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

Jul 25, 2006

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.

[982 words]

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

  • Many thanks for your article, Bill. I have a relative who works in child day care and I recognise from her stories that the American scene shows up in Australia.
    Stan Fishley, Wantirna

  • It is a concern that our next generation of children are being partly raised by strangers. Families are financially assisted with 20 hours of daycare a week. I understand that both parent’s have to work to be able to have a decent living in the 21st century, I do wonder though if we are allowing our children to be exposed to different values that would be otherwise taught in the home. We do not know what our precious children are been taught at these day-care centres, this raises an interesting point of view.

    Rae Wallace Devonport

  • Thanks for the review Bill.

    I also agree with Rae in being concerned about what values our children are being taught by those other than parents. However, the most obvious value being taught by daycare and the general ‘outsourcing’ of child raising is that other things are more important than they are; that family is a commodity that is common only becuase of our genes or where we sleep the night.

    Where a child from early years is outsourced they are taught that they are less of an individual and that they are subsequently required to conform to common standards – whatever that means!

    What sort of parents will these children grow up to be?

    Is it any wonder that having a baby today is so often degraded, however subtle, or, worse, to be given that horrific tag of ‘breeders’?

    Jeremy Peet, Melbourne

  • I remember in the late 1950s when newly married women were allowed to keep their permanent government careers, instead of being forced to take lower paid casual work (which implied that married men were expected to provide enough for the family to live on without wives having to work). I said then that a married man with a wife at home would no longer be able to compete financially with couples having two well paid jobs – so that all wives would have to work in the end. That’s what happened.

    Geoff Holland, Forest Hill, Vic

  • Wouldn’t it be preferable for couples to suffer a slightly lower standard of living so the wife could stay home and raise the children? Isn’t the welfare of our children of more importance than having the latest plasma TV? Much of the extra income earned by the second spouse working goes to the day-care centre anyway. And what is our so-called ‘conservative’ federal government doing about this problem? Why, spending more of the tax payers’ money on child care centres of course! When can we have a real conservative government instead of these pretend ‘conservatives’ we have now?

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  • I am with all you guys. I have had 8 children and was fortunate to have them home with me in their early development. I remember some 25 years ago the head a child minding centre in the city of Brisbane at City Hall in fact said you could put a line down the centre of children for those whose mothers had to work and those that didn’t have to. I feel for the kids that are under an organized program every waking hour compared with those who are free to get lost in the back yard to have time to sort their world out. I am sure the time for silence to glue youself together help makes a more peaceful individual, a happier calmer child that has a better chance of comprehending their world. I have seen from my experience that the children in care centers who spend long time in their care become very aggressive and demanding (need for nurturing). The fact is that a child carer, no matter how concientious does not have the time or the inclination to sooth a troubled little one for the length that is needed.
    What importance does our society put on the raising of healthy well adjusted individuals and where the child is in the long term served best? Who is game to say?
    Rhonda Jaunitis, Queensland

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