The Magazine

Life Without Father

. . . or mother, either. Mary Eberstadt on the family in America.

Dec 6, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 12 • By SUSIE POWELL CURRIE
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Home-Alone America

The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes

by Mary Eberstadt

Sentinel, 218 pp., $25.95

IN SEPTEMBER, Florida mother Dakeysha Lee left her two-year-old daughter alone in her apartment while she began a jail sentence. The child was found nineteen days later by her father--naked, caked with dried ketchup and mustard, and watching television in her mother's bedroom. She had apparently clawed the labels off canned goods and subsisted on toilet water, condiments, brownie mix, and dry macaroni. Lee, who was serving time for brandishing a box cutter and attempting to steal $200, received eighteen months probation for leaving her toddler to her own devices for nearly three weeks.

CBS News's headline a few days after the child was hospitalized for dehydration and malnutrition was "Home-Alone Tot in Good Shape." If headline writers can put a happy face on a story like that, imagine what they can do to less dramatic stories of absent parents.

Remember when we were told how great it is that day-care babies develop hardier immune systems than their stay-at-home counterparts--from getting sick twice as often? Or how, when another study showed increased aggression in children who spent the most time away from their parents, reporters lauded the youngsters' independent streaks, honed in the fires of early socialization?

Mary Eberstadt's cogent new book, Home-Alone America, goes way beyond the headlines to show the effects of absent parents on nearly every area of children's lives. The reality, she contends, is that the ever-greater outsourcing of child rearing has led to children who are sadder, angrier, fatter, sicker (with everything from common colds to life-threatening sexually transmitted diseases), and more psychotropically medicated than any generation in history. Throughout the book, she challenges the spurious causes that doctors, experts, and other allegedly responsible adults almost frantically posit when faced with mountains of evidence that all leading indicators of children's health and behavior are continuing their southward slump.

Their position seems to be that no matter what disorder is manifesting itself, a contributing factor cannot be the way American children are being reared. Is your child obese? Must be in his genes. Biting everyone in preschool? Kids will be kids. Disobedient? He has either Oppositional Defiance Disorder or Auditory Processing Delay. Never heard of them? Oh, well, that's because we just discovered them. What he needs is a good prescription.

Eberstadt's well-documented work takes a different tack. It grabs us by the collar and forces us to look at the fruit that has sprung from the seeds of thirty-year-old twin social experiments: two-career families (resulting in absent mothers) and easy divorces (resulting in absent fathers).

Some of the fruit is bitter indeed, such as the rising demand for both round-the-clock child-care centers and boarding schools that specialize in adolescent "behavior modification"--by, in some cases, pushing the blindfolded child off a bridge into a river at night. The students at these institutions are not addicts or criminals; in fact, they couldn't get in if they were. An administrator estimated that 70 percent of the residents at one such school were there because they "cannot communicate at home."

They do communicate, though, through their music. In a fascinating chapter on "The Primal Scream of Teenage Music," Eberstadt wades through the fetid heavy-metal/hip-hop swamp of profanity and misogyny and finds common themes such as parental divorce and absent fathers.

Papa Roach's "Broken Home," Blink 182's "Stay Together for the Kids," and Snoop Doggy Dogg and Soulja Slim's "Mama Raised Me" are just a few of the examples she cites, complete with plaintive lyrics that might have been lifted from a troubled grade-schooler's diary. (If, that is, the youth could string together enough four-letter words.) The late Tupac Shakur raps about having to play catch by himself. Even the execrable Eminem excoriates today's parents for ignoring and overmedicating their children.

Eberstadt produces abundant evidence in her chapter on "wonder drugs" that the controversial rapper has a point. Preschoolers' prescriptions for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors used to treat anxiety and depression increased tenfold in four years. Ritalin production increased more than 700 percent between 1990 and 2000. And her chapter on mental health wonders why the blame for children's deteriorating behavior is being laid squarely at their little feet. There are dozens of new criteria for the alphabet soup of newly discovered children's mental health problems, but nothing pertaining to parental behavior. Why no Preoccupied Parent Syndrome or Separation Non-anxiety Disorder, which Dakeysha Lee clearly exhibits?