TBR: Home Alone America

Laura at 11d’s thought-provoking review of Mary Eberstadt‘s Home Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Subsitutes inspired me to get the book out of the library and read it myself.

I have to agree with Laura’s conclusion that this book is a methodological "disaster area." Eberstadt is totally scornful of social scientists’ attempts to distinguish between correlation and causation. At times she cites studies that support her arguments – although if you track the footnotes, she’s often looking at popular summaries of the research, rather than the researchers’ own papers — but she totally ignores studies that disagree with her.

In a mindboggling twist of logic, Eberstadt argues that the fact that "the country’s leading child care experts have all revised downward over the years their estimations of just how much young children need their mothers" couldn’t possibly mean it’s true, but rather that even pediatricians are hopelessly misguided, even corrupted. Only she is the voice of compassion, crying out in the wilderness. Similarly, she cites the attention paid to vaccines as a possible cause of autism as society’s desperate attempt to avoid environmental (non-physical) explanations for the increase in autism in recent years, but totally ignores the painful history of the "refrigerator mom" theory.

But Eberstadt makes enough interesting points that while the book infuriated me at times, I kept on reading it. While the discussion of day care has gotten the most attention, I think it’s the weakest part of the book. Her argument for busy parents as at least one of the explanations for increased childhood obesity was convincing, although she oversells her case by ignoring many of the other factors (suburbanization, expanded tv and video game options, increased perception of crime). Her analysis of the spread of Ritalin and other psychoactive drugs is much less controversial than she implies, but seems basically accurate to me. The data she presents on the spread of STDs among teenage girls is horrifying. The overall picture she paints of parental absence from the day-to-day lives of adolescents is on target. (See Patricia Hersch’s fascinating ethnographic study of middle-class teenagers, A Tribe Apart, for an in-depth portrait of this problem.)

Eberstadt concludes her book not with policy solutions (she acknowledges the absence of "quick fixes" to the problems she identifies), but with a defense of guilt. She argues that if parents (she means mothers) who have the choice whether or not to work or whether or not to stay married make choices that are good for themselves, but bad for their children (or for society), they ought to feel guilty. Conversely, she says that guilt isn’t a factor for those who truly don’t have the choice (e.g. need the money in order to house or feed their kids, are in an abusive marriage). I think that’s simply not true. Not having choices may free you from wondering whether you’re making the best choice, but doesn’t stop you from feeling guilty that you can’t do what you feel you should.

5 Responses to “TBR: Home Alone America”

  1. jen Says:

    Elizabeth, I know somewhere along the line I saw statistics correlating juvenile crime with the number of evening hours the parents worked. This seems to get back to the one point from Eberstadt’s book that you concede: absence of parents. Is there anyone really looking into this parental absence thing, and its impacts? There’s so much emphasis on daycare, but honestly the parental absence problem begins with daycare but only gets worse as the kids get older, from what I’ve seen.

  2. Elise Says:

    Are you saying that parents who work and send their kids to day care are doing the wrong thing and that all households should have one parent stay at home? I have to say, if that’s what you’re saying, I take offense at that. Not all day cares are bad, and not all children who are sent to day care are neglected by their parents. My daughter, who attends day care full time, has a very secure attachment to both of her parents and is developing just beautifully. I don’t view my decision to work as a decision to be an “absent parent.”

  3. jen Says:

    No, no, didn’t mean that at all … what I mean is that there’s all this talk about how terrible daycare is. But the data on daycare impacts doesn’t support that it’s a huge problem. However I believe there is clear data that teenagers home, typically after school, without parental supervision is a big problem. (That’s what I mean by “parental absence”.) It just so happens that these same families often were very heavy users of daycare when the kids were little. So why, then, are daycare-aged children worth fighting over so much, but troubled teens are not?
    The other issue I have with all this daycare debate stuff is that no one is questioning the primary problem: lack of scheduling flexibility, and lack of living wages for single parents. Again, harking back to the study about juvenile incarceration rates, it had to do with parents whose shift work kept them out of the house in the evening. This is a problem with JOBS, not with parental styles. Why is no one writing nasty books about that part of it?

  4. jen Says:

    I think I’ve found the research I was referring to. I had remembered incarceration rates (which perhaps shows what’s going on with my extended family these days, ahem) but in fact the outcomes she tracked had to do with poor school performance. In any case, the research is contained in a book called “The Widening Gap”, and there’s a synopsis of it in the following article:

  5. Elise Says:

    Hi Jen,
    Thanks for your response. Sorry I got so huffy there! I am just having a really hard time with all of this anti-day-care rhetoric. I agree with you completely that the problem is with the lack of flexibility in the jobs in this work-crazy country. I often think wistfully about other countries where people get adequate maternity leave, and can go home in the afternoon to be there when their kids get home. It makes me sad and scared to wonder how we’re going to juggle everything when our daughter is old enough for kindergarten – also we’re hoping to have two more, and I really get crazy when I start thinking about all of this.
    So thanks again and glad to see we’re on the same team!

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