Monday, May 29, 2006

High School Drop-Outs -- New Analysis Confirms Lower Drop-Out Rates

From Ash:

At first, I was just going to include this in This Week's Recommended Reading, but decided -- since we've posted quite a bit on drop-out statistics in the past -- that this warranted an entry of its own.

In a piece in this week's Washington Post, a couple scholars looked at the high school drop-out issue in a very different way. They used time use surveys to analyze how much time teens spend in school. Basically, their idea was that if someone dropped out, then he will say he's spent no time in school -- because he's literally not in school. So if we figure out how many kids say they're never in school, we'll know how many have really dropped out.

Recent reports have alleged that as many as one-third of kids drop-out. If those estimates of drop-outs are correct, the analysts theorized, then around 30% of kids should say they had spent no time in school. But less than that said it. Instead, most kids said they were in fact in school. True, they may be bored out of their minds and not learning a thing, but they are still there, counting the hours til Prom.

Applying their results, the analysts came up with a graduation rate of 82%.

At first, I thought it was an interesting approach, but I wasn't sure how reliable it was. But then, I started to give it more credence when I saw that their graduation-rates are almost the same as Census' reports regarding educational attainment -- even by racial breakdown, where the biggest disparities occur.

There are still problems here -- such as the fact that dropping-out isn't necessarily permanent. I don't know how they accounted for those who drop-out temporarily, or those who get a GED, etc.

But, regardless, it sure is interesting food for thought -- about the issue particularly, and, generally, how a new way of looking at an issue can radically change the results. I wonder what the kids over at would have to say?

This Week's Recommended Reading

From Ash:

School -- Failing On Both Coasts

This is more an "FYI" than a recommended reading, but I thought you should know that the California Supreme Court has restored the high school exit exam as a graduation requirement for the state's high school seniors. And while it's still an awful mess, and tragic to think that that kids might not be able to pass it, note that the skill-level requirements are just an 10th grade level of proficiency in English and 6th and 7th grade math, plus some algebra. In other words, the half of the graduation test that is so controversial doesn't test high school material, but junior high school material.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe reports on the results of the first few years after ending bilingual education in Massachusetts. Mass. schools now require foreign-language speakers to take their classes in English as a form of English-immersion. And it isn't working: kids are falling further and further behind. Just 17% of these students were fluent in English after a year of monolingual education. After 3 years, the number of children not fluent was still over 50%.

Supervision of Kids Starts At 15? That's a little late, People.

The New York Times reports that -- despite repeated, dire warnings from pediatricians that children under 2 should never watch television -- parents continue to park their infant children in front of the television set. A new study by the Kaiser Foundation revealed that 61% of babies a year-old or less, are watching tv. And they are, on the average, watching about an hour a day.

And a third of kids under 6 have televisions in their own rooms. My guess -- at least some of these parents aren't using the v-chip, so they have no idea what the kids are watching, or how much time they are in front of the set.

It isn't until they're teens, I guess, that we seem to get more concerned with kids' use of media.

Since this week, the Chicago Trib reported that a local school district board voted unanimously to police students' posts on social networking sites such as Students involved in extracurricular activities or sports teams now will be required to sign an agreement that they can be punished for alcohol or drug use, smoking, and other outside-of- school malfeasance -- including what they write and do on the net.

By the way -- the Los Angeles Times reports that a study of South Korean teens revealed that heavy cell phone use doesn't mean your kids are the happy social types you think chatting on the phone indicates. Instead, it could be just the reverse. The study showed that kids with high phone use are actually anxious and unhappy. Which should give us a lot of pause considering American kids spend an hour a day on their cell phones -- the same amount of time they do homework.

Leaving Home . . . Or Not, As The Case May Be . . . .

In an analysis of recently released Census data, the New York Times observed that, while still a small fraction of the majority of households, that multigenerational households is on the rise.

They also did a sort-of poignant piece on how West Virginians almost all leave the state after they finish their educations -- in order to find better employment -- but that they frequently return home as senior citizens.

And in the "No, I'm not making this up" Category of the Week . . . .

AP reports that Danny Osman was born on May 21. That's news because both his mother and father share his May 21 birthday. The odds of that happening are .000751 percent.

Til Death We Don't Part

I wonder if "til death we part" was in the wedding vows of Andrew and Hayley Kissel. Or if the actual vows are legally enforceable in Connecticut. Because the Kissels were in the middle of a nasty divorce fight, when Andrew died. But, according to AP, the Court has decided that the divorce proceedings (over Andrew's millions as a real estate developer) will continue without him.

My favorite part: the judge admonished the attorneys that their clients must be kept up to date regarding the case. Andrew's lawyer replied, "I think at this point we're beyond Mr. Kissel having knowledge of these proceedings."

Thursday, May 25, 2006

When to Get Married -- Choice or Circumstance?

From Ash:

Today's Chicago Sun-Times has a nice piece by Andrew Herrmann entitled "Waiting (longer) for Mr. and Mrs. Right," about how American men and women are getting married at increasingly older ages. But what I think is perhaps the best part of the piece is that he never once used the phrase "delaying marriage."

Because "delaying marriage" is an all-too-commonly-used phrase to describe a non-existent phenomenon. People are getting married when they can get married -- not because they feel they should be married. And that, in my mind, is exactly the right time for them to do it.

I'm guilty of saying "delaying marriage" myself. I did it in our Factbook. But not in the next version. Because "delaying marriage" implies that the timing of marriage is some sort of freestanding event on a calendar, that we can do too early or too late. That there's some right time for it, and we missed it.

There's this implication that if men and women "delay marriage," that they're just procrastinating. That youth and -- uh -- the youth+ are delaying marriage, we imply that they've chosen to postpone an event. And that it was likely a bad decision.

It's like saying I chose to leave the milk in the fridge after the expiration date. That I've been putting off finding Mr. Right the same way I put off doing the laundry or paying the bills. And okay -- I do admit to putting off the laundry -- but most of the time, there's a good reason for it. I ran out of detergent. I don't have enough quarters for the laundry machine. I'm busy writing a blog. I had to work late.

Similarly, there are good reasons why people aren't getting married before their mid-20s. We used to spend just a few years in school. Now, it's not uncommon to go from grade school to grad school -- meaning some sort of school for 20 years.

In years past, you might have gone straight from school to till your family's farm or join your father in the factory he worked in. Now it can take years to even find a job, much less establish a career. In the meantime, there are bills to pay.

People are getting married later than their grandparents or their parents, because they don't feel like they have the option to get married earlier. There are just too many unknowns, now to get married at 18 or 21.

Historically, it's the marriages at the late teens and early 20s that are actually the aberration. On the average, people got married in 1961 younger than they did in the 1890s -- even though the life expectancy was much shorter back then.

Looking at a chart of age at first marriages that extends past the last 50 years, something occurs to me. People put off marriage -- or never got married at all -- during the Depression. They couldn't afford a relationship; they couldn't afford kids; they were too busy scraping by.

And it was during the years of World War II -- before and after -- that Americans really started to get married at younger and younger ages. So then too -- it wasn't that people were choosing to get married at such a young age.

They were getting married young because there just wasn't any alternative. You married your sweetheart before he shipped out to Europe or Korea, because who knows when or even if he'd ever return. Or you married the second he came home because the GI Bill was sending him off to college, or marrying him because of the housing shortage, and you didn't know what else to do.

Or maybe the guy you'd dated in the Depression, couldn't marry because you didn't have the money then, then served his time in the Military, and now that he's home with a job, you could finally afford to marry and have the family you'd been waiting for for a decade.

The only ones I can't figure out are the early Baby Boomers. Why'd they get married so young? They had choices -- work, school -- their families were comparatively well-off. What gives? What was it? Societal expectation? Boredom?

Perhaps. But -- whatever the answer -- we all found out what happens when you time marriage according to one's age, and not one's circumstance. Unhappy marriages and higher divorce rates.

Instead of thinking that people are delaying marriage, because they are too immature, that they're in danger of missing their marital expiration date, we should consider that late marriages are a sign of maturity, a thoughtful consideration of their circumstances and the desire to develop abilities brought into a marriage -- since both will challenge and serve that relationship from thereon in.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Read Our New Piece at - Dear Graduates

Over at today, Ashley and I introduce you to some college-aged students who are working nearly full time while they also are taking a full courseload of school. We nicknamed them "Big Macs" - like the double decker sandwich, a double load of college and McJobs.

There are a surprising number of Big Macs out there. If you're one of these hard-working members of the new generation, we'd love to hear from you. Write me at and tell me what you do, how you manage it, and why you do it.

Read the essay by clicking here.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Unmarried Couple Families -- Not Allowed to Live Together? (Part Two)

From Ash:

In a previous post, I started to address a current news story -- the Shelltrack-Loving family, headed by an unmarried couple, has been denied an occupancy permit for a single-family house in Black Jack, Missouri. If it goes to Court, the law will probably be on the side of Black Jack; the City Council will win, because its zoning does not specifically define who can be in a family. It's just that this particular family falls through the zoning cracks. That doesn't by itself make the zoning ordinance itself invalid.

I know a lot of you are probably shocked by that. But first consider this: Why is it that there are tree-lined neighborhoods of single-family homes, and other parts of town that are made up of row after row of warehouses? Why are some of the neighborhoods freestanding houses, while others are nothing but apartment buildings?

The answer is that there are zoning laws. Zoning defines which type of building can go in which area. But it isn't limited to buildings.

Zoning also limits who can do what in those buildings.

Zoning laws are the ordinances that stop your next-door neighbor from turning his house into a big-box superstore. The ordinances that right now are being rewritten to prevent people from building McMansions that barely fit on the lots they sit on and are twice the size as every other house on the street.

If your house is zoned as a single-family residence, then it really means that. One family per house. It's not just a realtor's pitch -- that's, in all likelihood, the law. And you can't turn your spare bedrooms into a college dorm or restaurant or homeless shelter.

So all of the Mayor's arguments that were being dismissed by critics as ridiculous -- zoning being about controlling housing density, traffic etc. -- those are all concerns the Supreme Court has upheld as legitimate. Even the character of a community is an acceptable basis for zoning.

Zoning is so important to a community that Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once wrote:

"I am in full agreement with the majority that zoning is a complex and important function of the State. It may indeed be the most essential function performed by local government, for it is one of the primary means by which we protect that sometimes difficult to define concept of quality of life." (emphasis added)

Now, the problem in the Black Jack situation is how the ordinance defines who constitutes a single family able to live in a single-family residence.

If you're back to being shocked and appalled at the idea that it's up to the government what constitutes a "family" -- well, don't be. Because what's the alternative? If not, how will you stop me from turning my house into a college dorm? I just have a very big family -- I'll insist -- lots of kids I consider my family.

That isn't just a hypothetical. It's actually the 1974 U.S. Supreme Court case Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas. In that case, the Supreme Court upheld a zoning ordinance that prohibited a group of college students from living in a single-family residence. In that case, the ordinance required that a family living in such a residence be:

"[o]ne or more persons related by blood, adoption, or marriage, living and cooking together as a single housekeeping unit, exclusive of household servants [or] A number of persons but not exceeding two (2) living and cooking together as a single housekeeping unit though not related by blood, adoption, or marriage"

Even though the people objecting were students, even at that time, there was an argument made that the ordinance unfairly discriminated against unmarried couples. The Majority of the Justices dismissed this, saying that unmarried couples were expressly allowed in under the provision: two could live together despite the fact they weren't married or related by blood or adoption.

And while the Court admitted that its ruling would mean that, ultimately, there would be arbitrary lines drawn -- that always happened in law and there was no way to avoid it.

So then compare the Belle Terre requirements to those of Black Jack. In order to live in a Black Jack single family dwelling, you need to be one of the following:

1. an individual, living by himself.


2. "two or more people related by blood, marriage or adoption,"


3. "A group of not more than three (3) persons who need not be related by blood, marriage or adoption."

In other words, it's broader than the Belle Terre ordinance, because it allows three unrelated, unmarried people, not just two, to live together within a "family."

So, contrary to what some news reports are saying, what is keeping the Sheltrack-Lovings out of their home is not the fact that they are unmarried. It's actually that they have too many kids. They have three. They're only allowed one. Seriously, if my reading is correct, an unmarried couple without kids, or an unmarried couple with one kid, could move right in.

Okay, I know that sounds insane, but, if you take a look at the requirements again, I think you'll see that, similarly, a married couple can only take in one foster child -- and they might not even be able to do that if they already have children.

The only real leading authority that helps the Shelltrack-Lovings is a different Supreme Court case, Moore v. East Cleveland. This is another zoning case, to no doubt appear in an ACLU brief soon, with great quotes like this:

" . . . the Constitution prevents East Cleveland from standardizing its children - and its adults - by forcing all to live in certain narrowly defined family patterns."

But the fact of the matter isn't even Moore really isn't that much help.

In Moore, a grandmother was thrown in prison because she took in one of her grandchildren, while one of her adult sons and his child already lived in the house. The Supreme Court threw out that zoning ordinance.

But the problem there was that the zoning defined family by so narrowly, that it prevented any sort of extended family from living together. It literally defined a family in terms direct relationship to a householder. You basically had to be the householder's spouse or unmarried child to live there -- even siblings of the householder or grandparents and grandchildren weren't allowed. It capped the number of adult children who could living with their parents. It even went so far as to relate these definitions of who could be in the family by their income contributions. And the Court rejected that.

But if you look again -- that's not what is going on in Black Jack. Under that ordinance, anyone related by blood, marriage, or adoption is a family. So it could be a household of just siblings or a combination of generations or a stepfamily. It also allows for completely unrelated individuals to live together.

The real mess here is that both of the parents are related to the children -- but they aren't related to each other. So Black Jack is applying the unrelated strangers provision to everyone -- the total number in the house. That exceeds the maximum of three. It's a tricky way of reading the language, but you can't say it is completely illogical. In fact, I'm not sure how else to read it, unless you just didn't count minor children as people -- but there's nothing in the law to say that's the case.

And it's important to note that this isn't the first time this has happened in Black Jack: they aren't the only unmarried couple-family that has been turned away. (On the other hand, if married couples are successfully evading the codes, then we may have a different story.)

As I mentioned yesterday, I don't yet know current Missouri law on parentage, but it could very well be that there is no legal record that Mr. Loving is actually the father of these children. So, in the eyes of the law, they may not really be a single-family -- not even entitled to make the argument that they are a family at all.

Because Black Jack's zoning is so close to the Belle Terre version, what the Shelltrack-Lovings should have done was not ask the City Council to rewrite the law for the whole community. Instead, they should have asked for a variance. A variance is literally that -- the ability for the City Council to look at a particular house and, say because of a particular situation -- this particular house / homeowner does not have to follow the general rule.

If that failed, then they should have (may still) sue the realtor who sold them the house without telling them about the housing code to begin with.

Of course, if the realtor had warned them about the zoning (especially with other families having the same thing happen), and they still bought the house, we call that in the law, "coming to the nuisance." There are cities that define "family" for zoning incredibly broadly; they didn't move there. Instead, if they willfully went where they knew they would not be welcome, that is their own fault, and the law won't help them.

Speaking of which, I linked to them before, but below are a few other examples of similar housing code provisions, to show just how common provisions like these are.

And if you still think it's unfair to discriminate against unmarried couples, well, let's leave resolution of that for another day. But first, definitely make sure you read my Friday post -- about how that is not just happening in Black Jack, but throughout society.

Chesterfield, VA: family is defined as follows:
  1. An individual;
  2. Two (2) or more persons related by blood, marriage, adoption or guardianship plus any domestic servants, foster children and not more than two (2) roomers, living together as a single nonprofit housekeeping unit in a dwelling or dwelling unit; or
  3. A group of not more than four (4) persons not related by blood, marriage, adoption or guardianship living together as a single nonprofit housekeeping unit in a dwelling or dwelling unit

Gerrish Township, Michigan: “Family” is defined as:
a. One (1) person or two or more persons living together in one (1) dwelling unit and related by bonds of marriage, blood, or legal adoption (may include up to a total of three (3) additional persons not so related who are either domestic servants or servants or gratuitous guest), comprising a single housekeeping unit, or;
b. A group of not more than four (4) persons not related [by] blood, marriage or adoption, living together as a single housekeeping unit.

Gwinnett County, GA: "An individual, or two (2) or more persons related by blood, marriage, adoption or guardianship, or a group of not more than four (4) unrelated persons, occupying a single dwelling unit...."

Salem, Massachusetts: "A family: One or more persons related by blood, adoption, or marriage living and cooking together as a single housekeeping unit, excluding household servants. A number of persons but not exceeding three living and cooking together as a single housekeeping unit though not related by blood, adoption, or marriage shall be deemed toconstitute, a family. (Ord. of 5-10-84, Section 3)."

b. a group of not more than two persons not all so related;
c. a group of not more than two persons not all so related living together as a single housekeeping unit, except that children with familial status within the meaning of the Fair Housing Act will not be counted as unrelated persons; or
d. a group of not more than two persons not all so related living together as a single housekeeping unit, except that, persons with disabilities within the meaning of the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act will not be counted as unrelated persons."

Saturday, May 20, 2006

This Week's Recommended Reading

From Ash:

New Study on Domestic Violence:

The Reuters story that probably needed the most attention this week but lost out to endless coverage of the things like release of The DaVinci Code: a study of Seattle women, aged 18-64, found that over 40% of the women had suffered physical or psychological abuse by their husbands, boyfriends or dates. And it's not just the Seattle coffee -- the researchers consider the data to be a representative snapshot of how widespread domestic violence is, nationally.

Immigration Issues Outside the US:

Two interesting points of comparison on the immigration front:

I have just started reading the full report, by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development -- but its executive summary and AP's article on it make it seem like this should be a fascinating read. Key facts: immigrant children in the US are a full year-behind in school, while the children of immigrants close the gap -- but are still behind by about a half-year. And US immigrants are doing worse in school that those in some countries (e.g. Germany and France) but not as well as those in others (Australia and Canada).

Another interesting piece from the BBC: after the recent rioting by largely immigrant-second generation youths, and other tensions, the French parliament is working on changing its immigration rules. So far, its Assembly has passed a new law that dramatically limits migrant workers ability to enter France -- to only those with "skills and talents -- and ends the ability for migrants to get citizenship after 10 years. The migrants also have to learn to speak French and sign a contract that they respect the principles of the French Republic / way of life.

Russia Struggles with its Failing Birth Rate:

From the Christian Science Monitor, here's a quick but worthwhile read. Russian President Vladmir Putin has said that Russia's falling birth rate is the nation's single greatest problem. It's gotten to the point that experts envision empty factories, and worried pols see empty barracks for its military. In order to spur births, Putin has proposed doubling national child support payments, and a cash bonus of over $9000 to a woman who has a second child. (And $9000 equals over 2 years of income for the average woman.) But with the economy what it is, and women in school and at work until well-into their childbearing years, the initial reception to his plans seems to be dubious at best.

Poway Clears Its Calendar

Po and I aren't persuaded by the publicity that claims kids are overscheduled -- but we're more persuaded that parents might be. And we're always interested in what people are doing to solve problems so we were both intrigued by this piece in USA Today. Residents of Poway, California, a small town outside of San Diego, have declared Monday, May 22 as "Family Focus Night," a night when everyone is supposed to do nothing but stay home with their families. Organizers have spent a year trying to get events such as meetings canceled, so that people are free to not go anywhere. They've had mixed success. One of the organizers herself has a scheduling conflict: her son's Little League game is Monday night.

And from news of the odd . . . .

If you're one of those ultra-busy parents: outsourced tutoring. It was just a matter of time, right? The Washington Post reports on a company that allows students to get $20-hour over-the-phone tutoring, from a pool of 50 tutors in India.

The Des Moines Register reported (via AP) that -- in order to tell medical physicians not to revive her if she's dying -- an 80-year-old woman has had the words "Do Not Resuscitate" tattooed on her chest. While her DNR order is winning points for originality, most legal and medical experts think that the tattoo isn't actually legally enforceable. So the woman's not taking any chances: she's got a living will as well. Can I just say -- I really hope this doesn't start a granny-tattooing trend. (And I'm guessing tattoo parlours are with me on this.)

Friday, May 19, 2006

Unmarried Couple Families -- Not Allowed to Live Together? (Part One)

From Ash:

Earlier this week, the City Council of Black Jack, Missouri voted not to change its housing code. That wouldn't usually be the subject of national news, but, in this instance, it is making headlines around the country. Here's what is going on: the city's current housing code makes it illegal for Olivia Shelltrack and Fondray Loving, an unmarried couple, to live in a house with their three children. The reason being that they do not constitute a "single family" under the city's legal definition, and, therefore, they cannot live in a "single family dwelling." If they do live in such a dwelling, they can be fined hundreds of dollars a day or be evicted -- even if it is from a house they own.

The ACLU is now saying it will file suit on the couple's behalf.

When she heard the decision, Ms. Shelltrack said, "I'm just shocked." A Salon columnist describes local residents' comments in support of the existing code as "silly." And her readers have since written enlightened, thoughtful comments like: "Stupig Fucking Yahoos Live in Missouri" (that's "Jeffrey's" typo -- not mine.)

I'm not saying that I agree with the City Council. But reactions like those are at best naive, and further, may show a profound misapprehension of current American law.

Because, even if it ultimately is proven illegal or unconstitutional, Black Jack's zoning law isn't an exceptionally horrendous discriminatory law that could only happen in a town near the "Buckle of the Bible Belt."

Which brings me to offer Ms. Shelltrack and Mr. Loving a little friendly advice.

Black Jack's Mayor has said that other areas around St. Louis have even more restrictive housing codes -- you couldn't live in those areas, either -- and I believe him -- so you should probably check with your new lawyers if you decide to move anywhere else in the area.

If you decide to leave Missouri -- understandable, given all the publicity -- you should cross Atlanta, Georgia off your list of places to move to. At least, the parts of it that are in Gwinnett County. Oh, and you probably can't live Chesterfield, Virginia or Fairbanks, Alaska or Gerrish Township, Michigan or Salem, Massachusetts, either. They all have housing codes that are very similar to the ones in Black Jack -- so there's a chance that you wouldn't be able to live in a single-family residence in any of those areas either.

And those are just a couple of the ones I found in a quick Yahoo! search (not to be confused with the Yahoos Jeffrey complained about.). It's certainly not a comprehensive list. Again, just check with your lawyers.

For the rest of you -- especially those so quick to condemn Black Jack (Kudos, by the way, to USA Today, who acknowledged that the situation is a little more complex than it seems at first glance.) -- did you notice I mentioned Salem in the "No Go" list?

If you just discounted that as a new sort of witch trial, let's make sure that really sinks in before we continue on.

Read this slowly:

An unmarried couple-family like the Shelltrack-Lovings probably cannot live in Salem -- a city in Massachusetts -- the state that the legalized gay marriage.

So much for dismissing this as a Bible Belt radicalism.

Now, there are a several interesting twists and tensions in zoning and how do we define families that I want to address -- but I'm going to do that in another post.

For now, however, I just want us to first consider the reality is that our nation's laws are filled with preferences for married couples and biological families.

As far as I know, there are still states that won't recognize an unmarried man as the father of his children. Only the mother is legally recognized -- the man will have to actively petition to be acknowledged as the father -- and not every state even allows that.

(Off the top of my head, I don't know current Missouri law on this -- if you do, send me an email -- but depending on Missouri's laws on parentage, it could mean that even the pure argument of Loving being the father as the kids doesn't change the outcome, because there may be no legal recognition that he is their father. Which would mean he had to submit a DNA test to the agency handing out housing permits before he could claim even the biological-family basis for single-family residency.)

That's just for starters. Another quick example, some states have different laws on domestic violence -- if it's a husband who beats up a wife compared to a live-in-boyfriend who hits a girlfriend may be the difference between prison terms. A wife gets a marital privilege in court; a live-in partner does not. A husband and wife may be automatically responsible for each other's debts; a boyfriend and girlfriend are not.

From the day someone gets married to his death, different rules apply to that married relationship.

There may be legitimate reasons for those legal differences. Some that benefit the married couple, some the unmarried. Is that a form of discrimination? Perhaps. Hell, I will even, for now cede the point, and say "Yes." Is it morals-based? Sure, I'll give you that one, too.

But the cold, hard truth of the matter is that stopping an unmarried couple from living in a particular bedroom community just isn't the sort of invidious discrimination that we usually worry about.

The courts step in when a person is discriminated against because of his fundamental traits -- e.g., his race, religion, or physical handicap. The things that are, for the most part, completely out of his control. That's how it has been since birth, and there's nothing anyone can do to change it. We don't step in because of a particular choice he's made.

This is far different than the laws at work in the historic case about another unmarried couple. In a seemingly poetic coincidence, the plaintiff in that case also named "Loving," and they were also an interracial couple. But that's where the similarity ends. In Loving, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a law that barred an interracial couple from getting married. Because of their race, they couldn't begin a family.

Now, if Shelltrack-Loving couple were making some sort of a "It's against my religion to get married," claim -- now, that would make an interesting argument I'd love to hear at the Supreme Court. Because then maybe the ordinance would be unfairly burdening their free exercise of their religion -- a fundamental right -- an aspect of their very being.

But that's not what is going on here. There's no disputing the fact the Shelltrack-Loving couple has made a voluntary decision not to get married. They could if they wanted to; they just don't want to.

That decision is not protected. Sorry, Kids. It just isn't.

Next up -- the morass of zoning "families."

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Are Stepparents "Real" Parents? - Read our post at

From Po:

(Go to to jump this commentary and read our post right away.)

Two weeks ago, Ashley and I promised you readers that we'd soon blog on whether stepparents deserve steprights. We had our information together, but we were looking for something timely to hang it on. We had discovered an intriguing new solution in Scotland, where they now allow stepfamilies to fill out a simple form granting Parents' Rights and Responsibilities to a third parent (like a stepparent or grandparent). Filing this PRR form with the appropriate court clerk in Scotland establishes full parental rights.

However, there wasn't much chance that the United States was going to adopt Scotland's solution, not even if we blogged about it every week for a year. So we needed something else more timely to hang our analysis on.

Ashley spotted it first thing Monday morning, when the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a ruling from Washington State. The case involved two lesbians fighting for custody, and so all the news reports tagged this as a "gay rights" story; however, Ashley immediately read the entire case history, and discovered that Washington State specifically says this law applies to stepparents as well as gay and lesbian parents (foster parents and legal guardians too). We hit with our story right away. So far, we are the only journalists covering this story to see its much bigger ramifications.

I really hope you go read this story on Time's site. I think it will be eye-opening to realize how stepparents are in complete legal limbo, despite being ubiquitous in our society.

Immigration -- The Mexican Government's Response to the Bush Speech

From Ash:

I had a number of problems with President Bush's Monday night speech on immigration. Of course, one of my biggest problems with his speech was that he didn't take on the Mexican Government -- even address its role in the whole mess. I don't know why he's afraid of doing that. But all I can say is that fear -- much like the flow of migrants -- is a one-way street. The Mexican Government shows absolutely no fear of Bush, and is proving that in its response to his speech.

Now Bush left out a lot of crucial issues that need to be addressed, like what to do with children who are illegal and have lived here for most of their lives, or children who are citizens, but have parents who are undocumented. And a lot of what he wanted to do isn't really up to him. I agreed with an NPR commentator's observation, that he could have given the same speech months or even years ago. Instead, Bush waited until his popularity is at an-ever-falling-levels, so that he doesn't really have the political wherewithal to make itchy-for-re-election congressmen do anything they don't want to do. Things that he could do, more on his own (such as order a re-organization of the immigration service), in order to deal with the backlog of applications, he never mentioned.

But mostly, I was disappointed that no one on President Bush's staff seemed to have read our essay on -- because he made no mention of holding Mexican government accountable for the massive migration from that country. We've taken over Afghanistan and Iraq because of alleged governmental ties to theoretical threats to our border -- but he won't say word one about the Mexican government's actual sponsorship of illegal immigration.

The Mexican government, on the other hand, isn't afraid of us. Even before Bush announced the National Guard would be working on the border, President Fox was objecting to the plan. Now, following Bush's speech, Mexican officials are planning to file suits on behalf of immigrants caught by the National Guard. An official from the Mexican National Immigration Institute, a branch of the Mexican Government, is asking the Mexican government to send its own military to remote parts of the border, to protect its migrant citizens from our Guard. (Once again, they claim to be doing this for the sake of 400-500 lost lives -- which are tragic, but nothing compared to the millions of Mexican people who suffer in extreme poverty. Conversely, I think it's closer to the amount of Chiapas and Zapatista revolutionaries who've died at the hands of the Mexican military.)

In other words, their plan is use their military to attempt to help its people evade our military -- even escort them past -- so that the Mexicans can continue to illegally cross the border.

Madness. Absolute madness.

If any other country was doing such such a thing, we'd be at the United Nations, screaming about our national sovereignty and a threat of war. Instead, we politely agree that we have a "shared responsibility."

Most of the newsfeeds are running versions of an AP article about all this. But I've only seen one version, so far, that ended with this sentence:

"Many analysts believe that Fox is willing to trade enhanced border security for a comprehensive plan that legalizes the status of undocumented workers in the United States, something on which he could stake his legacy."

What I have to ask is, why isn't that in all the articles? And why on earth isn't that the lede?

Mom's "Salary" -- A Few Further Thoughts

From Ash:

We've gotten some responses to my earlier post on an annual report about how much mothers would get as salary -- if they were financially compensated for their roles as day care teacher, janitor, etc. These responses made me want to blog a little further about my take on this, because I really think that incomplete, and misleading information like this doesn't serve anyone -- and, if anything, it ultimately serves to devalue the role of mothers in our society.

First, in terms of its methodology, nowhere can I find any particulars about their "study" (I use the term loosely). It's a study about time-use, but they don't seem to adjust for parental income, education or ethnicity, all of which drastically effect parental time use. Instead, they do allow you to adjust for number of children and your zip code -- but that's just a fraction of the variables that really need to be examined.

I can't find a survey-sample-size or methodology -- which is important because people are inaccurate when asked to describe their time. So if it was just ask-you-over-the-phone, "how many hours a day are you with your kid?" that may have little bearing on what a mother actually does.

Why are things like that a problem? Because their numbers aren't consistent with those from longitudinal and short-term time studies. (Particularly, they seem to significantly inflate the amount of time mothers spend with their children.) But I can't fully analyze their information, because I don't have any of their data.

Another problem: I can't find definitions for the jobs they used for the tasks they translated motherhood-related tasks into. For example, the report has hampered me by not specifically saying what their model stay-at-home mom is doing to be entitled to described as a CEO for 4.6 hours a week.

I commented on that before. Since then, I've heard arguments that mothers are, in fact, CEOs. They've said that I overestimate the amount of training and education that CEOs have, and that mothers' have "on the job" experience. They've also made the point that dishonest CEOs would benefit from a mother's experience running the family budget.

Now, I'm sure that the numbers of women holding college degrees is on the increase, but still, it's still less than one-third. In 1990, just about 18% of mothers of children under 12 had a degree. I don't have a number, but the US Department of Labor says that top executives frequently have college degrees and other advanced training.

And I think it's a sad reflection on our society that we presume all CEOs are as crooked as those of Enron et al. have been alleged to be. But I don't believe that to be true. And just as skeptical am I of that position, I'm also mindful of the fact that -- lest I be struck for lightning for this -- not all mothers are Madonnas, either.)

Now, my guess is that, the Mom as CEO means that Moms are "scheduling personnel" (i.e., figuring out who will take the kids to soccer) or handling finances (paying the bills, doing the family budget, etc.), etc. But each of those job descriptions could apply not just to a CEO, equally well to an office manager or an accountant as well. I did all of those sorts of tasks (badly, I admit), back when I was an assistant making $400 for a 80-hour week. But a Mom CEO would get paid almost $40,000 a year for that as a half-day a week job? Please, oh, please, someone send me the ad for that real job.

If the point of this was that it was supposed to boost a mom's self-esteem, it gave her a completely distorted perspective. If the point of the analogy was to get a CEO to respect a mother -- my guess is it did the opposite. Gave that CEO a good laugh at the watercooler.

Similarly, the report assumes that the free-market salaries that they are a just reflection of what tasks are really worth. Is a CEO's work worth 5 or 20 times as much as his assistant's and hundreds of times the worth of a construction worker?

Why is it that uneducated illegal immigrants get paid under the table and as little as possible to be nannies for children of our nation's wealthiest? Why is it that the traditional job for a teenage girl is babysitting (i.e. child rearing)?

Does anyone think that teachers really get a salary that reflects their impact of their performance on those children's lives and the larger society as a whole? They are just as undervalued as mothers are.

So to translate a mother's nonrecognition into the monetary nonrecognition of a day care teacher is illogical at best. It's not quite as bad as when I worked for free as an intern, and my boss offered me a 100% raise -- 100% of nothing is still nothing -- but it comes awfully close.

Most importantly of all, beyond an uncertain methodology, but tied into the idea that pretty much all of childrearing-activities are grossly underappreciated and undercompensated, I believe that mothers are enormously undervalued in our society, and misinformation like this report is worse than no information at all.

Po and I have spent a lot of time studying and writing about parental involvement. And we're constantly amazed how influential that involvement is -- how it impacts every aspect of that child's life. So I strongly believe that vainglorious promotions like the report don't serve to further our appreciation of motherhood. If anything, reports like that just further distort and devalue parents' roles.

If the only way we can convince a mother or her peers that the time that mother spends with her child is valuable is to put an actual price tag on it, I think that's pretty tragic. In fact, it says more about our society than I really want to know.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

This Week's Recommended Reading

From Ash:

This week, there have been a number of interesting social science pieces this week.

First, check out these two, which highlighting the difficulty of executing real school reform.

AP reports that a judge has halted the first exit exam required of California's graduating seniors because it discriminates against poorer students whose schools that didn't have sufficient resources to prepare for the exam. (My two cents: I absolutely detest the funding inequity in schools, but I'm also equally troubled that the answer is to graduate students we know did not receive a sufficient education. Isn't letting them leave school going to perpetuate their lack of preparedness? Isn't there some sort of middle ground here?)

But then -- who would teach them? Since AP also reports that not one state is meeting the "No Child Left Behind" teacher requirements -- that all of its teachers in core subjects (such as math and history) be "highly qualified" -- but don't be fooled into thinking that's an impossibly high goal. As AP explained, that's just the statutory language: the requirements are just that these teachers have at least a bachelor's degree, a state license and proven competency in the subjects they teach. Those are so low requirements, it frightens me that the states can't make them, and I really wonder who it is who's teaching these kids.

But then -- just when you're about to write off our educational system completely, read this New York Times piece about the shambles of the French university system. It's a horror story of underfunded schools, thousands of students crammed into buildings that are failing down with disrepair, then leaving school without any real education to speak of . . . hey, wait a minute -- if you substitute the word "university" with "high school," it's just another story about the U.S. schools . . . .

In immigration, I was intrigued by this piece on the front page of the LA Times: Mr. Fox, Cough Up $300,000 -- about an Oregon Sheriff who has actually sent Mexican President Vincente Fox a bill for the cost of incarcerating Mexican undocumented immigrants (those who have been convicted of crimes, not just because of their immigration status). I've actually long-wondered why we don't make foreign governments reimburse the US for services we provide their citizens -- so to see this one guy just do it on his own cracked me up.

If you're in the mood for pondering core humanity, you might take a look at this LA Times editorial, by an evolutionary biologist theorizing on why birth rates in industrial nations keep falling (i.e. because we just don't need to have kids). I was a little distracted by his opening with an invocation of the plummeting German birth rate -- because there are less ephemeral reasons for it there (e.g. an economy that makes most of its young leave the country to work elsewhere). But the larger point of the piece is intriguing enough.

On the lighter -- and freakier side . . . .

First, a group of Australian men are traveling around the world, as a "human zoo" -- they live in glass boxes for weeks, and you can apparently see them do everything from sleep to shower. They've been in a few US cities already; now they are headed to China.

Now, lest you're worried that your child won't be enough of a voyeur to appreciate something like that, no worries -- there's a new cable channel just for infants. Sure, there's some concern by pediatrician-types that kids shouldn't even be allowed to look at a t.v. until they're at least two, but what busy mom isn't going to be grateful to let the kid see all Genius Babies all the time?

What's the worst thing that could happen? I mean -- it's not like the kid's going to be incapable of functioning in society and just spend their lives biking around the world, with no real ties to anything at all, is it? But then . . . . t.v probably wasn't too blame for either of the lost biking souls I read about this week.

First, a friend of Po's sent us this story about a guy who has been literally biking around the world: he made the news when, after 44 years on the road, his bike was stolen. (He eventually got it back.) . . . .

Then, a day later, the Los Angeles Times reported on a homeless man who bikes to all the local Clippers basketball games. He has no place to live, but he spends a third of his income on tickets, and doesn't miss a game. Holy crap -- two guys spending their days on bikes, chasing a dream. I couldn't believe the coincidence. (If I worked for one of a few publications, I could write about it as proof of a new sociological trend.)

(Note to the Clippers management staff: he says what he really wants to do in life is work for you cleaning up the towels; he'll do it for free. Somebody just give this guy the job already. And if you need to use the money from one season ticket or two to get this guy an apartment or counseling, before you trust him on the court, then I think you should suck it up and do the right thing.)

Friday, May 12, 2006

A Father's Take on the Mommy Wars

We've got another column on today, this one on the Mommy Wars. Go read it there. It includes some surprising information for anyone who's been watching the mommy wars - less divides these two sides than we customarily assume.

You can comment here if you like, but also, Time is enabling comments or at least "Talk Back" on their site, which is like a "letters to the editor" box.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Is Wanting a Little Breathing Room from Your Loved Ones a New Notion?

From Po:

One of the most emailed stories of the last week at the New York Times was reported by Jill Brooke on the phenomenon of "Living Alone Together." These are couples who have his & hers houses or apartments. Some of these couples are married; some are long-term couples who never marry. It's not that they love each other any less, they insist - they just like their space. A little breathing room helps them be kinder and more appreciative to each other when together.

It's not a horrible story; it's a good story, with one fatal flaw. It's a good story because it normalizes this type of relationship. You're no longer outcasts, you LATs - you've made The Times. My own mom has been in a couple of these long-term relationships where they each kept their space, so I've grown up thinking it's fairly normal. And I'm grateful to Jill Brooke for making it more normal.

However, the fatal flaw.

Not once, in this 1,700 word story, does Jill Brooke mention that it's expensive to maintain two homes. It's an incredible financial privilege to be a couple and yet live separately. But this never crossed the reporter's mind.

In most of the country, when two people fall in love, sooner or later one of them realizes, "Hey, we could be saving a lot of money if we moved in together."

By ignoring the financial limitations most people have, the Times conveys that living like this is a brand new desire we have. In fact, a quick look at history suggests that it's not a new desire at all. We've always wanted a little breathing room from our loved ones - we just never could afford it until now.

Families have always been held together under one roof by economic limitations as much as desire. A surge in middle-class wealth after World War II led new parents to flee the urban centers (where the grandparents lived) and move to the suburbs. That was a major blow to the three-generational-family. We can wish that generations stuck together like they used to, but it turns out that people never really liked it so much. As soon as they could afford to get on their own, they did.

Then the 20-somethings moved out too. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, they got married so young that we couldn't really see, demographically, this desire for breathing room. But once marriage got delayed, you saw a huge boom in living independently - having left your parents, but not yet married.

In the 1980s, the boom in stocks and real estate helped the grandparents switch from living independently to living in style. Millions moved south from the rust belt. Farther away, more independent. Sent postcards.

Today, finally, couples are getting in on the act. Wealth continues to give voice to this desire to have more personal space.

I'm still miffed that this journalist could have written so many words on the topic, and yet she never considered that her readers around the country would wonder, naturally, "but how do they afford it?" That this question did not occur to Jill Brooke says something about the world that surrounds her. Apparently, in her world, everyone can afford it.

Dr. Phil Also Intervened - But he backs Diane Sawyer

From Po:

I got the transcript of the Larry King show from last week, when Dr. Phil defended Diane Sawyer's character and her caring. But Phil McGraw also noted that he didn't know the facts around Diane Sawyer's Primetime Live episode. He also gave her permission to invoke The Star's Excuse, which is that stars are talking heads with handlers and producers and it isn't always up to The Star what happens to videotapes.

But if you didn't see it, on Monday night Dr. Phil got into a very similar situation as Diane Sawyer, and he handled it quite differently. He did the right thing and intervened, despite momentum from his producers to rush to the airwaves with their videotape.

Phil's show was called A Mother's Rage. She had 5 kids and she knew she needed help, so she asked Dr. Phil to install a video camera. It's amazing what she did knowing that there was a camera in her kitchen. She picked on her 10-year-old son, forcing him into his room where you hear screaming and crying, and then when he came out crying about his knee, she actually kicked him from the back. Then she ranted and raved at the daughter, who was about 9. The cameras showed the reaction of the 3-year old twins to all the screaming. A baby about 7 months old was there also.

Dr. Phil did not bring the older kids in front of the audience. He spared them some by keeping them in a side room, where he could interview them. They were sweet kids - and worried that their mother was going to get in trouble. They knew that what she does to them is illegal. They also expressed fear of their stepfather's stick, which Dr. Phil said he'd destroy. (The stepfather said he had only used it once. Dr. Phil told him he needs help with his parenting skills; however, it was the mother who was way out of control.)

Dr. Phil made the father promise that he would not leave the mother alone w/them during the time he arranged for intervention. He told the mother on stage, "Lady, you understand that before you leave here today I will report this to Child Protective Services."

On the Larry King show - which ran prior to this show, but Dr. Phil talked about it anyway - he said his producers were going to broadcast A Mother's Rage right away, but Dr. Phil saw the tape and made the call, telling his producers that this mother was severely abusing a child physically, mentally, and emotionally. He asked the family to be brought in.

This wasn't exactly clear watching the show Monday night, because it the children were allowed to go home with the mom and stepfather after the show. So Dr. Phil posted a note on his website:

Please be assured that immediately following the taping of "A Mother's Rage," the Dr. Phil show did make a report to local child protection authorities. As a mental health professional, Dr. Phil is required by law to make such a report if he has concerns about the safety, welfare or well being of a child. However, Dr. Phil does not himself have the authority to remove children from their parents' home.

I felt like Dr. Phil handled this quite well.

I'm reminded suddenly of when I spent the night working in East Los Angeles with a police officer. This was during my research for What Should I Do With My Life? When the police gets a domestic abuse call, they have to investigate it - no matter what. The call from dispatch was Level 3 - no immediate danger. A teacher had reported that a child had some bruises. We drove into the housing project in a barrio. In the end, the whole story seemed to check out about as well as it could - the boy claimed he had taken a fall on a bicycle, which had a bent wheel. The boy's palm was abraded, consistent with landing on concrete. But it was incredibly tense to walk into this house and get the distrustful stares from everyone in the family. We tried to be as kind as possible, but we also had to follow police procedures for clearing a house and making sure nobody was in a closet with a gun. It felt like our investigation could easily make any situation far worse. But it had to be done.

I guess that's the lesson - every potential abuse should be reported.

But I would be remiss if I didn't mention that I have seen this system manipulated to a parent's advantage, too. For two years, I kept in touch with an absolutely lovely woman who was waiting for the court to allow her to see her adopted daughter again. Ten years prior, she had married a man who had custody of a baby daughter. She soon adopted his daughter as her own. Years later, their marriage broke apart, and custody battles ensued. The father eventually reported her to CPS, alleging sexual abuse - a flat out lie. But CPS is even more protective in sexual abuse allegations than physical abuse, and so they would not let the mother see her daughter until the charges were cleared. It took six months. Then he did it again - same allegation - and the courts, being overly protective, kept her from seeing her daughter for the next two years.

Can you imagine not seeing your 12 year old daughter for two years because of one phone call her dad made when he was angry?

This is a very touchy topic, and I just hope that readers recognize the difficulty of handling these circumstances without the benefit of hindsight.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Read our essay at on the Mexican Government

Immigration is a topic we all care about, but it's rare to actually read something that is different from what we've always heard. This creates an unusual news challenge -- we care about the issue, but we don't really like reading about the issue, because so little seems fresh.

Ashley and I tried to crack that puzzle, and I think we've hit on something that nobody else is saying. Our essay on the Mexican government is up at this week.

I hope to be doing more with Time in the coming months.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Kyle's Family Speaks - When A Journalist Should Intervene, Part 2

Back in 2002 and 2003, ABC's Primetime Live put mini-cameras in the homes of some stepfamilies. In one family, these cameras recorded video of a father hitting his teen daughter while her stepmother egged him on. ABC sat on this videotape for over two years, finally airing a special episode two weeks ago. That episode drew 8+ million viewers, and to promote it ABC endlessly replayed the controversial segment of video. Viewers were horrified that ABC had not taken the videotape to authorities in the two+ years they had it. The correspondent for the Primetime episode was Diane Sawyer. The name of the teen daughter is Kyle Nelson. ABC vaguely asserts that since the family was in counseling and Kyle was in individual counseling, they didn't need to do anything more. They suggested that, in effect, the family already is well-aware they are in trouble and they are getting professional help. While sitting on the videotape, the statute of limitations expired and the local prosecutor cannot bring charges against the father and stepmother.

I wrote about this originally ten days ago, recounting my own experiences where I intervened to ensure the safety of my subjects, even if it meant I was losing a dramatic story by affecting its outcome.

Since then, I have been communicating with a member of Kyle's family, on her birth mother's side. And it's clear to me that ABC never let this side of the family know that Kyle was in danger, as she was. ABC never let them know what was on the tape, and this side of the family witnessed it as a complete surprise when it aired on national TV, at the same time the rest of us saw it. They had no idea how had it had been for Kyle at her father's.

Kyle's family strongly believes that ABC did not tell them of the incident - or show them the videotape - for one reason: the family would have given the videotape to their local district attorney, and because Kyle was a minor at the time, ABC would have lost use of the tape.

As for the assertion that Kyle was in the hands of a family counselor already? Well, that counselor has not come forward to explain why he/she did not intervene. But Kyle's family knows that this counselor was not keeping sessions with Kyle private; the counselor was repeating everything Kyle said to her father and stepmother. This made Kyle distrust the family counselor, and eventually Kyle stopped attending counseling because of it. Whether Kyle was in therapy at the time of the incident is unclear, but it is clear that Kyle did not feel that the family counselor was protecting her.

The family says that ABC has been generally non-responsive to their questions. Many concerned viewers have wanted to contribute to a college fund for Kyle, and the family asked ABC for help in establishing such a fund. ABC has only given the family the run-around on this, and the family has had to do it without any help or promotion from ABC.

Knowing this, I'm more inclined to see ABC's inaction as akin to covering up a possible crime.

This Week's Recommended Reading

From Ash:

Since we've written so much on education recently, the time for reading is over. Instead, how about a couple pop quizzes? How would you do if you were in school today?

The Washington Post published a few of the questions from the 12th grade version of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as "the nation's report card" since it measures students' mastery of basic subjects. Actually, those questions were actually harder than I'd have expected them to be: at least the sample questions do measure mastery, as supposed to just mere competency. But then, math's, uh, never been really one of my things so we won't go into that how I did on that section.

Geography's never been one of my expertises, either, I'm ashamed to admit. But compared to most young American adults, I'm a regular cartographer. At least, according to a new National Geographic / Roper survey which found that about half of US adults 18-24 can't even find New York State on a map and they don't even know what continent the Sudan is in. A third can't find Louisiana, even after endless Katrina coverage. Another third read a map so poorly that they will go the wrong direction in the event of an evacuation. Be brave -- take the quiz and see how you do.

And this week, Reuters reminded us what real love is -- and how it isn't valued in other places around the world. In Pakistan, a couple was just released after having spent years in prison for having committed "adultery" -- but the truth was that they had been faithful to each other, marrying despite their families' objections. Because of that, they were in prison for five years until a Muslim cleric testified in court that he had, in fact, married the couple. (Now, why this took five years, I don't know . . . . ) The bright side here, besides the couple's eventual release was, well, the family might have just killed them -- "honor killings" are still common in Pakistan for things like this.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

"Mom's Salary" Report -- More Harm Than Good

From Ash:

You may be seeing reports of a new study from that determined a stay-at-home mom would earn about $134,000 if she were paid for her efforts.

Now, I'm all for considering the real value of unpaid contributions to a family. But this is a half-baked publicity stunt that just shouldn't be taken seriously.

First, they labeled tasks by job descriptions in other professions. For example, they looked at how some mothers decide how much money a family should budget -- hmm. CEO's make budget decisions, so moms do CEO-level work for 4.2 hours every week. She deserves $40,000 for those 4 hours. I'm not by any means disparging the difficulties in family budgeting (Lord knows, I can't do it), but to say family budgeting is equivalent to the responsibilities of a trained corporate CEO is simply asinine.

Similarly, they think that Mom should be paid as a family psychologist for her 3.9 hours weekly that she evaluates her children. But a professional psychologist has professional degrees, training, and expertise -- more is involved than just trying to ask a kid why they are upset. So to label Mom as a psychologist demeans the value of that profession -- and the emotional concerns of both mother and child.

The study suggests the average mom is a housekeeper for 22 hours a week, plus a laundry machine operator for 7 hours a week, plus a janitor for another 7 hours a week. Well, the truth is, American moms haven't done that much housework and cleaning in decades (we spend 3 hours less a day taking care of our house than we did fifty years ago).

They also fail to make a distinction between being the parent responsible for a child (who might be playing in the other room) and actually interacting with the child face-to-face. Because of this, they seriously overstate the number of hours per week a Mom spends on childcare. And here, they don't account for the effect of education in a mother's interaction with a child -- which is dramatic.

By the way, if you're a mom surfing this post online right now as casual entertainment, says you should get paid as a "computer operator" for 9 hours a week.

When they add it up, they suggest that the "typical stay-at-home mom" is working 91 hours a week. Which is why they suggest that a working mom also deserves $85K a year for the 50 hours a week she's at home. What about the Dads? I know Dads just watch television, and yell at the idiot box, but shouldn't they be paid like television executives for having such strong opinions? Or at least be paid like security guards, who watch monitors all night? Maybe the Dads should be paid for sleeping, too - because they're keeping the house safe just by being there. says it did not want its study to become fodder in the heated Mommy Wars. But by creating an absurd accounting that rivals Enron's financials for accuracy, they have instantly jumped into the Mommy Wars with guns blazing.

They did get one thing right -- working mothers sleep less.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Stepfamilies - Some Common Misconceptions

From Po:

Since Primetime Live botched their coverage of stepfamilies, I figured we all might need a primer on some common misconceptions about stepfamilies. Here's my top 5 misconceptions, then I'll take them one at a time.
  1. Stepfamilies are not new
  2. Stepparents are just as often a solution as a problem
  3. Stepfamilies are everywhere but children living with stepsiblings is rarer than you think.
  4. "Stepparents should never discipline their stepchildren" - Explained
  5. You marry his ex-wife, too

1. Stepfamilies are not New
During Colonial America, parents died so regularly that a much higher percentage of children lived in stepfamilies than do today. Parents remarried repeatedly. In late 17th-century Virginia, fully half of all children would lose at least one parent by the age of 13. Almost half of those would lose the other parent as well and be orphaned.

A hundred years ago, a child had nearly the same odds as experiencing living with a single-parent as a child does today. (Those odds are a little over 1/3rd). Divorce was hard to get, legally, but that did not mean unhappy couples stayed together -- commonly men deserted their families. The newspapers of one hundred years ago are full of stories about the problem of men abandoning their wives and children.

What's unique about today's culture is that parents don't abandon their children like they used to. (In 1835 France, 121,000 babies were abandoned - in one year alone). This affects stepfamilies but it also affects all aspects of family living. Far fewer babies are put up for adoption, for instance. People hang on to their kids. And so when a couple divorces, it's no longer the case that mom always gets full-custody and dad slowly drifts away.

Today, joint-custody arrangements are common. If not joint-custody, then extensive visitation rights are secured. Both parents fully intend to stay part of their children's lives. And everyone involved has to share and cooperate much more than they used to. Stepfamilies are not new; what's new (relatively) is the degree of co-parenting post-divorce.

This is an important point: the complicatedness of modern stepfamilies can seem like a "problem," but it has at its heart a very positive value - that every parent stays involved with their child.

2. Stepparents are just as often a solution as a problem.
A family counselor is likely to be treating stepfamilies that are in trouble. A family lawyer is likely to be advising stepfamilies mired in legal vengeance. So if you ask a family counselor or a family lawyer their general impression, you'll likely hear that stepfamilies have a lot of problems.

But I have put calls out for stories about stepparents, and I received many incredible stories about how great a stepparent has been. In some of these stories, a stepmother or stepfather played a heroic role in being the "great parent" that neither biological parent could be. In other stories, the stepparent was just a nice third grown-up, much like an uncle or aunt, that the child could confide in. In most stories, this stepparent took some adjusting to - but once accepted, they made a very valuable contribution. Kids benefit from having caring stepparents.

So for every story of a child who doesn't want to share their mom with a new man (which is what psychologists will tell you), there is another child who is grateful their mother is not alone anymore.

Many second marriages are wonderful marriages. In Why Do I Love These People?, I tell the story of one blended family in Kansas from the point of view of the teenage daughter. She was embarassed by her parents' divorce, and she balked at being expected to love her parents' new partners. But eventually she got over it, and she realized that her parents were both much happier now. Happy parents = better parents.

3. Prevalence - Stepfamilies are everywhere, but living with stepsiblings is rarer than you think.
One-third of all of us are in stepfamilies, right now. (That includes me - I have had a wonderful stepmother for almost 30 years). One-third of all children will live with a stepparent for some part of their childhood. That doesn't count weekends and visits - when we say "live with" we mean the stepparent and the child would both be listed on the Census under the same household as their primary residence.

About half of those are doing that right now - about 1 in 6 kids is living with a stepparent.

So this is the surprising twist: out of every 100 kids, only 1 is living with a stepsibling.

Children spend weekends with stepsiblings, but it is very rare to live together in one primary residence. Is that a sign of how afraid families are to blend? Or is that just the benign consequence of children mostly living at their mom's? We don't know. Some of both, probably.

4. "Stepparents should never discipline their stepchildren" - Explained
Nothing gets the internet message boards jumping faster than an expert going on television and advising "a stepparent should never discipline a stepchild." This seems like an extremely controversial statement and it ignites all sorts of outrage. But actually, what drives the debate is a fundamental miscommunication. When all sides have a chance to air their views, they find out that they actually agree, most of the time.

When a stepparent hears this phrase, "don't discipline your stepchild," they think they are being told they can't order their stepchild to stop jumping on the couch. They can't tell their stepchild to turn off the television and go to bed. They can't send a stepchild to their room if they are being rude or disobedient.

But that's not what is meant. The experts who make the blanket claim (Dr. Phil among them) make a distinction between:
  1. making rules
  2. enforcing rules
  3. doling out punishment when a child has intentionally broken a primary rule
They believe a stepmother and a birth-father should make the rules together. For the first year or two, a stepmother might not want to spontaneously make a new rule of her own without discussing it with the birth father first. They believe a stepmother has every right and responsibility to enforce the rules and routines of a household. That usually includes giving "time-outs" or sending a child to their room.

Punishment is a different class. Punishment is what is meant by "discipline." This might mean being grounded, but it can also mean spanking. (Yes, it still happens.) So when an expert says "don't discipline the stepchild," they mean "leave the spanking and other punishment to the birth parent." These experts actually agree that the stepparent has every right to spank and discipline the child, just that it's not worth it. When a stepchild is disciplined by a stepparent, they often balk with "you're not my real parent." And the psychologists advise that it's not helpful to corner a child in that way such that thoughts like those are his only defense. Don't get him thinking that way. So the expert advice is based on long-term strategy. They're not saying a stepparent doesn't have the right to discipline - only that doing so is not the best strategy.

After several years, if a stepfamily has blended and completed its transition, most experts think it's fine for the stepparent to now be involved in discipline - (let's hope those instances occur rarely).

Most people - but not all - actually agree with this cascade of conditions. But the entire cascade vanishes when an expert cuts it short and throws out the universal, "A stepparent should never discipline a stepchild." Thus, the confusion - and anger.

By the way - none of this is applicable to very young children who grow up with their stepparent. Stepparents in that situation do not get rebelled against any more than birth parents.

For what it's worth, the full cycle of blending a family usually takes 4 to 10 years, with 7 being average. So if you are still having some trouble three years into it, realize at least this: you're perfectly normal.

5. You Marry His Ex-Wife, Too
I was reviewing my notes on the many stepfamilies we interviewed for Why Do I Love These People? And I was thinking about a friend of mine, a divorced mother, who is slowly falling in love with a divorced man. Both have two children. And she's nervous about this. She wishes it were simpler. She is sure she would fall in love with this man if it was just the two of them. And if either of them did not have children already. But it is hard to fall in love when so many relationships have to be managed. Each of her children has to feel not just okay about him, but okay about his children, and vice versa for him. Then, there are the Ex's. My friend isn't sure she's ready. She's not sure her boyfriend's ready. "Am I ready," she asked me?

The number one complaint I heard from stepparents had nothing to do with his or her children. It was about the ex-spouse. An ex-spouse can ruin the experience for everyone else. Several women told me, "If I had the choice to do this over again, I wouldn't do it. I love him but it has been a drama with no end in sight."

From my own observations, the biggest variable to the success of blending a family is the behavior and agreeability of former-spouses. If you are divorced or divorcing (with children), there is probably nothing more important for you to do than to get on good terms with your ex. If you are falling in love with someone who has children from a previous marriage, your partner's ex-spouse is usually a bigger factor in the long-term success than the attitude of the children. The children can be scared and nervous, but if the ex's are supportive then the kids usually adjust. But when the ex-spouse is contentious, it pulls the kids in two.

If you're looking for a leading indicator, or some prognosticator of whether this will work, the co-parenting relationship between the former spouses is probably the best proxy-measure of readiness.

We don't live in an ideal world, though - I recognize that people fall in love when they fall in love, and it doesn't follow tidy timelines.

Coming Soon - Should Stepparents Have Step-Rights?