Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What About the Children?

In a society that subordinates children's needs to adult freedoms, Mary Eberstadt's Home Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes should give anyone pause. It offers a compelling case that the large-scale absence of parents from their children's lives via day care, video games,empty homes for schoolkids to return to (and have sex in), and so forth have a devastating impact on children and young people. The adult response of pathologizing and medicating the kids, or interning them in prison-like private boarding schools, only compounds the problem. It reflects and reinforces adult denial of children's needs and suffering.

As Eberstadt points out, the kinds of critique she offers break a taboo and call down a ton of ideological abuse on the heads of those few who dare to make them--in academia these do not include scholars without secure employment! They are points and evidence that get brushed off as reactionary or sexist or unhelpfully guilt-inducing. Contrary to some reviews, this is not an attack on working mothers. Those many women who have no choice but to work full-time have no reason to feel guilt. But those parents--mothers and fathers both--who do have choice have reason to feel guilt and need to face the truth about the costs of their choices for their children.

Any one of the studies Eberstadt cites, could be questioned for its methodological flaws, and some links between adult behavior and child suffering are not as strong as others. But the cumulative effect of the arguments and evidence the author presents is powerful. It merits serious and open discussion instead of the usual dismissal and denunciation from most feminists and liberals.

The case is not just a matter of personal choices. Such cultural shifts are reflected and amplified in social policies. The normalizing of out-of-wedlock teen sex as reflected in much sex education; the assumption that mothers should (re)join the workforce as early as possible reflected in welfare reform; the assumption that women should adopt and adapt to the male model of subordinating family to work as reflected in so-called family-friendly policies that promote increased labor force participation of mothers (see Gilbert's excellent analysis,[[ASIN:0300164610 A Mother's Work: How Feminism, the Market, and Policy Shape Family Life]]--all these and related policies are redefining parenthood at the expense of children.

This book focuses on the toll on children of these cultural and policy shifts of the past half century. For a recent critique of the misguided project of treating both sexes as if they were essentially identical except for anatomical details and the social construction of gender--and of squeezing women into male norms of work and family, see Susan Pinker's excellent study, [[ASIN:0743284712 The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women and the Real Gender Gap]]. But this book is about children. It is a bold challenge to the taboo on discussing the extent and nature of children's needs for their parents.

As Eberstadt indicates, we need not a quick policy fix here and there, but a fundamental and honest re-assessment of our priorities in relation to children and young people--both personally and in the policy choices we make.

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