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Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes

6 Aug

“The argument of the pages that follow could scarcely be more controversial to many contemporary readers. Of all the explosive subjects in America today, none is as cordoned off, as surrounded by rhetorical land mines, a s the question of whether and just how much children need their parents- especially their mothers.” says author Mary Eberstadt in the introduction to her book Home Alone America. She explains the drive behind the message of the book by saying that, “It strives to shed light on one of the fundamental changes of our time: the ongoing, massive, and historically unprecedented experiment in family-child separation in which the United States and most other advanced societies are now engaged.”

A while back, I shared some of the books I’ve been reading and I purposely left out “Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes” in order to devote an entire post to briefly recommending it. I think the title itself is fairly provocative and would probably put some people off of even opening the flap! If you’re one of those people, I hope you at least read this post in its entirety to take a glimpse at some of the compelling points the author makes. I would put this book in the category of highly recommended reading for any parent, parent-to-be, or anyone who works with children. For anyone else who doesn’t fit in those categories, you may very likely become a parent in years to come so don’t forget about this book!

The inside jacket reads as follows: “It might be the most taboo question in America: What do today’s unprecedented numbers of absent parents really mean for children? Why are record numbers of children and teenagers now diagnosed with psychiatric problems of all kinds: conduct disorders, depression, anxiety, ADD?… Why are teenagers contracting herpes and other sexually transmitted diseases, including incurable and cancer-related viruses, at alarming rates? A few decades ago, most children came home from school to a mother who monitored their diets, prevented sexual activity or delinquency by her mere presence, and provided a basic emotional safety net… But today, many mothers work outside the home and many fathers are unmarried or divorced and living far away. Moreover, many children do not have a grandparent or even a sibling nearby to fill the void left by absent parents. As a result, too many kids now feel like just another chore to be outsourced- dropped off at a day care, handed over to a nanny, left in front of a television or the internet, or often sequestered home alone with easy access to all kinds of trouble.”

Eberstardt is right. It is still a taboo question to ask what absent parents really mean for children. From the start, in her first chapter called The Real Trouble with Day Care, she makes a point to clarify that day care is a necessity for some parents. I agree. The point of her argument is not to assess the reasons why parents choose to place their children in day care, but rather to focus on the impact that day care has on many children. Likewise with subsequent chapters on behavioural drugs, music, child obesity, and teenage sex, her goal in asking questions and providing facts and assertions about the cause of problems in each regard is not to denounce behavioural drugs, dietary choices, and music but to try to break in to a debate that has raged on for quite a while, and “challenge that social prohibition”.

To whet the appetite for what Eberstadt has to say, here is a short excerpt from her first chapter on day care.

“Generally speaking, then, both the critics and advocates of institutional care agree about one thing: It is the effects, whether behavioural or cognitive or other, that make or break the case for day care. This emphasis on the long run is only natural, of course; parents do indeed care very much about results of all kinds. In fact, as the ones most likely to have the long-term interests of the child at heart, parents by definition must care about such things; it would be perverse if they did not.

Yet this focus on the long term, natural as it may be, has also obscured one important related point: To say that day care should be judged on the long-term results is not to say that those results are the only measure by which to judge this experiment. Here, as in other serious arguments, ends aren’t everything. The question of what happens in the here and now also needs to be factored in.” (Eberstadt, 3)

If you’d like a little more on why this book is worth a read, take a look at Al Mohler’s review and strong endorsement.

Regardless of the choices you have made or plan on making, her arguments are sure to raise points that you most probably have never thought of or even been made aware of. For that reason, as a person who cares about the well-being of their children, or any children in your life for that matter, I would strongly encourage you to pick up a copy and think through these major issues seriously.

If you’ve read other related literature, I’d love to hear suggestions!