Home Alone America: What it means to grow up without parents at home

Does it matter that most kids today are home alone for a time–and don’t have parents home to supervise?

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.

Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent SubstitutesTerry’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 Eberstadt 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

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