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.
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.
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 -- a target of lesbian groups, feminists and conservative family organizations alike -- 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 into maturity."
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.