HOME-ALONE AMERICA

Autor: Mary Eberstadt Fuente: Policy Review



By Mary Eberstadt

In early march, when the latest teenage killer to make national news opened fire in a high school near San Diego with the deadliest display of such violence since the murders at Columbine two years ago, the usual public scramble for explanations of his behavior followed true to what a sociologist would call “cultural script.” The New York Times weighed in immediately with a stern editorial about “Guns in Young Hands,” urging President Bush to take serious action — or at least what the Times means by serious — namely to convene a White House conference on teen violence. Reporters from the news services fanned out across the country to interview as many acquaintances of the killer as they could lay cameras on — most of which witnesses, as has likewise become customary, would earnestly testify that nothing about the boy ever seemed amiss. Also true to form, a disproportionate share of the “blame” for the young killer’s actions was deposited not quite at his own feet (“an obviously troubled young teenager,” as the Washington Post editorialized and just about all other sources agreed), nor at those of the adults around him, but rather upon his peers — the bullies who tormented him, the acquaintances who dismissed his threats to “bring the school down” as idle boasts, the fellow drinkers at a party the weekend before who had heard the killer say he had a gun he was taking to school and did nothing about it.

In fact, in what appears to have become cultural routine in these matters, just about every detail of the case would turn out to be reported and analyzed at length, with the New York Times even waxing lyrical about a “Joan Didion world of dropouts and tough teenagers.” Every detail, that is, but one — that, as the Washington Post did manage to relay deep into a story on the teenager’s clueless friends, “[He] was known as a latch-key child who often ate dinner and slept over at friends’ homes.” Piecemeal, in various reports and in a handful of opinion columns, other details of the killer’s family life and lack of it filled in the blanks. The child of a decade-old divorce, he had resided, loosely speaking, with his father in California. He was a boy left largely to his own devices, who slept elsewhere much of the time, who called his friends’ mothers “Mom.” He had spent the preceding summer with neither parent, but instead in Knoxville, Md., with the family of former neighbors there. His mother, distraught and horrified by events as any mother would be, was giving her anguished interviews from behind a closed door where she herself lived — on the other side of the country, in South Carolina.

The reason why so little was made of what would once have been judged meaningful facts — that this latest killer was one more unsupervised, motherless boy — is not elusive. Of all the explosive subjects in America today, none is as cordoned off, as surrounded by rhetorical landmines, as the question of whether and just how much children need their parents — especially their mothers. The reasons for this cultural code of silence are twofold. One is the fact that divorce, which is now so widespread that nearly everyone is personally affected by it in one way or another, is so close to qualifying as the national norm that a sizeable majority of Americans have tacitly, but nonetheless decidedly, placed the whole phenomenon beyond public judgment.1 Moreover, for all that divorce itself shows signs of leveling off at its current (albeit unprecedented) rate, illegitimacy, for its part, continues to rise. Putting these two facts together — divorce and out-of wedlock births — means that the country is guaranteed a steady quotient of single-parent, which is to say, often absent-parent, homes. The fact that many of the women now heading those homes would choose otherwise if they could means that public sympathy and private compassion, including the desire not to add to their already heavy burden by criticizing any aspect of how they handle it, quite naturally go out to them.

The second fact of life that constrains public discussion of just what and how much children need is, of course, the exodus of women — meaning mothers, both divorced and otherwise — out of the home and into the workplace. Like divorce, but even more so, this massive and unprecedented experiment in mother-child separation is essentially off-limits for public debate. Again, the reason why is plain to see. At a time when a good many households include working mothers, and a good many people benefit from their work, whether financially in the household or via their companionship and productivity in the workplace itself, public and private circumspection on the question of how all these absences taken together are affecting American children obviously runs deep. The combination of individual compassion for the circumstances in which many adults find themselves, alongside the profound desire to see no evil, whether in one’s own home or anyone else’s, has produced a modern social prohibition of almost primeval force. And as the example of the latest high school shootings proves, so powerful is this prohibition against questioning anything that a parent might want to do that it will hold firm even in the wake of a sensational killing spree.

Even so, the record ought also to reflect the fact that the San Diego killer is only the latest such celebrity verifiable as a home-alone child. In fact, in a striking coincidence unremarked upon anywhere else, the other mass murderer most in the news this year had a childhood background in broad strokes identical to that of the San Diego killer: a parental divorce in middle childhood, after which the mother abandoned boy and husband to move across the country when the child was 15, leaving behind a teenager whose father worked nights and who spent most of his time either unsupervised or in other people’s homes. That would be Timothy McVeigh. Another entrant in the same general category would be the late cannibal-murderer Jeffrey Dahmer, whose evil habits developed as a teenager when his parents divorced — also when he was 15 years old — and he was abandoned by his mother and father to live alone in the house for a year before being retrieved. Also consistent with this pattern of adolescent abandonment, of course, is the slew of suburban teenage killers offered up by the last several years who had likewise been left on their own de facto if not always de jure — boys who spent all their spare time in dark corners of the internet, who acquired and assembled war-worthy weapons in their suburban garages and bedrooms, who threatened neighbors, tortured animals, read and wrote obsessively about suicide and murder, and who otherwise did all but broadcast from the rooftops what are technically known as “warning signals” — if, and this appears to be a major qualification, anyone besides like-minded cronies had been around to notice them.

Statistically speaking, of course, few latchkey children grow up to be murderers. Yet beneath the public anxiety provoked by every such savage who takes the stage, beneath even the ritual media cycle that follows the recorded-for-television atrocities, lies an element of unspoken truth about the link between these adolescent outcasts and the rest of society. This is the fear shared by much of the adult world that perhaps the kids aren’t all right after all — that perhaps the decades-long experiment in leaving more and more of them to fend for themselves, whether for the sake of material betterment, career fulfillment, marital satisfaction, or other deep adult desires, has finally run amok. What troubles the public mind about these killers is not that they seem anomalous, but precisely that they might be emblematic. And the reason for this apprehension is essentially correct — in important ways, their lives have been indistinguishable from those of many other American children. Most, in virtue of their times, are part of the same trend that has been building for decades now throughout Amerian society — the trend of leaving children increasingly to their own and their peers’ devices, bereft of adult, and particularly parental, attention.

This fear in the popular imagination is more than matched by related misgivings in the social-scientific literature about the same trend. For even as social science strives to discern the implications of this same momentous change in American domestic life, it is haunted by a question lurking just below the surface of all such efforts — the question of what is happening to the children and adolescents still bound, legally and otherwise, to all those homes lately emptied of parental presence. To ask what scholars and theorists are turning up about the state of American youth is to invite a barrage of depressing statistical information on mental problems, child abuse, drug and alcohol use, educational backwardness and more. The essence of home-alone America is just this: Over the past few decades, more and more parents have been spending less and less time at home, and most measures of what social scientists call “child well-being” have simultanuously been in what once would have been judged scandalous decline.

Out for good?

The first thing social science confirms about contemporary home life is that the so-called “mommy wars” of the last couple of decades — that long-running ideological contest between feminists and their critics for the hearts and minds of American mothers — have ended, at least for the time being, in stalemate.

This is not to say that further argument on the subject of who, if anyone, is rearing today’s children has thereby been rendered pointless. Nor is it to say that the evidence of what has happened in American homes and families as a consequence can now be ignored. Rather, to say that stalemate reigns is to acknowledge that while the ideological generals, as it were, have continued fighting it out in the field, the troops themselves have steadily gone AWOL. “Among married women with pre-school children under the age of six,” as Andrew Hacker recently summarized the Census Bureau numbers in the New York Review of Books, “fully seven in ten now have paid employment.” Of course not all those women are working full-time, and some are not even leaving home at all — important distinctions that demand to be taken into account, though they often are not. At the same time, there is no arguing with Hacker’s general point that what these numbers represent is “a new approach to motherhood,” one in which “most [women] are disinclined to make caring for their children their primary occupation.”

Alongside this change, of course, has come another of equal significance, and that is the near-total cultural about-face in the way society views working motherhood. Once, as has been widely noted, staying home with one’s children was judged the right thing to do, both intrinsically and for reasons of the greater good, by mothers, fathers, and most of the rest of society. Today, the social expectations are exactly reversed. And though one hears occasionally of contrarian decisions, usually in the form of “lifestyle” pieces on a “boomlet” among better-off mothers who have decided to stay home with their young, these are small pools of conscious resistance deluged by the larger social tide. The reality of the situation, as David Gelernter observed in Commentary four years ago, is that “Except for a few benighted precincts (the Mormon church, parts of the Orthodox Jewish community, parts of the Christian Right), society from Left to Right is lined up in force behind the idea of mothers taking jobs.”

A third fact crucial to understanding home-alone America is that a significant portion of those mothers are out of the home not because events compel them to be, but because they prefer to arrange their lives that way.2 Here is where a genuine cultural revolution in motherhood can be said to have occurred. It is of course true, and has been true for all time, that significant numbers of women do leave children at home out of genuine necessity, whether for reasons of poverty, divorce, failure to marry in the first place, low educational attainment, and other familiar constraining facts of life. From indicative earlier literature like Little Women and the Five Little Peppers to the many more human examples in our own time, including the Third World nannies who leave their own families in order to raise the better-off children of the First World, mothers in extremis have been forced by necessity to find outside employment. By definition, however, those mothers have left those children reluctantly and would do otherwise if they could so choose; and therefore they are not and never have been part of the “mommy war” debate.

Yet just as it is obvious that many women work because they must, it is also obvious that genuine material constraints do not begin to account for our contemporary rate of maternal absence — far from it. To quote David Gelernter again, “The economic-necessity argument hits home with a nice solid thunk. Yet ultimately it makes no sense: as a nation we used to be a lot poorer, and women used to stay home.”

Indeed: If the latest social science analyses prove anything, it is that more and more women are working outside the home not because they “must,” but because they prefer to spend those hours there — and are increasingly inclined to acknowledge the fact. “Must” and “need,” as anyone knows, are exceedingly elastic concepts where individual desires are concerned; as Andrew Hacker notes of the Census Bureau statistics, and as anyone fortunate enough to inhabit the country’s better-off neighborhoods and towns will know, “what some people define as needs can call for incomes rising into six figures.” Even so, the notion that all or most of those mothers, too, are working because they “must” is confuted by other findings, to say nothing of common sense. For as Hacker also reports and as other sources affirm, “more than half of employed women say they would continue working even if their families didn’t need the money.”

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s important 1997 study, The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work, elaborates and confirms the point that outside employment is increasingly attractive in its own right, perhaps especially to harried mothers. In that book, the most serious attempt yet to describe what really lies behind the numbers on working motherhood, Hochschild observes that for many women, “The emotional magnets beneath home and workplace are in the process of being reversed.” Faced with the endemic uncertainties and boundless chores of domestic life, many adults, male and female, end up preferring what Hochschild calls the “managed cheer” of work. Modern office life, she argues, not only competes with the home as “haven in a heartless world,” in the phrase popularized by Christopher Lasch; for many women (and men), it partially or fully supplants the hearth, offering simpler emotional involvements, more solvable tasks, and often a more companionable and appreciative class of people than those waiting at home.

Yet another observation by Hochschild, Hacker, and others familiar with the data — that the higher up the socioeconomic ladder one goes, the more likely are mothers with young children to leave home — serves to clinch the point that the decision to leave one’s child in the care of others for the majority of his waking hours is more and more just that — a decision, a genuine personal choice. As reporter and mother Marjorie Williams put it recently in an unusually candid statement in the Washington Post, maintaining her career has meant “learn[ing] how to live with the knowledge that in pursuing my work, I am to some degree acting selfishly. . . . Guilt, I now think, is the tribute that autonomy pays to love.”

This same point — that when mothers really can make the choice to leave home, they will — is also underlined by an observation Hochschild makes about the particular corporation she scrutinized in The Time Bind. Like many modern companies, “Amerco” experimented with family-friendly policies to keep working mothers (and fathers) content. To the firm’s surprise and hers, however, “Programs that allowed parents to work undistracted by family concerns were endlessly in demand, while policies offering shorter hours that allowed workers more free or family time languished.” Broadening the point to include work by economist Ellen Galinsky, Hochschild concludes: “such studies . . . imply that working families aren’t using family-friendly policies in large part because they aren’t asking to use them, and they aren’t asking for them because they haven’t formulated a need urgent enough.”

This voluntary, increasingly self-conscious maternal absenteeism from home, on a scale that is historically without precedent, is, as social scientists of all stripes agree, among the most important realities of our time. To Francis Fukuyama in The Great Disruption, it is one of the two most significant facts of the age (the other being the Pill). In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert D. Putnam agrees that “the movement of women out of the home into the paid labor force is the most portentous social change of the last century.” “It represents a radical change in cultural attitudes toward motherhood and child-rearing” (researcher Brian C. Robertson in his recent book, There’s No Place Like Work). It is “a massively important fact” (Harvard economist Richard T. Gill in his 1997 Posterity Lost: Progress, Ideology, and the Decline of the American Family), one which “represents a new American ethic, a clear-cut change in direction” (scientist and social critic David Gelernter again). To begin to understand home-alone America is to recognize this critical fact: Many, many mothers themselves positively prefer the status quo — just one of whose benefits, as Andrew Hacker formulates it, is “not having to spend a greater part of your day diverting a small child.”

Pathologies, induced and acquired

The second thing that recent social science makes plain is that the connection between empty homes on today’s scale and childhood problems on today’s scale cannot possibly be dismissed as a coincidence. For some time, the data have been there for all to see, the dots fairly demanding to be connected. As Francis Fukuyama put it simply in The Great Disruption, “there have been losses accompanying the gains [of mothers’ entry into the workplace], and those losses have fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of children.” What he and others familiar with the data understand is what education authority William Damon observed in his book Greater Expectations four years ago — that “Practically all the indicators of youth health and behavior have declined year by year for well over a generation. None has improved. The litany is now so well-known that it is losing its power to shock [emphasis added].”

Consider a phenomenon that can accurately be described as one of the more tragic social developments of our time. That is the ongoing rise in teenage suicide rates — a development not only without precedent, but also without systematic explanation.

However one interprets the numbers and whichever sources one peruses, the fact of dramatic increase here is beyond dispute. Richard Gill, citing long-term studies by the Fordham Institute, writes in Posterity Lost that the “teen suicide rate increased more than three fold between 1960 and 1990.” Similarly, both Mary Pipher’s influential feminist study, Reviving Ophelia, and Christina Hoff Sommers’ anti-feminist The War Against Boys agree about this: that the suicide rate for girls aged 10 to 14 rose 27 percent between 1979 and 1988 (Sommers adds that the increase for boys was even more shocking, rising 71 percent). In Bowling Alone, Putnam uses figures from the U.S. Public Health Service and other sources to put the point in arresting historical terms — that “Americans born and raised in the 1970s and 1980s were three to four times more likely to commit suicide as people that age had been at mid-century.”

What makes this bleak development the more baffling, of course, is that there is no corresponding rise in poverty over these periods — quite the opposite — and little in the way of any other external evidence to suggest why the materially best-off adolescents on earth are killing themselves at such shocking rates. One speculation of note has been suggested, though: It is, to quote Putnam again, “social isolation.” His citation is to The Ambitious Generation, a recent book by educational sociologists Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson. In it, the authors report from Sloan Foundation studies that the average American teenager spends about three and a half hours alone every day; and that, perhaps even more breathtaking, “adolescents spend more time alone than with family and friends.” One does not have to read Durkheim to see the isolation writ large in these numbers, or to speculate about the effects of such endemic isolation on a chronically melancholic adolescent temperament.

What is true for suicide is also apparently true of lower-intensity mental problems as well. In January 2001, the surgeon general issued a report declaring that the United States is facing nothing less than “a public crisis in mental care for children and adolescents.” Far from being in advance of professional sentiment, this announcement was instead reflecting it; some 300 mental health professionals were enlisted in the conference before its drafting, as were the recommendations of three major federal agencies (HHS, the Department of Education, and the Department of Justice). What alarms these and others in the field is the sharp upswing in diagnosed disorders, particularly “conduct disorders” among teen and preteen boys, that are now widely believed to characterize many millions of American children.

One need not uncritically accept the controversial diagnostic claims behind such numbers to see that something significant is being reflected in them. For whether there is indeed a genuine outbreak of “conduct disorder” in the young, or whether this “outbreak” is instead more a consequence of social change than a cause of it, the fact remains that something is happening among youth nationwide which is manifestly bringing an awful lot of unhappy children and adolescents to medical attention. Whether society and parents are less tolerant in our postmodern age to the young and vulnerable (as some social critics argue), or whether instead children and adolescents are afflicted with problems only recently susceptible to diagnosis and treatment (as advocates of drugs like Ritalin believe), is an argument to be settled elsewhere. What can be observed here is one highly suggestive fact: that the explosion in conduct disorders has occurred in tandem with the reorienting of many adults — not only any given child’s own parents, but his friends’ parents and his neighbors and relatives too — away from home and toward the workplace.

Consider also the statistics on child sexual abuse.3 “The number of substantiated cases of sexual abuse,” academic authority Douglas Besharov reports, “rose tenfold, from about 13,000 in 1975 to over 130,000 in 1986.” Writing in 1997, Patrick Fagan of the Heritage Foundation used other data — from studies conducted by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — to arrive at the following figure: child sexual abuse has “increased by 350% since 1980.”

Though part of the increase in these numbers is of course due to changes in reporting laws governing physicians and other professionals, there is also no doubt the same numbers would have been rising independent of those changes. Child sexual abuse at contemporary levels, as anyone who follows the data will agree, is tragic. And here, too, a connection to home-alone America seems undeniable. For while children do risk abuse at the hands of biological parents, they are much more likely to be abused by a cohabiting male who is not biologically related. This is why many analysts, such as Patrick Fagan and David Blankenhorn (Fatherless America), tend to focus on the relationship between abuse and single parenthood, or abuse and divorce (one English study, for example, found that girls in single-parent households were 33 times more likely to be abused). It is no disservice to their efforts to emphasize what their work also shows — that in order for predatory males (and they are almost always males) to abuse, they must first have access; and that the increasing absence from home of biological mothers — who statistically speaking almost never violate children in this way — effectively increases the access of would-be predators.

More details on the “parent-free home”

Yet another proposition to which social science now gives near-unanimous consent is this: Overall child welfare is not only declining as measured by statistics like those on the obvious cases of child abuse and suicide and mental health, but also by more ephemeral measures.

One such is the matter of parental attention. Economist Victor Fuchs, who is cited by numerous analysts on this point, has estimated that “between 1960 and 1986, parental time available to children per week fell ten hours in white households and twelve hours in black [Arlie Hochschild’s formulation].” Citing the work of two other economists, Harvard’s Richard Gill writes similarly that “It is estimated that between 1965 and the late 1980s, the amount of time the average American child spent interacting with a parent (either mother or father) dropped by 43 percent — from around thirty hours a week to around seventeen.”

Absent adults are also the sine qua non of another social phenomenon whose impact has only increased with time, whether it remains on the front pages of news magazines or not. This is the case of latchkey children, defined here (as in Census Bureau literature) as those aged 5 to 14 who “care for self” outside of school. As Hochschild puts it, “most researchers agree that what was once called ‘the plight of latchkey kids’ is now, in fact, a major problem.” Most estimates of the nationwide number of such children fall in the range of 5 million to 10 million, though Gill, for example, notes that some go as high as 15 million. Yet even estimates on the low end suggest a public problem of serious proportions. The Census Bureau in 1994, to take another example, estimated that roughly a fifth of the total age group in question were “latchkey children,” or some 4.5 million.

Certain unmistakable consequences follow from this autonomy. As Hochschild reports, for example, “a study of nearly five thousand eighth-graders and their parents found that children who were home alone for eleven or more hours a week were three times more likely than other children to abuse alcohol, tobacco or marijuana.” Plenty of other studies attest to the same sorts of connections between an empty nest in the after-school hours — empty, that is, of adults — and the sorts of activities that adolescents will try to get away with when no one censorious is watching: drinking, smoking, drug-taking, and, of course, sex. There is also the related question of what those hours of uninterrupted access to the violence and pornography of the internet are doing to adolescents nationwide — a question only beginning to be studied, but whose seriousness is attested to by swelling ranks of school officials and therapists, in particular.4

In another development that should perhaps come as no great surprise, the increasingly younger ages at which sexual activity begins have coincided directly with the increasing absence of adults from the home. This ongoing sexualization of young adolescents is also borne out by the numbers. According to the Council of Economic Advisors in a major study published in May 2000, for example, “data from the National Survey of Family Growth shows that in 1988, 11 percent of girls under the age of 15 had had sex. In 1995, this fraction had increased to 19 percent.” The National Center for Health Statistics similarly estimates that by the age of 15, one-third of girls have had sex, compared with less than 5 percent in 1970. The trends in sexually transmitted diseases among the young are simply horrific.5 In fact, it is hard to find a report, statistical or anecdotal, that does not confirm the trend toward earlier sexual activity across class, race, and sex.

A deeper meaning of the latchkey phenomenon may be this: Parents who can barely be on hand for real emergencies can hardly be expected to stay apprised of the many lower-intensity conflicts that are routine facts of childhood and adolescence. The parent-free home, by necessity, defines “emergency” up, rather than down. In The Time Bind, again, Hochschild captures just this, writing of the employed parents of “Amerco” that “while medical emergencies were fairly clear-cut, the difficult issue of what might be called semichronic problems — children who were depressed, failing in their studies, isolated, or hanging around with the wrong kids — which cried out for more parental time and attention, were rarely raised at all.”6

Conversely, of course, the presence of an adult in the home when children are there makes intervention of all kinds more likely. Forget, for the sake of argument, about the influence of parents on long-term personality, career prospects, cognitive development, and the rest. Assume, even, that parents have only a negligible effect on all long-range outcomes, as contrarian critic Judith Rich Harris argued in her explosive 1998 book The Nurture Assumption. The fact still remains that a parental or other adult presence in the house is nevertheless a presence much preferable to its absence, if only because that presence exercises a day-to-day chilling effect on adolescent impulses.

Here too, social science verifies what common sense might suggest. Robert Putnam, for example, cites a widely-discussed 1980 article in Child Development about child maltreatment in two socioeconomically similar neighborhoods. One finding was that “kids in low-risk neighborhoods were more than three times as likely as kids in high-risk areas to find a parent home after school.” Similarly, in the aforementioned much-publicized recent study by the Council of Economic Advisors, the chief conclusion was that “significant differences were noted between teens who eat dinner with their parents at least five times a week and teens who do not.” Those with parent(s) at the table were said to have half the risk for drinking, somewhat less the risk for smoking, half the risk for marijuana use, half the risk for suicide attempts, and so on.

It is of course absurd to infer — as some commentators dutifully did — that eating dinner as a family confers talismanic benefits, whether to teenagers or anyone else. But it is equally absurd to ignore, as the authors of the study itself did, the elementary meaning of the results. Whatever else goes on in the dinner-eating statistics, being at the table means that somebody — namely an adult somebody whose mere presence in the place makes certain activities more problematic than they would be otherwise — is actually there to exercise such influence, however tacit, occasional, or even unintentional it may be.

Work v. homework

A final possibility just beginning to emerge from the evidence is, if anything, perhaps even more politically and socially loaded. It is the possibility of a connection between parental absenteeism and the consistently mediocre performance of American students.

Nothing, of course, could be more familiar than the idea that American education badly needs reform. In the words of an emblematic recent New York Times headline, “Students in U.S. Do Not Keep Up In Global Tests.” In this particular study, as in numerous others over the years, 9,000 tested eighth graders demonstrated again what critics have long complained about — that American students lag their international peers in advanced countries by significant margins, and that the gap in science and math especially grows wider as the student ages. As readers will know, also over the years many different explanations — demographic, sociological, pedagogical, economic — have been offered for this gap, and many reforms, from charter schools to vouchers and the rest, devised to address it.

One possible explanation that has not enjoyed wide circulation is the one dictated by Ockham’s razor: that many children need help and supervision with their homework, that in many homes nobody is there to provide that kind of support after school, that some children are physically ready for sleep, not study, by the time their parents return home, and that preoccupied adults who do find themselves supervising homework after a long and busy day away may be understandably less than efficient and patient about it. And yet all of these are facts so plainly related to school achievement that educators themselves are beginning to acknowledge the connections, if only because it is they who are frequently blamed for the consequences.

Not long ago, for example, the New York Times published an interesting short piece by Richard Rothstein, “Add Social Changes to the Factors Affecting Declining Test Scores.” In it, the director of the Iowa Department of Education “speculates that even greater social change may be a factor. . . . With parents less available, children may get less support at home for learning, Mr. Stillwell surmises.” The same report also mentioned a problem now familiar to many teachers, namely the shrinking number of parents available for schoolday events — from conferences to field trips to class parties to volunteer work to sudden developments requiring parental attention. As a teacher with 18 years’ experience in Iowa observed, “This year, in her class of 23, there are only three mothers she can phone at home if a problem arises during school.”

This same point — that today’s parents as a whole simply are not as available for school and school activities as educational success may require — suggests itself even more emphatically if certain comparative facts are taken into account. Much has been made, for example, of Asian students’ overall superiority on standardized tests and other academic endeavors, and much has been written about the factors cultural, economic, and even (witness The Bell Curve) psychometric that are argued to account for this difference. But little has been said publicly about a factor requiring no theory whatsoever — that, as Fukuyama has noted, and as those familiar with Japan and Korea, for example, will already know, “part of the reason that children in both societies do so well on international tests has to do with the investments their mothers make in their educations.”

Another piece of suggestive evidence linking parental absence to school outcomes appears in The Widening Gap: Why America’s Working Families Are in Jeopardy and What Can Be Done About It, a recent book by Harvard School of Public Health researcher Jody Heymann. In a study of 1,623 children, she “found that a parental absence between 6 and 9 p.m. was particularly harmful. For every hour a parent worked during that interval, a child was 16 percent more likely to score in the bottom quarter of a standardized math test. . . . The results held true even after taking into account family income, parental education, marital status, the child’s gender and the total number of hours the parents worked [emphasis added].”

From praxis to theory

One reason why the problems of home-alone America appear to be intractable is that, despite all the data, few writers acquainted with the facts have cared to do more than describe them and move on. Their reticence is understandable, as the handful of critics who have ventured into these troubled waters know well. As Richard Gill has observed, for example, “The claim that any mother anywhere is harming her child by virtue of her full-time job or career is probably the claim most violently rejected by supporters of the present status quo.” Likewise, as Brian C. Robertson notes, “A good deal of the neglect [of the data on child and adolescent problems], no doubt, derives from the reluctance . . . of many academics and opinion leaders to be seen as hostile to the social advancement of women.”

At the same time, however, it is difficult to imagine the status quo changing without the countervailing pressure of a substantial body of argument. Over the past decade, to take a related example, there has been a quiet, significant, and utterly unexpected revision in the literature on another once-sacrosanct subject, single parenthood. Not so long ago — just 10 or so years ago — to oppose the idea that one parent was as good as two was to invite ridicule, as Vice President Quayle famously found. Yet today it is hard to think of a public figure who has not volunteered, in one form or another, an opinion on single parenthood more akin to Quayle’s than to his critics.

This evolution in thought did not come about because of any rightward drift in the populace, but rather by the steady accretion of evidence testifying to the connections between single parenthood and child problems — Barbara Defoe Whitehead’s famous 1993 Atlantic Monthly piece (followed by a book) entitled “Dan Quayle was Right”; David Blankenhorn’s Fatherless America; Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s When the Bough Breaks, and a host of other revisionist books and articles up to and including Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher’s emblematic and controversial recent work, The Case for Marriage. But perhaps the preeminent scholar in this reconfiguring of debate, again, has been the psychologist Judith Wallerstein, whose studies of the effects of divorce have turned out to resonate emotionally more than all the available longitudinal data. As New Republic writer and editor Margaret Talbott put it recently in the New York Times Book Review in what amounted to an unexpected statement of vindication for Wallerstein’s work, “She, more than anyone else, has made us face the truth that a divorce can free one or both parents to start a new and more helpful life and still hurt their children.”

Home-alone America, by contrast, has no such body of opposing thought toward which actual or would-be reformers might turn, though exceptions are beginning to appear. In a brilliant short book published in 1999, for example, Kay S. Hymowitz broke particularly important theoretical ground. She examined the state of American childhood not from the bottom but from the top — at the level of the numerous contemporary theories that have served to justify parental disengagement. Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers their Future — and Ours outlined how, in field after field (law, education, psychology both popular and academic), the past 30 years have seen a transformation in the way children are perceived and portrayed — one that that deemphasizes adult guidance and authority, while simultaneously ultraemphasizing the intrinsic capacities of the child in the absence of such guidance.7 Uniting all these apparently disparate theories, she demonstrated, is “the idea of children as capable, rational, and autonomous, as beings endowed with all the qualities necessary for their entrance into the adult world — qualities such as talents, interests, values, conscience and a conscious sense of themselves.”

In another important book published a year later, Christina Hoff Sommers added further evidence to what Hymowitz called the “anti-cultural” character of these theories. In The War Against Boys, Sommers examined in detail the effects of feminist theories of education on modern boyhood. Like Hymowitz, Sommers reviewed the depressing trends in teen behavior, including suicide rates, anxiety and depression rates, drug-taking both prescribed and illicit, educational failure, and the rest. Like Hymowitz, she also concluded that children — specifically, boy children — are being harmed by theories now dominant in educational and therapeutic circles and inimical to (male) human nature. For all her emphasis on theory, however, Sommers also did not hesitate to offer a real-life explanation for why such counterintuitive ideas about male children have been allowed to take root in the first place. The larger reason why boys in particular have come to be widely regarded as a “problem,” she charged memorably, is that “there are now large numbers of adults who have defected altogether from the central task of civilizing the children in their care, leaving them to fend for themselves.”

Important as these and other efforts have been, however, they face enormous competition from exactly the sources Hymowitz enumerated — the towering stack of books, both expert and popular, that give people advice about and justification for hands-off parenting. Almost all leading cultural authorities, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, have managed a good word for the putative benefits of “early socialization,” which is to say, nonparental child-rearing. The country’s leading popular child-care experts have revised downward over the years their views on just how much young children need their mothers — with every single one concluding that children need less of their mothers’ time and presence than was previously thought, not more.8 Then there is the literature for children themselves, some of it detailed in Hochschild’s The Time Bind and much of it available in bookstores, which emphasizes parental needs and resolutely draws a happy face over children’s longings — from pamphlets exhorting those too young to tie their shoes to “independence” to the stories and articles and self-help columns sharing the message that the happy and fulfilled (i.e., less encumbered) parent is also the better parent.

And, of course, there are the letter-writers and reporters and opinion leaders who will rise in opposition to any study that impinges on parental (i.e., maternal) autonomy. Consider the response to a recent and much publicized study of day care by the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development. Its data suggested a link between time spent in day care and instances of aggression emerging at kindergarten age. Many critics immediately proffered in harsh terms the counterargument that the “aggression” cited was within normal bounds. Yet as Stanley Kurtz of the Hudson Institute has noted, the implications of the study may be even worse than feared. As he observed, “chances are, if a significant percentage of children in day care evidence clear behavioral problems, or show up as insecurely attached to their mothers, then there are plenty of other children in less obvious, but still significant trouble.”

A more welcome message today, to judge by the critical acclaim the book won, might be the one contained in reporter Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood. Crittenden unexpectedly decided to rear her own child and found herself forgoing money and status in order to do so (also unexpectedly, it appears). The book fits into a genre of recent works aimed at ameliorating what they take to be the unique plight of mothers in today’s society. To Crittenden’s credit, some of the practical reforms she recommends, such as the reintroduction of alimony and easier access to a father’s employee benefits by at-home mothers, have real bite. In fact, it is not hard to imagine good reasons why they may ultimately enjoy public and political support.

At the same time, however, most of what Crittenden wants — and what she believes most mothers want, too — is a series of reforms in “family law” that will make life easier for mothers who want to work outside the home: extra write-offs for child care, easier access to trained foreign nannies, more paid maternity leave. In other words, her definition of helping American mothers is enforcing laws that will make it easier and easier for those women to be around their children less and less.

The problem that has a name

A final proposition to which current thinking gives agreement is this: that “there is definitely no going back,” in the words of Putnam and nearly every other theorist quoted earlier, to the time when most children could expect the company of related adults, particularly their mothers, in the home and much of the time. If the social scientists are right, then in practical terms there is no transforming home-alone America.

Such unadulterated fatalism, particularly when it seems so universal, of course invites objection. Plenty of behaviors that in certain times and places seemed the unremarkable norm have sooner or later found themselves objects of stigma elsewhere. Might not a similar social and intellectual turnaround — perhaps less a restigmatization than a swing in the social pendulum — someday come to characterize the contemporary social practice of leaving children to manage without their parents a great deal of the time? In an interesting volume cited earlier, There’s No Place Like Work, Brian C. Robertson for one argued yes. “Although the developing consensus on illegitimacy and divorce may have led to a new appreciation of the father’s indispensable role in the emotional, behavioral, and character development of children,” he reasoned, “this makes the relative neglect in recent years of the mother’s formative role all the more difficult to account for [italics in the original].” On this reading, a revised and more sensible notion of what benefits children most — like today’s ongoing revision of the wisdom of single parenthood — is only a matter of time. Interestingly, in May the Washingon Post trumpeted a University of Michigan study on its front page purporting to show a significant increase in the amount of time parents spent with their children in 1997 compared to 1981.

This is indeed one plausible direction for the post-“mommy-war” world. But the story may be more complicated than that. The authors of the Michigan study, for example, used the same data in a September 2000 paper to show that “the proportion of time . . . taken up by school or day care, personal care, eating, and sleeping increased significantly” from 1981 to 1997, and that “a portion of this change . . . was due to maternal employment.” They concluded, “there may be a basis for the concern that shared family activities are declining,” and that the “question of the relationship of time to child behavior and well-being” requires further study.

This points us to another and less happy alternative. In the piece quoted earlier by journalist Marjorie Williams, the author explains, as she hopes someday to explain to her five-year-old, that “what I do at that desk,” as she puts it, “feels as necessary to me as food or air.” These are evocative words in more ways than one. They are the sort of things mothers have also said about their children.

The point here is not to single out Williams or the many, many other mothers who feel just the way she does about her not-home career and all of the benefits — material and meditative, public and private — that it demonstrably confers. The point is not even to exhort any of those mothers to choose otherwise — on reflection, in fact, far from it. To look back on the “mommy wars” is to realize, counter to expectation, that there was something incoherent about such public exhortation all along. After all, if what is supposedly the most elemental force of all — maternal instinct — does not compel those women who have a choice in the matter to opt unbidden for the company of their own children, it is hard to see how disputed esoterica from the latest social-science survey could be expected to accomplish the same end.

But there, in all its impotence, is exactly the point. Much has been made, particularly in an era enamored of evolutionary psychology and related reductionist theories, of the “social construction” of fatherhood — meaning the way in which cultural norms must step in to fill the gap between problematic “male instinct,” on the one hand, and what society believes to be proper paternal care of one’s offspring, on the other. Perhaps something unexpectedly profound has come to be taken for granted here. Perhaps what all those unmoored children really suggest is that it’s time for a new look at the “social construction” of motherhood — the ways in which a complicated schema of stigmas and rewards and social understandings, most of them now long gone from the scene, came together to create “motherhood” as the thing itself has been known and admired.

This is not to say that there is no such thing as maternal instinct — one might as well deny the moon — but only that its presumed place in the firmament of other human impulses and desires may be less fixed than has been commonly supposed. If so, then the data now accumulating about the children of home-alone America may just be the beginning, and what we are in for next may be worse than anyone has guessed.

Notes

1 There are signs, all quite recent, that this hands-off public attitude toward divorce may be shifting, at least when children are involved. In particular, the fair hearing now being accorded to the decades-long work of Judith Wallerstein — who pioneered the idea that divorce has emotional effects on subsequent generations — is at least symbolically significant, and perhaps more than that. Similarly, at the level of policy, efforts to change no-fault divorce laws (whose punitive effects on mothers make such laws a particularly dubious achievement of feminism) appear to have been reinvigorated by the latest election results. But whether these and like changes amount to tinkering with something that works, or whether they will instead prove to be the beginning of a major change in the way Americans view divorce, is a judgment impossible to make without further evidence.

2 For years, of course, feminists and their allies insisted otherwise. In fact, their explanation was frequently incoherent — arguing simultaneously that women work outside the home because they “must,” and also that they prefer things that way.

3 Not too long ago, as readers will be aware, the rapidly increasing numbers of reported abuse cases was a central concern of both policymakers and the public — a concern that appears to have waned in the late 1980s, as a backlash against documented cases of the falsely accused got underway. Though justified in numerous particular cases, that same backlash also suggested to some that the problem itself had been overblown. In this case, however, blaming the media proved unjustified. For any way one looks at them, and regardless of who is doing the looking, the underlying facts of child sexual abuse in America remain horrific.

4 See, for example, Holman W. Jenkins Jr.’s “Pornography, Main Street to Wall Street,” in the February-March edition of Policy Review.

5 According to widely used sources like the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Guttmacher Institute, for example, some 3 million teenagers are infected with a sexually transmitted disease each year, and chlamydia in particular — which has been linked in women to both infertility and certain forms of cancer — is actually more common among teenagers than among adult men or women.

6 Hochschild’s book offers many examples. In one typical household, “the children were on an elaborate Rube Goldberg assembly line of child care, continually sent from one ‘workstation’ to the next.” She is also unflinching in reporting how parents squeezed for time because of work end up “outsourcing” even the smallest of once-domestic chores (for example, haircutters who visit the day care center). Also profiting, she reports, is a burgeoning “self-care” industry armed with books and pamphlets for anxious parents with titles like “Teaching Your Child to be Home Alone” and “I Can Take Care of Myself.” She concludes that “many of today’s children may suffer from a parental desire for reassurance that they are free of needs” and describes a “childhood of long waits for absent parents.”

7 According to the progressive and neoprogressive theories dominant in education, for example, children are self-motivated, inherently cooperative “learners” who will “invent” their own “strategies” on impulse. The idea of the self-sufficient child — even the self-sufficient baby and toddler — is also ingrained in current psychology. Experts from Piaget onward have stressed the rational, competent, information-processing of the child, writing off any friction with this happy scenario to “developmental stages.” Influenced partly by such theories, forward-looking legal theorists — Hillary Rodham Clinton, among many others — have also stressed the autonomy and rights of the child against those of the parents (a movement driven particularly, as Hymowitz argued, by the political desire to allow minors easy access to abortion).

8 For a review of these changes in the literature, see my article “Putting Children Last” in the May 1995 edition of Commentary.
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