Home-Alone America: Mary Eberstadt Speaks Up for Kids
- Wednesday, December 15, 2004
In today's age of postmodern minimalism, book covers rarely tell you much about the book itself. That is hardly the case with Home-Alone America, however. The cover of Mary Eberstadt's new book features a photograph of a briefcase-carrying mom trying to get out the door while her preschool son hangs onto her leg. That image is worth a thousand words, but Eberstadt adds a few thousand more in this excellent, important, and absolutely fascinating look at the realities of childhood in America today.
"Of all the explosive subjects in America today," Eberstadt argues, "none is as cordoned off, as surrounded by rhetorical land mines, as the question of whether and just how much children need their parents--especially their mothers. In an age littered with discarded taboos, this one in particular remains virtually untouched."
Untouched, that is, until Mary Eberstadt came along with her research and persuasive argument. Home-Alone America is a book with a mission and a message. As Mary Eberstadt explains, "It strives to shed light on one of the fundamental changes of our time: the ongoing, massive, and historically unprecedented experiment in family-child separation in which the United States and most other advanced societies are now engaged."
Remainder tables are now littered with books taking various sides in the debates over daycare, divorce, working mothers, and related points of controversy. Though these books enjoy something like a half-life through footnotes and continuing references, most have passed into the world of dated irrelevance. It's likely to be a long time before Home-Alone America meets that same fate. Why? Because Mary Eberstadt focuses precisely on children themselves. Her book identifies divorce (with its result of absent fathers) and working mothers (with the result of children home alone) as the major culprits behind the pathologies harming America's children. She really isn't concerned about the parents themselves; instead, she looks specifically and strategically at the impact of these social trends on children.
As Eberstadt explains, advanced economies have produced massive social changes that impact the lives of children -- and that impact can be measured in childhood sickness, rising rates of diagnosed mental illnesses, the skyrocketing use of psychotrophic drugs, childhood violence, and even the epidemic of childhood obesity. Nevertheless, even as these social indicators have tracked the tragic impact of these experiments on the lives of children, many of these questions have been put off-limits to public discussion. Feminists, along with other ideologically driven interest groups, insist that the focus should be on the health and happiness of the parents -- especially women. Eberstadt rejects this focus on the adults. "Whether celebratory or critical, left wing or right wing, fictitious or factual, most of the literature devoted so far to this great social experiment has one critical common denominator: It is all about the adult side, and particularly the female adult side, of the absent-parent home."
Eberstadt, Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and four children. She brings personal experience as a mother to this project, and adds to that a wealth of academic and research experience. Readers of Policy Review, the excellent journal now published by the Hoover Institution, have watched Home-Alone America emerge in early form as a series of articles and essays published there. In a series of fascinating chapters, Eberstadt walks the reader through a litany of problems, illnesses, and pathologies that affect so many of today's children. She blames two major trends as the root causes of most of these problems. In the first place, fathers have been removed from the households through easy divorce, unwed motherhood, and sexual promiscuity. The absence of the father is the single most important explanatory factor behind many of the problems now affecting America's youth, ranging from childhood sexual abuse to out-of-control boys and sexual promiscuity among girls. The second factor Eberstadt bravely addresses is the absence of mothers from the home and the fact that so many children spend so much time without any parent present in the household. This absence leads to any number of ills, injuries, and problems, and many of these are directly associated with the institutionalization of children in daycare and other forms of alternative parenting.
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