, most research and commentary has been focused on a teleological question — “What is the ultimate cognitive and emotional outcome of institutional care?” — rather than on a phenomenological one: “What is happening to that given child in the here and now?”

I think that latter question, about immediate happiness and well-being, ought to have weight too. If day care increases the likelihood that an unknowing baby or toddler will be sick and unhappy — as evidence suggests that it does — then day care is not the best alternative for parents who actually do have a choice.

Q: What potential dangers does the over-medication of children pose to their development and society at large?

Eberstadt: Let’s distinguish first between medical and extra-medical problems.

All of the psychotropic drugs in use today have potential physical side effects ranging from loss of appetite, dizziness, nausea and other well-known problems, to more extreme possibilities.

Last year saw the beginning of what might be a real re-evaluation of the psychotropic drug world as physicians and government agencies examined the possible increased risk of suicide in teen-agers taking antidepressants.

And of course there is a separate potential physical risk in the form of the abuse of these drugs, particularly the stimulants. As is amply documented in my book, recreational use of these amphetaminelike substances is rampant, though practically no one in the medical profession acknowledges it.

But quite beyond the question of the drugs’ immediate physical consequences are problems of a larger sort that I think are even more important. Psychologically, for example, what is the long-term effect of creating this new class of putative victims — of telling a generation of kids that they are defective from the inside out and need medication for life? We just don’t know.

Nor do we know anything at all about the spiritual dimensions of this very new phenomenon. For example, do psychotropic drugs arguably interfere with the reason necessary to exercising free will? Does their chronic use undermine the subject’s sense of what he is and is not responsible for — i.e., his conscience? To my knowledge, Catholic and other theologians have not addressed these questions. Perhaps someone should.

Q: How has
the culture shaped women’s attitudes and self-image in regard to working outside the home?

Eberstadt: There’s not much question that several decades of feminist agitation have increased the pressure on women to leave home in order to find what’s called “fulfillment.”

But feminists aren’t the only ones responsible for the ongoing devaluation of at-home mothers and the natural family. Men also play a role in that devaluation — not because they have been snookered by feminist ideology, but for the prosaic reason that there’s something in it for them.

After all, another paycheck makes fathers’ lives easier, too. Similarly, divorce is easier, and men are freer to walk away from their children when Mom is already working and won’t be left entirely destitute as she might have been if she depended on her husband’s paycheck.

So, feminist ideology is not the only engine of the empty-parent home. More pedestrian factors — such wanting more money, more freedom and a more comfortable life — are also exerting a powerful gravitational pull on parents toward the workplace and away from their children.

Q: A recent Wall Street Journal article noted the importance of the family meal for familial and child health. What practical steps can working parents take to help foster the well-being of their children?

Eberstadt: It’s interesting how research of various kinds suggests that the family dinner hour is a good idea for all sorts of reasons.

One, it might offer some protection against overeating, since parents are there to police how much children eat and since people eat more slowly and a smaller amount when they have someone to talk to and are not sitting in front of a TV.

Second, family dinner hour has been linked in all sorts of studies to lower probability of teens engaging in smoking, drinking and sexual activity. It seems that having a warm adult body on the premises is good for two reasons: It exerts a chilling effect on certain perennial temptations; and it just plain makes most kids happy to be around their family routinely rather than being alone.

That’s the ultimate message that I hope parents and others take away from my book. Mothers and fathers don’t have to be perfect — fortunately for the fallen mortals among us.

The mere presence of their parents matters more to children than many people in our feminist-influenced world seem to realize — again, not only to their long-term success in life, but to their immediate happiness and security in the here and now.

We who are privileged to be stewards of children and teen-agers, matter more than we think and are loved and needed more than current secular orthodoxy understands. It’s time to give the power of that love and need more intellectual and social recognition.

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