|Reflections on the State of U.S. Children
STANFORD, California, 29 JAN. 2005 (ZENIT)
Concern over problems
facing the younger generation is nothing new. A recent book, however,
links juvenile difficulties with another controversial subject: changes
in family structures.
Commentator and author Mary Eberstadt, a part-time research fellow at
Stanford University's Hoover Institution, argues that for some years now
there has been an "historically unprecedented experiment in family-child
separation in which the United States and other advanced societies are
In her recent book, "Home-Alone America," Eberstadt explains that there
have been two main causes of the "empty-parent home": the explosion in
divorce and the number of children born to single parents; and working
motherhood, or what she terms the absent-mother problem. A third factor
of lesser importance is the absence of grandparents due to geographical
separation, and the reduced number of siblings.
Eberstadt sidesteps the debate over the merits or demerits of the
changes in family structures and concentrates on examining what is
happening with children and adolescents. Her thesis is that in recent
years children have spent less and less time in the company of their
parents, and simultaneously many measures of their well-being have
declined. This is no mere coincidence, she maintains.
For starters, the author analyzes day care for infants. Numerous studies
and books focus on the effects of leaving babies in child-care centers
while their mothers go off to work. Some maintain there are positive
results in terms of higher academic achievement, while others point to
emotional damage that can have dire consequences for character
Instead of trying to discern what may happen 20 years down the line,
Eberstadt focuses on the more immediate impact on infants. Babies left
in institutional care, for instance, are far more likely to get sick due
to being exposed to all the other children. And an increase in
aggression among children who are left in child-care centers is well
documented, she argues. Overall, Eberstadt concludes that packing
children off to day care will make them unhappy. She further contends
that parents who rationalize about this phenomenon, end up less
sensitive to their kids' needs.
Teen violence is rising too. Eberstadt pointed out that many of the most
publicized cases in recent years, such as the 1999 killings at Columbine
High School and the 2003 sniper attacks around Washington, D.C.,
involved adolescents who spent most of their time without any parental
She quickly admits that having two attentive parents is no ironclad
guarantee of decent character, but "not having them can turn out to be
disastrous." Substance abuse, suicide and violent behavior are just some
of the social indicators that have dramatically worsened in recent
decades, and Eberstadt points the finger at absent parents as one of the
The discipline situation in some schools has meant that teachers are
forced into the role of virtual U.N. peacekeepers, she contends. And
many of the most feral children come from single-parent backgrounds or
households where the adults are out working all the time.
The number of children and teen-agers diagnosed with mental disorders
has exploded in recent years, noted Eberstadt. A January 2001 report by
the U.S. surgeon general spoke of a "public crisis in mental care" this
age group. Dealing with attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity,
obsessive compulsions, along with the daily administrations of
behavior-altering drugs, is now a daily fact of life for many families.
Chaotic home environments, absent parents and trauma caused by divorce
in many cases can be factors contributing to mental health problems
suffered by children. The causes of psychological problems are complex.
But they are due in part argues Eberstadt, citing some studies
to the emotional response of the disappearance from children's lives of
protecting parents and a stable home environment.
Then, too, the "cures" offered through pharmaceuticals such as Ritalin
and Prozac bring with them a series of side effects. And too
infrequently is there talk about the risks of over-prescribing such
psychotropic medications, Eberstadt observes.
In another chapter Eberstadt draws on the teen music scene to gain an
insight into adolescent concerns. Lamentations centering on divorce and
broken homes are finding an ever-more popular reception among young
listeners. Even rap singers, long known for extolling violence and
misogyny, complain about the lack of decent family life.
The singer Eminem
target of lesbian groups, feminists and conservative family
is one of the clearest examples of this tendency. Along with vulgar
language and the exaltation of sex and violence, "he returns repeatedly
to the same themes that fuel other success stories in contemporary
music: parental loss, abandonment, abuse, and subsequent child and
adolescent anger, dysfunction and violence."
Eberstadt finds here an important difference with the preceding
generation. Baby-boomer music was characterized by rebellion against
what was considered as an overly protective parental presence and
authority. By contrast, "Today's teen-agers and their music rebel
against parents because they are not parents, not nurturing, not
attentive, and often not even there."
Other consequences of parental absence are the rise in teen sexual
activity and sexually transmitted diseases. Eberstadt notes that sexual
activity begins earlier when adolescents' lives are effectively out of
any parental control.
Yet the mere presence of parents in the lives of children isn't enough,
argues another author. Kay Hymowitz, in her 2003 book, "Liberation's
Children," insists that adults must also provide children with
instruction on how to live. Hymowitz, a journalist, says that today's
adolescents have absorbed from the surrounding culture an ethos of "nonjudgmentalism."
Too often, she notes, parents have left aside their traditional role of
instructing their offspring in values and concentrate on being their
"housemates and friends." The consequences are nefarious. Without any
education in the limits of human nature, teens are left to "stumble into
experiences" that all too often spiral out of their control.
In the past it was assumed that children would receive a basic moral
education that was learned as part of family life. But in recent decades
many theories of child rearing espoused the need to let kids act
naturally and without any constraints.
Along with this, many Americans have been imbued with the idea that to
create an "authentic self" complete autonomy is needed in beliefs,
opinions and choices in life. Thus, teaching children how to behave
becomes forbidden and parents are transformed from figures of authority
"into facilitators, cheerfully escorting the child's own unique self
Every society, argues Hymowitz, needs to civilize its new generations by
means of some form of education. Unfortunately, the values that
predominate today are those of tolerance and open-mindedness, which,
albeit laudatory at times, "cannot help the young person to build a
self." Liberation's children, Hymowitz notes, "live in a culture that
frees the mind and soul by emptying them."
Eberstadt, at the end of her book, turns to the question of what can be
done to remedy these problems. She maintains that it would be much
better if parents were to spend more time with their children. Hymowitz
agrees with this same idea, but makes clear that forming children in
basic moral values is also an essential part of parenting. How to bring
about these changes remains a difficult, but urgent, task.