Home alone America is 75 percent right

Posted: Dec 17, 2004 12:00 AM

When Mary Eberstadt describes a scene from a well-financed, comfortable day-care center in her neighborhood, it's hard to forget. Eberstadt's 10-year-old daughter spent the day at the center as part of a class trip and came home dejected. The experience was not what the girl, who adores babies and toddlers, had been expecting. "There was a little boy," she explained to her mother, "who was really sick and cried the whole time. His ear was all red, and he shrieked if they even touched it. The day-care ladies were nice and everything, but he wouldn't stop. It was just so sad. All he did was keep screaming the same thing over and over: Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!"

 Thus begins "Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs and Other Parent Substitutes." Eberstadt is aware that day-care advocates will object that she is attempting to instill guilt, and she doesn't really deny it. Parents who drop babies at day-care centers for 10 or 12 hours a day should feel guilty about it. Eberstadt's argument is not with those single or poor parents who have no choice but to work full time and place their children in stranger care.

 Her beef is with those she calls the "separationists," who believe or at least maintain that day care is affirmatively good for children. They argue that if day-care children get more ear infections than home-raised kids (and it is undisputed that they do), well, that just means they get fewer infections in kindergarten and first grade. Maybe so, but Eberstadt counters with this question: What kind of mother wants to expose her children to the "school of hard knocks" before they can walk and talk?

 This is a point well worth making because the real debate over day care does not concern poor parents and their decisions but rather middle-class and upper-class parents who usually have a choice. The separationists resent the notion that children have a call upon their mothers' time and can impede their mothers' rise up the corporate greasy pole.

 Eberstadt argues in this book that American parents (she doesn't let dads off the hook) are neglecting their kids on a widespread basis. Some of her claims are more persuasive than others. The data on teenage sexuality are familiar but no less disturbing for that. Eleven percent of 15- to 24-year-olds are infected with genital herpes, and 33 percent of females in this age group are believed to have human papillomavirus (HPV), which increases the risk for various cancers of the reproductive tract. Where are the kids contracting these sexually transmitted diseases? They are contracting them in empty homes between the hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., when they are often left unsupervised.

 I certainly was unaware that so much of the music teenagers consume is shot through with misery about family breakdown. A group called Blink-182 had a top-40 song in 2001 called "Stay Together for the Kids." Another group called Good Charlotte features lyrics in which a teenager reminds his absent father of his sons and little girl and demands "How can you sleep at night?"

 But while the data on parental neglect are certainly out there, the picture is far more complicated than that. As with most historical trends, contradictory things can be going on at the same time. So while some parents are clearly failing their kids in many ways, others are doing more than ever. Most parents of my generation are far more involved, for example, in our kids' education than our parents were in ours. We take many more precautions with our kids than previous generations -- sometimes to a fault, but this is the opposite of neglect.

 Finally, Eberstadt urges that the use of psychotropic drugs in children amounts to a quick fix by parents unprepared to invest time in their kids and to do the hard work of discipline. She argues that attention deficit disorder and even autism are not real diseases but rather labels that a too busy society puts on kids who simply cry out for more parenting. In this, she is simply wrong. ADD is real, as is autism.

 For years, the medical profession did a terrible injustice to women whose children were autistic by blaming them for the condition. The conventional wisdom was that "cold" and emotionally withholding mothers caused the condition in children. We now know that this is nonsense. It's a neurological problem. Eberstadt is doing the same with ADD. Some parents are better able to handle a disabled child than others, but that does not mean the disability is invented.

 So Eberstadt is 75 percent right in this book. Three stars out of a possible four.