HOME-ALONE AMERICA: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs,

and Other Parent Substitutes

By Mary Eberstadt. Sentinel. 218 pp. $25.95

"Why are millions of American kids -- almost one in four boys, according to the latest estimates -- taking drugs to alter their behavior, with millions more said to stand in need of that same regimen? Why . . . are depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders apparently skyrocketing among children and teenagers? What might help explain . . . the millions of American (and European) juveniles now at risk for overweight and obesity? What does the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases -- some of them incurable -- mean for the present and future health of today's teenagers? And . . . what exactly is at the melancholy core of current popular juvenile culture, especially what is dearest to them of all -- their music?"

These are the questions conservative social commentator Mary Eberstadt poses in the opening chapter of Home-Alone America. They're good questions, and Eberstadt's general answer -- that all these pathologies are the result of too many children living in an "absent-parent home" -- is one that no reasonable person should dismiss out of hand. Home-Alone America contains some truly riveting chapters on the explosion in diagnoses of mental disorders among school-age children and the dizzying overuse of prescription drugs to treat them. Eberstadt's readings of contemporary music lyrics are surprisingly nuanced and are eye-opening for the as-yet-uninitiated. She peppers the book with statements that speak volumes about the perversity of life in middle- and upper-middle-class America today: "Yesterday's children -- which is to say, today's adults -- enjoyed the luxury of being considered 'normal' in ways that today's children increasingly do not," she points out, noting that the epidemic of behavioral disorders among children may result from the altered perspectives of observers. Parents who don't spend much time with their kids and the schools that do, she says, may simply have developed a much lower tolerance of childish behavior and an increased need to alter it through medication.

Eberstadt also has much of interest to say about the "unintended incentive" for a student to be diagnosed with a "learning disability" (in order, for example, to get extra time to take the SATs). This may, she says, shed some light on the pervasiveness of "learning issues" among the rich and anxious: "It is the country's most exclusive and competitive schools that register the highest rates of learning disability," she writes. And she's great in portraying the double standard exhibited by many pediatricians who are quick to prescribe stimulants, antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds but loath to give antibiotics, because they fear the effects of over-prescription.

But Eberstadt, unfortunately, isn't just a concerned chronicler of today's mad social scene. She is an ideologue, a crusader against day care, working motherhood, divorce and child illegitimacy. (In earlier work, she passionately defended the "natural family" against such threats as "contraceptive sex.") As an ideologue, she doesn't show much interest in how real people live or think about their lives. And like countless other conservatives, she's willing to misconstrue the results of recent social science studies to underscore her arguments against day care.

When Eberstadt talks about day care and the families who use it, she can get really nasty. She brands as "separationists" those who don't revile other-than-mother care. The imagined unhappiness of a child in day care -- "the chronic low-intensity sadness of a yearning baby who just plain misses her mother day in and day out" -- is as acute to her as the pain of a child whose parents abandon her altogether. By this logic, Jeffrey Dahmer, Timothy McVeigh, Ted Bundy and John Allen Muhammad (all of whom once experienced some form of parental loss or abandonment) can be mentioned in the same rhetorical breath as . . . your children and mine, if we happen to work or change babysitters, or are callous enough to divorce or use day care.

Eberstadt isn't the first writer to so grossly conflate short-term separation of the afterschool-program variety with out-and-out neglect and abandonment. Popularizers of attachment theory have been doing it ever since the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby first described the psychological devastation of children left orphaned by World War II. The problem here is, though, that Eberstadt's catastrophizing ends up casting doubt not only on the passages of her book where she castigates working mothers and the users of day care; it also undermines all the rest. In the tale she weaves of home-alone America, Eberstadt is an unreliable narrator -- seductive but, ultimately, untrustworthy.

It's too bad that Eberstadt's marked right-wing bias will most likely lead left-leaning readers to denounce or ignore her altogether, while her raw animus toward working mothers will provide fodder for the worst kinds of "family values" demagogues. Despite what appear to have been loftier intentions, she has merely ended up providing new ammunition for the Mommy Wars. *

Judith Warner is the author, most recently, of "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety," forthcoming in February.