Home-alone America

Posted: Nov 19, 2004 12:00 AM

Mary Eberstadt has written an unwelcome book. That doesn't make it any less important or less necessary. But many people will want to look the other way. In "Home-Alone America," Eberstadt confronts us with the consequences of a revolution in American parenting that has left children increasingly deprived of time -- or any relationship at all -- with their mothers and fathers.

    This revolution has two causes: "The first is the divorce/illegitimacy explosion -- or what might be called the absent-father problem. The second is what is often the flip side of that explosion, working motherhood -- or the absent-mother problem -- which is sometimes a real choice and sometimes not." Eberstadt exposes the nasty underside of the emphasis on the "lifestyle choices" and personal fulfillment of adults -- at the expense of their kids.

    Consider one aspect of juvenile life under this new dispensation --  sexually transmitted diseases. Eberstadt writes: "Of reported cases of chlamydia in 2000, 74 percent occurred in persons age 15 to 24, and that number is judged to be 'a substantial underestimate of the true incidence of chlamydia among young people,' in the words of The Alan Guttmacher Institute. An estimated 11 percent of people age 15 to 24 are infected with genital herpes, and 33 percent of females in the same age group are thought to be infected with human papillomavirus (HPV). This age group is also thought to account for 60 percent of gonorrhea cases. ... Of the 18.9 million new STD cases in the United States in 2000, about 9.1 million, or half, were found in people between the ages of 15 and 24."

    That is a paragraph that will make any morally sensate reader queasy. Where are many of these kids having sex? In empty homes. A study in the journal Pediatrics of public-school kids found that 91 percent were having sex in a home setting -- usually after school, when parents aren't around. Absent parents are practically an invitation to early sexual initiation. According to Pediatrics, "Youths who were unsupervised for 30 or more hours per week were more likely to be sexually active compared with those who were unsupervised for 5 hours a week or less."

    This is just the beginning of Eberstadt's distressing catalog:

    --There has been a dramatic increase in ear infections, technically known as otitis media, in children. Eberstadt quotes a specialist: "Virtually every study ever done on the increase in otitis media has shown that day care is the most important difference."

    --According to Eberstadt, "Practically every index of juvenile mental and emotional problems is rising." Many of these maladies are linked to absent parents. A Department of Health and Human Services report found that "children in single-parent families are two to three times as likely as children in two-parent families to have emotional and behavioral problems."

    --Despite recent dips, crime and suicide rates among teenagers are higher than they were three decades ago. Eberstadt writes, "A causal chain is suggested in which home-alone teenagers pick up alcohol and drug habits that, in turn, make it easier to imagine and act on feral behaviors, including suicide."

    --"The percentage of overweight children and teenagers tripled between the 1960s and late 1990s," she reports, attributing the rise largely to absent parents, who aren't there to keep their kids from sitting in front of the TV, to breast-feed (mother's milk reduces the risk of obesity later) or to supervise outdoor play.

    Absent fathers or mothers might read all this and feel guilty. Eberstadt doesn't consider that a bad thing, arguing that the reflex to protect parents from ever feeling guilt serves "to stop discussion just when it needs to start." She pleads for a broad cultural shift: "We need to replace our current low moral bar regarding nurture with a more humane standard acknowledging that individuals and society would be better off if more parents spent more time with children."

    This book cries out, as surely do so many children: "Mom, Dad -- where are you?"