Home Alone America

My blogging friend Terry wrote a series of posts a while back on why she came to see the world through a different, more family-centric, light. I thought this quote was particularly apt. Terry writes,

In recent years, however, I began to notice some of the same issues cropping up among these white, middle class, suburban kids that I saw in the neighborhood I grew up in. Teen pregnancy, drop-outs, drug use, etc. And in just about every case, I began to notice a  common thread: recently divorced parents or parents who were never at home leaving their adolescent kids at home all afternoon to get into all kinds of trouble. Some of these kids are the products of well-meaning, church-going, Christian parents.

Terry’s right. A few years ago I read the book Home Alone America by Mary Eberstadt, who looked at what happened to kids once both parents started working in large numbers, so that there just weren’t adults around to supervise, lend an ear, and in general know what was going on in their kids’ lives. It’s the crisis of latchkey kids.


One of the points that she makes is that life is not just harder for the kids whose parents work; it has an effect on the culture as a whole. Let’s just look at one little area, like childhood obesity. One of the reasons they believe this is increasing is because parents aren’t around to say, “no eating until dinnertime!”, or to bother to come up with alternate activities for kids to do when they’re bored, so they let kids turn to the potato chip cupboard.

But it’s not only that. It’s also that what was once commonplace in people’s homes–eating a homemade dinner together as a family–has been displaced by eating takeout or prepared food, with everyone fending for themselves or eating at different times. I remember in the 1970s when TV dinners first came out. Every few weeks my mother would buy them as treats, and she and I would sit on the couch with TV tables and watch the Carol Burnett show.

But today we have so much more than just the TV dinners. With so many people working, consumers wanted easy frozen meals. And now a large part of the grocery store is these frozen meals. And since they’re convenient, everyone is buying them, whether  you work or not. And so it has changed everyone’s diet, for the worse. Homecooked meals are no longer the norm.

Other problems that Eberstadt notices? When more and more parents are gone, kids start to hibernate instead of playing outside because there aren’t people to supervise, and this impacts even those parents who are home, because the norm is now to cocoon rather than to play outside. Hence, kids get less exercise. It also means kids don’t play with each other unless you have specific play dates.

And since more and more kids are growing up with less supervision from parents, more and more kids are also developing behaviour problems, which means that a new norm is developing at school for what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. Teachers put up with stuff today they never would have put up with forty years ago because they have to pick their battles. And this means that standards worsen.

She also notes that the importance of parents in kids’ lives does not evaporate when kids hit school. The idea, “well, I’ll stay home until the kids hit kindergarten, and then I’ll work” is still difficult for kids. Kids need the most supervision, after all, in those years that they can get into the most trouble, which tend to be the teen years. And yet that seems to be when we give them the least supervision.

Our society basically rests on the idea that each family will be a two-income earning family. And yet much of this is due to expectations. When my husband grew up in his one-income family, they had an old black and white television, they drank powdered milk, and they only had one car. They lived in an extremely small house for a family of six. They didn’t have huge wardrobes or even a lot of toys; they mostly went outside. And that was normal.

Today we expect that we will eat expensive foods, have awesome furniture, have the full cable hookup or satellite hookup with a large screen TV, and have two cars. I’m not saying that every dual income earning family expects that; only that this is considered the norm, and to have less somehow means that you haven’t arrived or you’re not providing.

I think we need to change our expectations. We have more stuff, but worse relationships. We have bigger houses (they’ve doubled in size in the last forty years, on average), and yet higher divorce rates. I know some women need to work, especially in this economy. But I would encourage everybody to be very creative when you do so, to see if you can find a job that doesn’t require you being out of the house from 8-6. Or find a way to work 3/4 time and have your husband work 3/4 time.

I know that this isn’t politically correct to say, and I know I will get lambasted for it, but I really don’t think you should have kids if you’re also assuming that both parents will be working full-time and no one will be home to care for the kids for ten to twelve hours a day. Before you even start having children, talk about how you are going to pay for things. Learn to live with one income, and save the second income before the kids are born. Stick to a budget. We have lost so much in our “home alone” culture, and we need to bring back the importance of family. I hope that people realize that most of the problems in our society can be directly traced to a breakdown of family, and decide to start emphasizing keeping the family close before we look to consumer things. Relationships matter far more than stuff, anyway.

Other posts you may find interesting:

How to Make Money as a SAHM
Living Below Your Means Increases Your Means
On Day Care, Attachment, and God’s Will

Comments

  1. >As a single mom of teens, I can tell you it is still possible to connect with the kids and supervise and eat a home cooked meal. It is just in a different way than a two parent family in my growing up years did it. And yes, we have a "home cooked sit down together meal" for dinner almost every night. The prep is part of the connecting with my kids and also preparing them with life skills.
    It is not easy but it is worth it. My teens notice what happens in our home as opposed to many of the two parents working homes of their friends and they appreciate the sacrifices. And, how interesting that they want their friends to come and have meals with us so they can interact with our family and then the friends leave calling me "mom".

  2. >I don't think it's working parents that are the problem, I think it's failure to connect. We make time for things we find important. There are plenty of single parents and double-working parents who connect with their children on a regular basis and know exactly what is going on.

  3. Anonymous says:

    >You hit home withthis one I found an interesting article about how childhood obesity could be related to parents work load. http://www.healthychomp.com/could-your-job-be-making-your-child-fat

    wow makes me think twice

  4. Terry @ Breathing Grace says:

    >Thanks for the link love Sheila, and I agree with this post.

    I think Iva has a point, but her comment misses the larger picture. "Quality time" is a concept our culture dreamed up to make up for the fact that far too many parents don't put in the quantity of time they should.

    I'm not sure how it is possible for parent who are largely absent to know "exactly what is going on." In today's technological environment, it's hard for parents who are present and available to be sure that we know "exactly what is going on" all of the time.

    Despite our attempts to assuage the guilt of well-meaning parents, some of whom MUST work, the reality is that quantity matters, especially when it comes to time with our kids.

  5. Heather says:

    >I agree with you, Sheila. My husband and I decided, before children, that I would be a SAHM. It certainly hasn't been easy; but it has been worth it. In fact, my husband has had to work a full-time job and a part-time job almost the whole time (also partly because he's in an under-paid/under-valued career & has been furloughed for a couple of years due to this economy, but I digress…). Like you said, we make sacrifices. We have second-hand furniture. We don't have a big house. We don't have huge wardrobes. We don't vacation, eat out a lot, or go to many movies. What we do have is homemade dinners, family game night, family movie night, bookshelves full of library-sale books, and FUN. We have fun together. I know that some women have to work; I understand. I know some women are terrific at making things work when they find themselves as single parents – I know because I did it myself. But I also know that there are ways to be creative about it. Thank you for your courage to post this.

  6. Anonymous says:

    >I have to agree with Sharon and Iva, it's not really a working parent thing.

    I admittedly work part-time and do some work from home, but many working moms do make choices like mine. We make sure that we are with our kids as much as possible. Maybe it's not the norm for working parents, but I know
    I'm not the only one.

    And I would tend to agree with you that if both husband and wife expect to work long hours even with kids that they should think over things…but there is a lot in between daycare for 60 hours a week and a SAHM.

    Nurse Bee

  7. >Very true, Nurse Bee, which is why, of course, I clarified by saying that it's the two-parents with both working full-time that is the problem.

    And I don't mean that if both work full-time that you CAN'T or WON'T prioritize family. Many absolutely do. But I think that is the minority, and like Terry said, there really is an issue with quantity vs. quality time. We just have to be WITH our kids, and so many kids are growing up with fairly little input. And that's not healthy!

    But no, obviously parents can be very effective if one works part-time or if they have flexible hours. But it's difficult. And it does have widespread effects on our culture because everyone feels so tremendously rushed and burdened in a way that they did not before.

  8. Herding Grasshoppers says:

    >Sheila,

    I'm so glad you mentioned the issue of supervision during the teen years. On the one hand, I welcome the greater maturity present as my kids get older – and the ability to leave them home, occasionally, to have lunch out with just my husband :D

    But the temptations certainly increase at that age, and the potential cost is much higher. I'm very grateful to be able to be home with them, in spite of the financial sacrifice involved, to help them through these difficult years.

    And I don't mean the teen years are terrible!

    Julie

  9. >I am home. I have sacrificed the benefits and income that a career my college education would have afforded my family. I am home because it is the right way to raise children.
    You can make the best of other situations and raise happy kids. I was raised by a working mom and I had a good childhood but it is an uphill, exhausting battle for the family.
    I loved the post but you lost me with the comments. Stand up for what you believe is right and stick to it.

  10. Anonymous says:

    >Sheila,

    Of course it's hard. Being a good parent is always hard. I wouldn't say our life is rushed…as I mentioned I am able to do some work from home with a somewhat flexible schedule, so that helps.

    I don't see staying at home vs working as a matter of right and wrong, it's an individual decision of what is best for each family.

    Nurse Bee

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