My mom was a full-time mother and I was the envy of my classmates. Not just because she was there, but because she was there and she was fun. She might be baking a chocolate cake and she would let us eat the raw dough from the Mixmaster bowl. She listened to us recite the lines we had to memorize from "Romeo and Juliet" and play the nurse or Friar Lawrence.
In high school, everybody descended on my house after school to plan campaigns for class officers, plot class picnics or gossip about who was going out with whom. My father would breeze in to talk about the Redskins (more fun to talk about in those days) with the boys and to tell the girls how smart and pretty they were. I didn't realize how lucky I was at the time, it was just how things were supposed to be.
Once my father gave us a genuine Wurlitzer jukebox for the rec room. He showed us how to push a button in the back so it wouldn't require a nickel to play a Perry Como record. We learned to square dance to the music on the juke: "Dive for the oyster, dive. Dig for the clams, dig. Do-si-do and away we go." Corny it was, but kids are born with a taste for corn. (Every generation just thinks its corn is cool.)
Mary Eberstadt's new book, "Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes," brought all this to mind. The title is a mouthful and it raises a noisy controversy over the effects of modern feminism on child-rearing practices. For years, the idealized stay-at-home mom, with Daddy as the breadwinner, has been under siege and on the defensive, decried as the victim of "gender tyranny." The cover of "Home-Alone" would melt the heart of Scrooge, with a little boy clinging to the ankles of his mommy and daddy, armed with matching briefcases, heading out the door.
That's a metaphor for lots of children today and it's not necessarily all bad. It helps children recognize that parents have a life beyond the hearth. But for some children it's sad indeed, and it's the sad children that Mary Eberstadt's book is about - children who rarely have any fun with their parents, suffering the cries and whispers of loss without having a name to put on it. It's about the tilt of a culture that encourages the growth in the number of those children.
The emotional life of childhood when parents are absent from the during-the-day lives of their children is often empty, indeed. Although we've heard a lot about the pros and cons of day care for the youngest children, we haven't heard so much about what happens to teenagers deprived of parental supervision after school. These are the chapters that will spark debate. The teenage years are the last best chance to influence a child's character and values, and it's the most sensitive time to shape development, to enable children to see parents as models for their future.
"If yesterday's rock was the music of abandon, today's is the music of abandonment," she writes with poignant documentation.
Coinciding with this lament is the documentation of what happens when vulnerable teenagers in empty houses hook up casually, and always hurtfully. Such teenagers are not rebelling against their parents so much as taking advantage of their parents' absence. You don't need the statistics - though they exist in abundance - to know that teenagers whose parents aren't around indulge in more sex (and acquire more sexually transmitted diseases), drugs, alcohol and cigarettes than teenagers supervised at home.
So what to do? Eberstadt does not offer prescriptions and she doesn't try to fit square parents into round holes. One size does not fit all. There's room in her scenarios for men and women who are better off divorced, for working parents who can't be home and whose children succeed despite all kinds of emotional obstacles. But she accumulates the evidence that requires us to question deeply the tilt of priorities that shortchange children.
No parent can participate in a child's life 24 hours a day. But we can encourage parents to be there for teenagers in bigger chunks of time, both formal and informal. Teenagers are enormously susceptible to rewards and punishments for good and bad behavior if a loving person is present to provide it.
"For a significant number of today's kids, life is worse in important ways than it was for their parents," writes Eberstadt. And, "many of us adults know it."