Entries in children (4)

Thursday
Jul122012

Free-Range Parents and Gender Equality at Work

Two recent essays in The Atlantic discussing feminism and work-life balance caught my attention recently.  The first, by Elizabeth Wurtzel, has the striking title 1% Wives Are Helping Kill Feminism and Make the War on Women Possible.  Here’s a snippet that captures the gist of it:

I have to admit that when I meet a woman who I know is a graduate of, say, Princeton — one who has read The Second Sex and therefore ought to know better — but is still a full-time wife, I feel betrayed.

And one from the second, much longer essay Why Women Still Can’t Have It All by Anne-Marie Slaughter:

[…] I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).

The essays made a splash in the feminist blogosphere.  One thread of the reaction I followed from here:

But beyond that, the housewife model is what makes male superiority in the workplace possible, and creates disincentives to more family-friendly workplace policies. Men who have stay-at-home wives literally have nothing other than work to worry about. […] That model enables men to work longer hours and be more productive; women in the workplace cannot compete (yes, stay-at-home dads exist, but there are a few thousand of them in the United States, making them uncommon enough to be insignificant for the purposes of this conversation). And of course men see that women can’t compete, and it cements their view that women aren’t as capable, and they end up mentoring bright young men who in turn rise up the ranks. […] Corporate cultures that are built around a man-and-housewife model aren’t exactly family-friendly in the first place, and making them really change is going to be impossible unless men are forced to change their behavior. So far, the corporate response to large numbers of women leaving has been to make it easier for women to leave. […] If none of those men had stay-at-home wives – if the men currently occupying the highest-level jobs in the world had to take as much responsibility for childcare and homecare as working mothers — you can bet that corporate culture would look very different.

To here:

There’s much missing in the framing of these debates—from the expectation of power and privilege to a limited idea of what success is. What’s irked me is the continued assumption that this is a women’s issue. The problem isn’t that women are trying to do too much, it’s that men aren’t doing nearly enough.

A new report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that women—even those with full-time jobs—still do the bulk of housework and childcare. On an average day, 48 percent of women and 19 percent of men did housework. Married women with children who work full time spend 51 minutes a day on housework while married men with children spend just 14 minutes a day.

The breakdown of childcare responsibilities was not much different—55 percent of working men said they cared for their kids on an average day, whereas 72 percent of working women did. Women also reported spending more time during the day caring for their children than men. [links theirs]

Back to here:

As an aside, I have a secret fantasy of gathering a team of men to go to every male-dominated discussion (on specific issues in the law or a certain genre of film or investigative journalism or whatever) and when it’s Q&A time, earnestly ask the male panelists how they balance work and family.

That one has a list of suggestions for addressing the issue, beginning and ending, notably, with:

First, don’t marry or move in or reproduce with men unless they pull their own weight. Seriously. That might mean you end up alone. That might be a better option.

[…]

Eighth, I don’t really know what else, except all of these discussions are part of the reason why I am extremely hesitant to reproduce. [Emphasis mine.]

(Note that I’m doing some really rough excerpting here, and none of these should be taken as substitutes for the original sources.  All worth your while, especially the original essays.)

That line of discussion reminded me of a book I read recently.  Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids looks at twin and adoption studies and argues that there’s not much middle-class parents can do to effectively benefit their kids beyond giving them good genes and a reasonable middle-class upbringing.  More labor-intensive methods of parenting yield little result (either due to the extra work having minor effects or mixed effects).  Given that good parenting requires less effort than expected, the book argues that middle-class people should simply consider having more children.

Here’s a relevant passage on the rise of childcare hours among American parents:

[…] As expected, dads do a lot more [childcare] than they used to.  Since 1965, when the average dad did only three hours of child care per week, we’ve more than doubled our efforts.  Given how little dads used to do, though, doubling wasn’t hard.  What’s amazing is the change in the typical mother’s workload:  Today’s mom spends more time taking care of children than she did in the heyday of the stay-at-home-mom.

Back in 1965, when the typical mom was a housewife, she spent ten hours a week specifically focusing on her children’s needs.  By 2000, this number had risen to thirteen hours a week.  This happened despite the fact that today’s moms are much more likely to work outside the home, despite the fact that moms have fewer kids, and despite the fact that dads are a lot more helpful. […]

One pattern hasn’t changed: Stay-at-home moms spend more time with their kids than working moms.  However, both kinds of moms went from about eleven hours per week in 1975 to seventeen hours per week in 2000.  Working moms went from six hours per week in 1975 to eleven hours per week in 2000.  Modern working moms spend as much time caring for their kids as stay-at-home moms did thirty years ago.

These weekly totals sound low because they define “child care” narrowly.  Reading a book on the couch while my sons fight Playmobil wars wouldn’t count—even if I occasionally urged them to play nice.  When parents get full credit for multitasking, measured child care shoots up about 50 percent. [ed: I think that may be an under-estimate, compare this to this, for example (noting that the bins are different)] But however you measure, the main patterns remain.  The average dad has roughly doubled his effort.  The average mom spends more time taking care of her kids than she did when the average mom was a housewife.

[…] If the statistics are right, it’s clear why raising kids feels like a chore.  By the standards of the Sixties, modern dads do enough child care to pass for moms—and modern moms do enough child care to compete for Mother of the Year. […]

(This article indicates these numbers have continued to rise, especially among the college educated.  Though there may be over-reporting there; the article indicates the surveys do make a similar distinction between primary and secondary child care, but the survey methods may differ.)

It’s not that child-raising has become harder.  America has become wildly safer for children, both in terms of factors that parents have little control over (disease, war) and things that parents might hope to protect their children from some of the time (violence, accidents).  And that reduction in risk isn’t from the increase in childcare hours itself, crime rates have gone down across the board and accidents have become less dangerous mainly due to medical technology.

Another book, Free Range Kids (the author also writes a fantastic blog), argues that a culture of fear perpetuated by the extremes of the fear-and-blame-focused 24-hour news cycle and anxiety-driven status competition among parents has lead to an extreme system of parenting that’s bad for the well-being of parents and children alike.  We worry about and obesity, and then don’t allow kids to go outside.  An all-but-entirely-illusory fear of abduction leads to “don’t talk to strangers” hyperbole that leaves kids deprived of their best and easiest way to get help when they’re separated from parents and in trouble.  And much of that addition childcare work ends up being spent on car trips (a far, far greater source of avoidable danger to children than stranger abduction, but for some reason one which doesn’t get much attention in the corporate news media).

It’s also worth noting that for some of the things where nurture really does have a significant effect (e.g. people having positive memories of their childhood), more laid-back parenting could also be productive.  As the article above relates:

“Parents are feeling like they don’t have enough time with their children,” said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York, which conducts research on the work force. “It’s a function of people working so hard, and they are worried they’re shortchanging their children. I’ve never found a group of parents who believe they are spending enough time with their kids.”

[…]

Dr. Galinsky notes that although working parents typically feel guilty for not spending more time at home, children often have a different reaction. In a landmark study published as “Ask the Children” (Harper, 2000), she asked more than 1,000 children about their “one wish” for their parents. Although parents expected their children would wish for more family time, the children wanted something different.

“Kids were more likely to wish that their parents were less tired and less stressed,” Dr. Galinsky said.

(As an aside, it’s worth noting that some of the rise in childcare time is simply time freed-up by the use of labor saving technology in other sorts of household chores.  But technology should also be labor-saving in other sorts of childcare, especially the indirect kind.)

Given that context, there are a few important things to note:

1. It’s important for men to do more housework and childcare work, but specifically in a context that allows women to do less housework and childcare work (and specifically less of the sort that’s tedious and labor-intensive).  Just having everyone do 12 hours of direct childcare a week (in two-parent families), plus some multiple of that in for-the-whole-household chores and keeping-an-eye-on stuff, wouldn’t be better for women, men, or children.

2. The culture of unnecessarily labor-intensive parenting makes this whole gender-equality in work-life-balance problem look harder than it is.

3. The need to get companies to stop relying on the “housewife model” is still absolutely crucial.  For one thing, very young kids are still going to need loads of supervision (though modern American parenting still manages to be way more labor-intensive than necessary even in that case).  But the social model of helicopter-parent, always-supervised child is just as much of a problem, and just as much of a gendered issue.

4. The extent that “parenting correctly” has become some sort of class-anxiety-ridden status battle is bad.  Having that be another thing men expect their wives to take on for them is even worse.

Which brings me back to that first essay.  Wurtzel writes:

Seriously: Did Romney actually tell his wife that her job was more important than his? So condescending. If he thought that, he’d be doing it. […]

Hilary Rosen would not have been so quick to be so super sorry for saying that Ann Romney has never worked a day in her life if we weren’t all made more than a wee bit nervous by our own biases, which is that being a mother isn’t really work. Yes, of course, it’s something — actually, it’s something almost every woman at some time does, some brilliantly and some brutishly and most in the boring middle of making okay meals and decent kid conversation. But let’s face it: It is not a selective position. A job that anyone can have is not a job, it’s a part of life, no matter how important people insist it is (all the insisting is itself overcompensation). Even moms with full-time jobs spend 86 percent as much time with their kids as unemployed mothers, so it is apparently taking up the time of about 14 percent of a paid position. And all the cultish glorification of home and hearth still leaves us in a world where most of the people paid to chef and chauffeur in the commercial world are men. Which is to say, something becomes a job when you are paid for it — and until then, it’s just a part of life. [emphasis mine, links theirs]

So here’s another angle on that:  As feminists have pushed for women’s equality in the workplace, America has been making (middle-class) parenting more like a job, more like a career.  Status conscious, labor-intensive, very concerned with doing things “the right way”, who to blame when things go wrong, who’s qualified.  Wurtzel is dead right to note the emptiness of that “most important job in the world” rhetoric, but it’s also worth noting how that rhetoric has become embedded in the structure of modern American parenting.

Friday
Apr202012

Who Will Pay for the Future?

I recently read The Coming Generational Storm.  It’s an alarming book, and well worth reading.  Of particular note is the method of generational accounting.  It seems to take a page from formalism in treating all promises equivalently (whether that promise is that benefits will be delivered, that bonds will be paid off, or that taxes will not be raised) and treating the status quo as an implicit promise.  Looking at the possibility of implicit and explicit default is also key:  Benefits delivered worthless are the same as benefits not delivered at all, and inflation functions as a tax on financial assets even if taxes aren’t raised.

Of course, the question isn’t just whether promises will be broken or renegotiated, but whose promises will be subject to adjustment.  The youngest generation had little say in the current political order, so to what extent will they be willing to foot the bill?

If there’s a generational conflict, the young don’t seem to be winning, as noted in the Esquire article, “The War Against Youth”:

In 1984, American breadwinners who were sixty-five and over made ten times as much as those under thirty-five. The year Obama took office, older Americans made almost forty-seven times as much as the younger generation.

This bleeding up of the national wealth is no accounting glitch, no anomalous negative bounce from the recent unemployment and mortgage crises, but rather the predictable outcome of thirty years of economic and social policy that has been rigged to serve the comfort and largesse of the old at the expense of the young.

[…]

Nobody ever talks about generational conflict. […] Even the Occupy Wall Street crowd, while rejecting the modes and rhetoric and institutional support of Boomer progressives, shied away from articulating the fundamental distinction that fills their spaces with crowds: young against old.

The gerontocracy begins at the top. The 111th Congress was the oldest since the end of the Second World War, and the average age of its members has been rising steadily since 1981.

And it’s not just congress (and other formal, governmental politics), but academia:

From 1980 on, the price of attending a four-year college has risen by 128 percent. While the price has spiked, the quality has tanked. […] In a survey published in 2011, 45 percent of students showed no improvement in “critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing” after two years of college. […] And how could the results be any different? Three decades ago, 43 percent of professors were adjuncts. Now, with colleges bloated by older, tenured professors who take up huge slices of academic budgets while teaching crumbs of courses, the vast majority of classes are taught by adjunct.

[…]

But maybe […] you want to get a master’s or a professional degree. With entry to the professions comes another opportunity to be taken advantage of, and it’s not just the inherently ridiculous price of a creative-writing M.F.A. or journalism school, where on some level, everybody understands the students are being played for suckers. The cost of medical school has spiked over the past three decades. In 1981, average medical-school debt was less than $20,000. Today it is $158,000. Law-school tuition rose 317 percent between 1989 and 2009 while American laws schools wildly increased the number of lawyers they graduate. Naturally, a glut of lawyers decreases their value. So kids pay more for a worse education that leads to lesser prospects in order for the schools to prosper temporarily. […]

And unions:

New workers will earn a “globally competitive wage.” […] Newer workers at unions across the country earn ten to fifteen dollars an hour less than established workers, and the unspoken but widely reported understanding with the AFL-CIO is that the wage of these workers will not increase. In other words, Boomer workers make almost double what their young counterparts do […]

To the extent that the recent economic crisis hurt retirees as well, it’s not clear that this doesn’t exacerbate the transfer of wealth and opportunity away from the younger generation, as would-be retirees delay retirement.  This MarketWatch commentator notes that the BLS statistics on that point may be exaggerated if compared with statistics from different samples at face value, but concludes the trend is still there:

Part of this story is a real phenomenon: More baby boomers are staying on the job because they are healthy enough to keep working. They like working. Further, many of them desperately need the money: They lost their retirement nest egg when the housing market collapsed and the stock market stalled. Fewer of them can rely on a defined benefit pension, and more of them must rely on their own savings to fund their retirement.

[…]

The good news is that employment has been growing faster than the population in every major demographic group. In other words, the employment-population ratios have been rising since the depths of the recession. But, except for the oldest age group, the employment-population ratio is far below pre-recession levels.

[…]

The same thing happened to the generation that came of age in the 1930s. They put their lives on hold for years, and we are still living with their legacy: the baby boomers who are now clinging to their jobs. [emphasis mine]

American politics in particular is hooked on wishful thinking about the future.  If the future is one of unmitigated economic growth, increase productivity might pay all bills and pave over the entire problem.  Admitting that this is not to be is politically untenable.  It is tempting (and reasonably so) for middle-class children to view their parents as excessively optimistic, as opposed to viewing them as short-sighted cowards who sold their children’s birthright to the ultra-rich in order to secure their own retirement.

And it will be hard to renegotiate the social safety net in the face of a retiree voting bloc convinced on the one hand that the whole thing was a bad idea after all and should be scrapped, but on the other hand it’s good that we can just barely afford to keep it around for those who are really counting on it.

As the Esquire piece concludes:

Youth should be the only issue of the 2012 election, because all the subsidiary issues — inequality, the rising class system in America, the specter of decline, mass unemployment, the growing debt — are all fundamentally about the war against young Americans. But the choice young Americans face is between a party that claims to represent their interests but fails to and a party that explicitly opposes their interests and actively works to disenfranchise them.

[…]

By bus and train and car pool, they will follow the gerontocracy to Tampa and Charlotte, the cities with the utter misfortune of hosting the presidential nominating conventions. Then we’ll see if the people inside the convention centers can find the youth anything better to do.

We’ll see then how the flowers of rage, planted and nurtured so carelessly for three decades, have sprung up and who will harvest them.

Friday
Nov182011

Digital Generation

Kevin Kelly shares some anecdotes about the subset of the latest generation raised with cutting-edge technology from an early age.  Here’s one:

Another friend had a barely-speaking toddler take over his iPad. She could paint and handle complicated tasks on apps with ease and grace almost before she could walk. It is now sort of her iPad. One day he printed out a high resolution image on photo paper and left it on the coffee table. He noticed his toddler come up to up and try to unpinch the photo to make it larger, like you do on an iPad. She tried it a few times, without success, and looked over to him and said “broken.”]

Another:

Another reader had this story. Her son had access to a computer starting at the age of 2. Once while they were shopping in a grocery store, she paused to find a label on a product. “Just click on it,” her son suggested.

The comments are good, too.

The real question is whether this will have transient or lasting effects on how the children in question learn and think.  And will those effects be comparable to previous technological “generation gaps”, or qualitatively different?

Wednesday
Sep012010

On Risk Assessment

In 2007, the Daily Mail did a human-interest piece looking at one UK family titled  “How children lost the right to roam in four generations”.  At age eight, their child is allowed no further than the end of the block.  At the same age, his great-grandfather was allowed to wander across the town, including walking to a fishing-hole six miles away.

In 2008, Lenore Skenazy, a New York mom, wrote an editorial titled “Why I Let My 9-Year Old Ride the Subway Alone”.  She quickly acquired celebrity status as “America’s Worst Mom”, and has been fighting to defend her views ever since.

In 2010, security expert Bruce Schneier wrote the following:

At a security conference recently, the moderator asked the panel of distinguished cybersecurity leaders what their nightmare scenario was.  The answers were the predictable array of large-scale attacks: against our communications infrastructure, against the power grid, against the financial system, in combination with a physical attack.

I didn’t get to give my answer until the afternoon, which was: “My nightmare scenario is that people keep talking about their nightmare scenarios.”

[…]

Worst-case thinking means generally bad decision making for several reasons. First, it’s only half of the cost-benefit equation. Every decision has costs and benefits, risks and rewards. By speculating about what can possibly go wrong, and then acting as if that is likely to happen, worst-case thinking focuses only on the extreme but improbable risks and does a poor job at assessing outcomes.

The parental is political, too.