Kids Are Us
Mary Eberstadt talks about what parental absenteeism is doing to children.


The stressful lives of parents in America have, as common sense would dictate, a direct impact on their children. In her new book, Home-Alone America, Mary Eberstadt effectively gets beyond the “mommy wars” of the women’s glossies and instead focuses on what is happening to kids in the rat race of U.S. lives. Day care, latchkeyism, excessive TV watching, the list goes on–they all have serious drawbacks that children have to live with. Eberstadt, a mother andfellow at the Hoover Insitution, talked to NRO’s Kathryn Lopez this week about children, parents, and Home-Alone America.

National Review Online: How is life worse for a significant number of children today than it was for their parents? How is that even possible–with all the “progress” we’ve made in technology, quality of life, etc?

Mary Eberstadt: Home-Alone America is about precisely this paradox.

Today’s generation of kids has serious troubles that either didn’t exist before, or didn’t exist in anything like today’s numbers. Juvenile obesity has tripled since the early 1960s. Diagnoses of psychiatric problems have skyrocketed in the last couple of decades and so too have prescriptions of psychiatric drugs for kids (Ritalin production, to take one example, rose 700 percent between 1980 and 1990.). Sexually transmitted diseases, some potentially fatal, are epidemic among teenagers, and “epidemic” isn’t my word–it’s the label used David Satcher, Clinton’s former surgeon general, and several hundred other medical professionals. Then there are more ephemeral measures of downward emotional mobility for at least some of today’s kids–from day care to specialty boarding schools to their current rock and rap, which my book also examines in detail.

Material progress undeniably gives kids (and everyone) things they want–better entertainment, quicker jolts of fun, electronic, and chemical and other substitutes for family members. But it does not give kids what they fundamentally need–the sheer physical presence of loving, protective adults and other family. That’s the common denominator of the juvenile problems examined in my book.

NRO: Is putting a young child in day care “bad”?

Eberstadt: From the start, Home-Alone America gets out from the straitjacket of that kind of language. It’s not a finger-pointing book or an attack on any individuals. We all know that some people have to use day care. We all know that divorce is a fact of life for many. These issues have spawned whole libraries of adult-focused books. Home-Alone America does something else. It moves the spotlight away from adults and puts it on kids.

In considering day care, for example, we know from years of study that children in institutional care are twice as likely to get sick as kids in other arrangements. We also know that some children are also more likely to become aggressive in such care in proportion to the number of hours spent in it. So we know that day care raises the risks for at least some kids of both plain unhappiness (sickness, missing home) and behavioral trouble.

My chapter on day care asks, does the immediate emotional experience of that subset of children experiencing negative effects count for something, or not? That’s a question that hasn’t been talked about much yet.

NRO: Whenever anyone criticizes day care (or just about any parenting decisions), one–as you are well aware–is accused of igniting “mommy wars.” Is there any fair, reasonable way to approach the topic?

Eberstadt: Well, some people–in my book I call them “separationists,” meaning people who positively celebrate parent-child separation–won’t entertain any evidence that parental/familial absence on today’s scale is hurting kids. These are the folks who have been busy for years turning bad news into good–arguing that kids getting colds in day care is good because it immunizes them down the road; that separating small children from parents, especially Moms, is positive because it will make them more “independent”; and so on.

I think it’s time to bracket those people mentally and move on. Most other readers and isteners out there are not ideologically rigid. They are open to the evidence of their senses and to other facts. I’m grateful to say there is a lot of positive response to my book from people who read with an open mind and are interested in real evidence, from all over the political spectrum. They’re the people we need in this conversation.

NRO: So we know from ABC that it’s not a great idea for Desperate Housewives to get hooked on Ritalin, but is Ritalin actually dangerous for kids?

Eberstadt: Home-Alone America takes up several problems associated with today’s unprecedented scale of psychotropic drug-taking among kids. Yes, some children do have terrible mental problems, and some doctors and families find such drugs to be lifesavers. But even pro-medication experts believe that prescriptions have gone way too far. The question my book takes up is why.

Ritalin abuse, for example, is common and risky practice on every campus in the country and an acknowledged fact in teen popular culture; yet it garners almost no attention from doctors and parents. Why not? Several other problems with these drugs have also not gotten the public attention they deserve. Do readers know about the negative impact that of all those prescriptions are having on the U.S. military? (From the feedback I’ve gotten, almost no one outside military circles is aware of it.) Similarly, does anyone know the long-term consequence of labeling many millions of children and teenagers defective and telling them they need medication to fix themselves for life? These are all questions overdue for real discussion.

NRO: The media is always hyping obesity, but is the “Home-Alone America” dynamic that–excuse the pun–feeds it successfully ignored?

Eberstadt: The most important thing to understand about juvenile obesity is that the current preferred explanations for it–fast food, heredity, etc.–really can’t explain why it’s risen so quickly in kids. In my chapter on obesity I explain why those purported “causes” only go so far.

One major reason why kids are fatter today that does not get talked about is this: very often, no one with a long-term interest in their health is around to supervise what goes into their mouths. Nobody is there to say the things that protected previous generations of kids from obesity and heaviness–things like, “Get out of the cupboard and wait until dinner,” or “finish your homework and I’ll take you to the playground,” or “eat one cookie, not six.” Kids also aren’t getting enough exercise, especially after school, because there aren’t enough warm bodies in most neighborhoods to make safe outdoor play possible–another part of the obesity problem clearly linked to an absence of supervision.

NRO: Everyone knows teens don’t listen to their parents, especially about sex. Why do you say parents can affect sexually transmitted diseases?

Eberstadt: Kathryn, of all the questions I get asked about the book, that one always gives me the most trouble keeping a straight face.

What is the connection between absent parents and kids having sex? Hmm, that’s a tough one–not!

But for those who insist on it, social science cited in my book does verify what the realists among us might already guess–unsupervised kids are more likely to have sex, and they are further more likely to do so in those critical hours after school–in people’s homes.

In 2000, half of some 19 million new STD cases were documented in the 15-24 year-old set–i.e., teenagers and young adults. So just slapping a long-term contraceptive on a kid and knowing that she won’t become pregnant isn’t enough to protect her–yet many well-meaning parents, misled by ideological happy talk about “responsible” teen sex, do just that. They need to know the facts.

NRO: Aren’t you just saying in your book–in a nutshell–that women can’t “have it all”?

Eberstadt: Nobody can have it all–including children. It does baffle me that pointing out how important mothers and fathers and other family members are to kids is taken by some people as a personal downer. I don’t see why. It’s elevating to be reminded of one’s importance in the scheme of things.

NRO: You have been working on Home-Alone America and all of its associated issues for awhile now. In your reasearch what is the single most disturbing fact you learned?

Eberstadt: What’s most troubling isn’t any isolated fact, though there are plenty of those. It’s wondering what will happen to all those kids down the road who already think of themselves as damaged emotional and mental goods. What kind of future mothers and fathers themselves will these kids make, given that they grow up feeling unloved and neglected and often the lack of an example of anyone sacrificing for them? Listen to Eminem, the Pied Piper of abandonment, know that he is adored by millions of teenagers for his plumbing of exactly those themes, and ponder that one. That’s what bothers me most in reflecting on the book.

NRO: Do you think there is a way for Americans to actually address the problems absent parents cause in children’s lives? I’m worried about my kids, but my husband and I can’t make ends meet without us both working–what do we do? We really don’t see an option other than day care for the little one and latchkeying for the graderschooler.

Eberstadt: Home-Alone America isn’t an attack on working mothers, and it isn’t an attack on divorced or separated parents, either. There really is no one-size-fits-all answer here.

I’m not here to attack or advise people, but rather to try and revise ideas about what’s really going on out there and what familial absence is doing to significant numbers of today’s kids. There’s been a lot of public rationalization about how resilient children and teenagers are and how well-off they can be without seeing their families for most of their waking hours. It’s definitely harmed some kids and it needs revising.

NRO: If a parent can take away only one message from Home-Alone America, what would you like it to be?

Eberstadt: Any family already sacrificing to keep an adult at home with kids will be feel affirmed by the research in my book. But I think other mothers and fathers who do not or cannot make that same choice will find a different kind of reassurance in its pages, because so much of what the evidence really shows is something they already know from common sense.

Parents don’t have to be perfect. They don’t have to buy the “right” toy to jump-start an infant’s “cognitive skills” or play Mozart to a dribbling three-year-old–and contrary to what many women have been told these last few years, they also don’t have to be a stellar model of career success for their children to admire.

No, as the evidence offered in Home-Alone America shows plainly, what benefits many kids most is something far more prosaic–just having parents plain show up, whether for purposes of simple supervision or for the intangible emotional safety net they seem to offer as no one else. Speaking as an imperfect parent and human myself, I find that message liberating, and I think other parents will also feel liberated to be in possession of new evidence tacitly underlining how much they matter.