A review of Home-Alone America. By Mary Eberstadt. Sentinel, 2004.

This may be the first time in history that we have forced a generation of kids to be separated from their own parents. The results of this grand social experiment are beginning to come in. And Mary Eberstadt does not like what she sees. Nor should we.

Although written about the American scene, this volume is fully applicable to most Western nations. We have embarked upon a unique historical trial of seeing what life is like for children who have been for the most part separated from their parents. And while there may have been some benefits for the parents, few people were asking the really important questions: What about the children? Is parent-absence good for the kids?

While Eberstadt recognises that correlation does not always equal causation, she rightly questions why adults always try to put a positive spin on child separation when children seem to take a much different view. We need to stop looking at this problem as if it is all about adult choices, and start focusing on the possible harm our children are experiencing.

And there seems to be plenty of harm. We have witnessed in the past few decades a huge rise in childhood problems, whether sexual promiscuity, mental health problems, the rise of the prescription drug generation, childhood obesity, and many more worrying symptoms.

Eberstadt argues that all of these problems, at least to some extent, can be tied in to parental absence. Consider the issue of obesity. Eberstadt looks at possible reasons for this, but then focuses on the real culprit: absent parents. When kids are kept home-alone, they are usually kept inside for safety sake. Thus they usually end up in front of the TV or computer, instead of running around outside.

Also, without a parent at home to prepare a healthy meal, kids are often left to live on junk food. These two factors alone explain much of the childhood obesity problem. Common sense bears this out, and research helps to confirm it. For example, we know that kids are less at risk of obesity problems if breastfed. But absent mums means no or little breast-feeding.

Eberstadt also looks at the alarming rise in psychotropic medicines. Kids are being plied with various drugs at an unprecedented level, be it for ADHD, for depression, or whatever. Yet a growing body of literature is showing that there are many risks associated with drugs such as Ritalin, Paxil, Risperdal and the various anti-depressants, and stimulants such as methylphenidate.

Why are we drugging our children at such high levels, even with the known risks? Eberstadt again suggests that parental absence is part of the reason our children are experiencing so many problems. Most of these drugs are really behaviour-management or performance-enhancing drugs, designed to give a technological quick-fix to what may just be old-fashioned discipline problems, or what may be largely manageable when a parent is around.

But with parents absent in such great numbers, more and more of our child-carers resort to drugs to fix the problem. And the ironic thing is, it may well be the stresses and unhappiness caused by parental separation that is getting the kids into more trouble to begin with.

Eberstadt also looks at the day-care industry, and how we are allowing a generation of kids to be looked after by strangers. In addition, she examines the huge increase in emotional and psychological problems plaguing our children. She also considers the rise of violence among children.

All in all, our kids are experiencing an unprecedented tidal wave of physical, social and psychological problems that we normally associate with adults. And these problems have arisen at exactly the same time that we have seen absentee parenting mushroom.

Again, adults living in denial will want to say that the two are simply not connected. Perhaps they are right. But the correlation seems to be strong, and some type of at least loose causality may be involved. If so, then for the sake of our children we need to slow down and take stock of how this rise in parent-separation is affecting our children.

If there are questions about possible harm to our children, then we need to stop and reassess. Eberstadt is here taking one of the most politically incorrect stances, and will surely take a hammering as a result. But we are talking about our children, about the next generation.

If we are not sure of possible harm, then the sensible thing would be to stop this massive social experiment, until more clarity and certainty is forthcoming. But to rush ahead, with eyes shut, ignoring the many possible warnings that our children are suffering by parental absence is not the sensible approach.

Our children deserve better. And our future demands that we ask the hard questions. Eberstadt finishes her volume with a simple plea. She does not offer a checklist of policy options or steps on what must be done. She instead summarises the findings of this book by stating what most of us should know by common sense and experience: children do better, generally speaking, when parental absence is minimised, and they do worse, generally speaking, when it is not.

Parental presence will not solve all the problems mentioned in this book, but it will help quite a bit. Thus we need a change of attitude, a shift in social and individual thinking. If kids thrive with their parents around, what steps can we take to make this more possible. If kids are damaged by parental absence, what policy initiatives and parental choices can be made to lessen this condition?

Unless we are ready to get real about the damage being done to our children by parental absence, things will continue to worsen. But we can turn things around if we are really concerned about the welfare of our children. And this book helps point us in the right direction.

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