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Home Alone -- and Unhappy

Reflections on the State of U.S. Children

STANFORD, California, JAN. 31, 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 now engaged."

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 development.

Sudden impact

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 contact.

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 main causes.

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.

Mental health

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.

Primal scream

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 -- a target of lesbian groups, feminists and conservative family ...

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