Separation Anxiety

Book cover
Home-Alone Americaby Mary EberstadtSentinel. 218p $25.95

This is a provocative, even polemical book. The provocation flows from the near-taboo question it raises, a question that merits a serious hearing: How much time do children need with parents, especially mothers? Do we need to scrutinize closely America’s ongoing, massive, historically unprecedented experiment in family-child separation?


Mary Eberstadt, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, wades into frequently cordoned-off terrain, hedged about by the rhetorical landmines of the “mommy wars.” Her polemic rages against “ideological separationism,” i.e., those who, against contrary evidence, champion institutionalized day and after-school care. Separationists, Eberstadt claims, tend to stress what mothers ought to have the freedom to do, yet they can be rather dismissive of the possible negative fallout for children.

Faced with mounting evidence of what she dubs “feral behavior” in children (e.g., biting, aggressive behaviors, teen suicides), Eberstadt marshals data about the time the young spend in front of television screens (up) and physical exercise and outdoor play (down). Youngsters today are fatter than ever and more likely to engage in sexual activity earlier. Children and adolescents imbibe psychotropic drugs in greater quantities. Have we reached a tipping point in our society of unattended children and teenagers, forcing serious reconsiderations of the social costs of separationism?

Divorce rates (one in two marriages) and out-of-wedlock births (one in three) have exploded, as have the proportions of single mothers and absent fathers. Add smaller and geographically extended families to the mix, and the result is a serious decline in the time children spend with parents and other relatives. The author acknowledges, however, that—contrary to what we might expect—in most standard academic tests children in institutionalized day care do not do much worse than children raised at home.

One real danger in day care is sickness. Children who attend long day-care and after-school programs get sicker and come under greater stress. They also exhibit aggressive behavioral problems. Studies have shown that the level of cortisol (a stress-related chemical) in day care children reverses the normal pattern. For most humans, cortisol levels are highest in the morning, then level off. For day care children it becomes higher as the day progresses. Apparently, their internal stress mounts during their institutionalized day. Perhaps these children are not getting enough “lap time.”

Childhood obesity has become a national epidemic. The problem of extremely overweight children poses a trenchant question: In what kind of social world do adults cease their essential task of monitoring children’s eating habits? In a large number of families, parents and children do not eat together. They dine like rotational squatters. Latchkey kids have become more sedentary, in part because there are fewer “eyes on the street” of trusted at-home neighbors to supervise play. Data show that children who eat dinner regularly with parents have half the risk for problem drinking, teen suicide or sexual activity.

Again, while teenage pregnancies are down (thanks to contraceptives), teenage sexually transmitted diseases are dramatically, even epidemically, up—with long-term potential health consequences, especially for women. Unsupervised teens have more sex than those who have adult supervision.

Other chapters of this book treat teenagers’ growing resort to psychotropic drugs like Ritalin or Prozac. Prescription drug use is growing faster among children than among the elderly and baby boomers. In an intriguing chapter on teen music, Eberstadt points out that rap music by artists like Eminem (just the kind of violent music parents would want their kids to avoid) complains of broken families, absent fathers and parental abandonment. If baby-boomer music was a protest against parenting, the new teen music screams about absent parents. Elsewhere the author probes the rapid expansion of sometimes “gulag”-like alternative boot camps for problem teenagers.

Surprisingly, despite a rhetorical decibel level high enough to merit the hearing she wants, Eberstadt suggests solutions that are rather commonsensical. She eschews any blame game, especially against women who have no economic choices but full-time work. Some common sense solutions are available even to single-parent and two-parent working families: dinner together, more time together, helping with homework. All things being equal, she argues, children would be better off if parents were with their kids more of the time. We would be better off as a society if more mothers with genuine choices stayed home or worked part time, and if more parents avoided divorce. Even those parents unwilling or unable to spend more time with their children might endorse the idea that having more parents available to youth would benefit everyone. Small steps, such as having more adults on urban and suburban playgrounds in the late afternoon, free up opportunities for exercise. More children could go to someone else’s adult-supervised home after school as a check against opportunities for teenage sex (which nowadays is less likely to take place in the back seats of cars than in the bedrooms of homes where adults are absent).

On one thing, Eberstadt is spot on. In contemporary society, the level of unsupervised adolescents and separation of children from parents in long, institutionalized days is unprecedented. We need to look more carefully at—and take to heart—data that point to its heavy social toll.

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