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Jewish World Review June 8, 2001 / 18 Sivan, 5761

George Will

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Lethal reticence -- THIS compulsively confessional nation, which has virtually repealed reticence, nevertheless has many codes of silence. Their purpose is to prevent discomforting candor about cultural facts that conflict with ideological fashions. One such code stifles discussion of the crisis of parenting, and particularly of mothering. Witness the reflexive rejection of recent data suggesting a link between aggressive behavior and time spent in day care. But Mary Eberstadt, an unstifled social scientist, demonstrates in her essay "Home-Alone America," in the Hoover Institution's Policy Review, that we are far advanced in a vast experiment in mother-child separation that is "essentially off-limits to public debate."

The crisis of parenting has three components -- the ubiquity of divorce, still-increasing illegitimacy (one-third of all American children and almost 70 percent of African American children are born out of wedlock) and the entry of women, including those with young children, into the work force. Even 70 percent of married women with preschool children under 6 have some sort of work-force participation. The near-normality of divorce causes Americans to place this mass phenomenon "beyond public judgment" in an age famously averse to "judgmentalism." Judgments about illegitimacy and the normality of mothers in the work force take one into the minefields of feminism.

Today's regnant utopianism, feminism, continues modernity's project of emancipating mankind from necessity, including nature. Feminism aims to break the bonds of anatomy and deny that biology is in any sense destiny. Hence feminism's doctrine that gender is merely a "social construct" serving male power, and that roles that relate to gender and inhibit men and women from leading identical lives are indefensible "inequalities." Nevertheless, for decades more and more parents have been spending less and less time at home, and many measurements -- those pertaining to mental problems, child sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, educational backwardness and more -- show that child well-being is in "what once would have been judged scandalous decline."

Divorce and illegitimacy produce single-parent homes that, because work often is not optional for single parents, often are absent-parent homes. And although many women must work because of material needs, such needs, says Eberstadt, "do not begin to account for our contemporary rate of maternal absence." The rate was much less when America was much less affluent; most women now working say they would continue even if their families did not need the income, and that preference rises among higher income groups. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, whose book "The Time Bind" is subtitled "When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work," says: "The emotional magnets beneath home and work place are in the process of being reversed."

According to one study, between 1960 and 1986 parental time with children fell 10 hours per week among whites, 12 hours among blacks. Another study reports that between 1965 and the late 1980s, the amount of time the average child spent interacting with a parent declined 43 percent, from 30 hours a week to around 17. Recently, yet another study reported some improvement, but not in single-mother homes. The fact that many children need help and supervision with homework connects parental absenteeism with the mediocre performance of American students.

In 1994 the Census Bureau estimated that about one-fifth of children age 5 to 14 -- 4.5 million of them -- were "latchkey children," defined as those who "care for self" outside of school. One study finds that children home alone for 11 or more hours a week are three times more likely than other children to abuse alcohol, tobacco or drugs. And as home-aloneness has increased, so has sexual activity, and sexually transmitted diseases, which infect 3 million teenagers a year.

One study reports that from 1975 to 1986, substantiated cases of child sexual abuse increased tenfold (13,000 to 130,000). Federal data show a 350 percent increase between 1980 and 1997. Even allowing for more rigorous reporting laws covering physicians and others, children are much more apt to be sexually abused by a cohabiting male than by a biological parent, and absent mothers provide opportunities for predatory males.

What accounts for a threefold increase in teen suicide rates during the rising affluence of 1960-1990? Given that the average adolescent reportedly spends more than three hours alone every day, more time than with family and friends, the rates likely reflect, writes Eberstadt, the effects of "endemic isolation on a chronically melancholic adolescent temperament."

If, as only the ideologically blinkered will deny, these grim correlations reflect causation, the worst is yet to come for home-alone America. Concerning which, reticence is destructive, even lethal.

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