Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Has Being Married Gone Out of Style?

From Po:

(Jump to our new essay at

Last Thanksgiving, I wrote an email to my mailing list, with a message about the state of family. I started off by noting that the typical American home has no kids in it. Not 2.2 kids, not 1.8 kids, but zero kids. 62% of American homes have no children in them. It was a potentially-alarming stat, but I explained why we shouldn't be alarmed. Plenty of people are having children, but American families are now spread out through several houses, rather than under one roof - thus the one house with the kids in it is a smaller percentage of the total. Grandma lives in her house, big brother lives at college, big sister is in her 20s living in the city, mom and dad are divorced so they have two houses where they share custody of the one little brother, the one child. A family with three kids can easily be split into 5 houses.

Last Saturday, the New York Times reported on a census study that showed a similar sea change shift. Married couple households are no longer the majority in America - they've slipped under 50%. The resulting press put most of the blame on the culture of young people to cohabitate rather than to marry.

Ashley and I jumped at the chance to correct some misimpressions here. The generation of young people are cohabitating, but not at the exclusion of marriage - over 90% will marry at some point in their lives. We have just written an essay at clarifying the true reasons that there are so many new non-married households.

Of note: the New York Times inaccurately reported that "1 in 20 households are people living alone." The accurate number is wildly different - 27% of households are individuals living alone. We believe this inaccuracy led the Times to overemphasize the impact of cohabitating couples. Other press reports mistakenly described the 37 million "non family, non married households" as mostly couples who live together. In fact, that's not even close. A whopping 83% of those 37 million are not couples. They're not romantically involved at all. They're merely roommates.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Do Your Kids See You Much? Finally, the World is Listening to the Research

From Po:

For the last year, Ashley and I have been trying to tell everyone something. I brought it up in all 300 media interviews for Why Do I Love These People? I restated it at every bookstore reading. In multiple blog posts, Ashley has referenced it. Each time, it raised eyebrows and provoked surprise. But, frustratingly, the idea never spread on its own. We hoped, (we begged!), for the truth to get some traction, but it felt like spitting in the wind.

Well, finally, that's changed. The New York Times has validated what we've been saying for a year.

It regards this: in our society, there is a deep insecurity that our kids are being shortchanged. Because both parents are working, kids must not be getting face-time with their parents like they used to. The math seems obvious - more time at work = less quality time with kids, right?

Last year, Ashley discovered an enormous amount of research that indicated this simply isn't true. She turned me on to it, and we've been trying to get the message across. Parents have been filling out time-diary journals for sociologists since 1915. These sociologists make a distinction between when the parents was merely supervising the children and when they are actually interacting with the children - playing a game together, cuddling on the couch, reading a book, etc. Kids used to be supervised by their mothers a ton, but didn't interact with them all that much. The kids were playing in another room, or in the yard. Children today actually get more direct-interaction time with their parents than in any decade that's been studied. The kids are all right.

How is this mathematically possible, if both parents are working? Well, parents seem to make time for their kids no matter what. They are also working more. The two categories we do less of, to afford this time, is clean the house and sleep. We do both a lot less than we did 50 years ago.

The most prominent researcher on this topic was Suzanne Bianchi at the University of Maryland. She is held in extremely high regard by her peers. We'd quoted Ms. Bianchi in our Mommy Wars essay in June for Time. Ashley attended the annual convention of sociologists in August, and many sociologists said to her, "Oh, Suzanne Bianchi was my mentor."

Ms. Bianchi has had a new book out for a few months, repeating what we'd been saying for the last year. We have been sorta shocked that she wasn't getting more attention for her research. It almost seemed like the belief that kids are being shortchanged is so darn pervasive that nobody believed the truth.

Well, today, that all changed. The New York Times discovered Ms. Bianchi's book, and her research, and wrote an excellent article about it. Already the article is #2 on the Most Emailed List at

Friday, October 06, 2006

School Shootings - A Lesson in Coping (Read our Essay at

From Po:

Jump to our Time essay by clicking here.

This week, Ashley and I investigated the school shootings around the U.S. and Canada.

You might have three recent shootings in mind, but there have actually been 25 shootings at or near schools since the school year began. 25! Not all of these have been fatal, and a couple have been averted, such as the three students in Green Bay.

Six of these shootings seem mysteriously connected, by some sort of pathological contagion. Did the news of one shooting trigger the next? Psychiatrists talk about how a disease narrative is not just diagnostic - it actually enters the social fabric and becomes a way to explain our symptoms. For some, it even causes those symptoms to arise. There's a good word for this: "meme." A meme is an idea that spreads, like a virus. Most memes are catchphrases or stories or slogans. In this case the meme "gun/school" is flying around. Six times it has landed in the mind of an angry person under great stress, became internalized, and vented in the form of more gunfire. It started in Essex, Vermont, in late August. Less than a week later, a 19-year-old in North Carolina shot up Orange High School. In mid-September, a 25-year-old in Montreal stormed into the local college and shot 20, killing one. On this meme spread, to Colorado, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. In every case, a family and a community are stretched to find a way to not let this ruin them forever. They choose between ritual and improvisation, between vengeance and forgiveness, and between acting quasi-normal sooner or later.

Our essay at is not about how these shootings are linked. Rather, we spent the last few days looking at the various calls to healing in each community. We also looked into the research on healing from severe trauma. We chose to focus on this question of acting normal within a week or two after something absolutely abnormal has occurred, and the use of normal rituals for healing when the traumatic event was not in the range of normal. Is it okay to act normal after something disastrous? Does doing so deny the event? In our society, there is pressure both ways. We feel very weird about resuming routine. Sometimes, it feels almost taboo.

From the research, we learned that "acting normal" is commonly misunderstood. And that it's okay. Please go read the essay, and comment here.

Monday, October 02, 2006

How media elitism misrepresents the American family, Part 2

From Po and Ash:

We learned this weekend that our essay about Barbie and Baby Einstein will be running in Today's issue of Time Magazine (issue dated: October 9th). We are occasionally asked for more information about our sources, so we thought we'd just provide all of the sources for this essay.

So, facts from the essay are italicized here, with comments and sources in plain text.

Last year, the Baby Einstein brand , now a Disney property, sold $200 million worth of products. The sales of the Barbie brand, a Mattel property, were 15 times higher. A staggering $3 billion.

Please note these are both "brand" dollar volumes, worldwise, which was the best apples-to-apples comparison we could find. The Baby Einstein numbers come from the company's press materials, and the Barbie brand sales come from various sources.

Now, on to the facts about our children and the typical American family. If you wonder how these facts can so often get misrepresented, remember what Claude Fisher said. He's a Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley. "A social trend is whatever is happening to a newspaper editor and the editor's friends."

American high school students think their parents are doing less to help them in school, not more, in such things as attending PTA meetings and helping out with homework.

This comes from the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, in which teachers, parents, and students were asked about various connections to each other associated with schooling. Students were asked "do your parents go to PTA meetings? have they been on a field trip? did they go to teacher-parent conference? did they go to open school night?" The survey showed that there has been a drop of 10% since 1998 in student's perceptions of their parents' involvement.

Nor is every teenager spoiled or lazy; nearly a third of 16-year-olds have jobs while in school.

See the Bureau of Labor Statistics Report at
Note the line on 16 to 17 year olds.
And note this is NOT summer jobs, that’s another report.

Nearly a third of them volunteer, about one hour a week

"Volunteering in the United States, 2005" Bureau of Labor Statistics,

Only 2% of students apply to 12 or more colleges, and only 150 of the nation's 3,500 colleges are so selective that they turn down over half their applicants.

“Out of Control Admissions Hype,” Inside Higher Ed,

See also “Socioeconomic Status, Race/Ethnicity and Selective College Admissions,” by Anthony P. Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose, The Century Foundation., p. 8

Forty four percent of colleges accept every single applicant.

Table 308. Percentage of degree-granting institutions with first-year undergraduates using various selection criteria for admission, by type and control of institution: Selected years, 2000-01 through 2004-05

Some graduates do move home after college, but in the 1980s, more 18-34 year olds lived at home than do today.

See the census report for the last CPS, 2003

Only one out of twenty kids in America will ever be cared for by a nanny.

Who’s Minding the Kids? Child Care Arrangements: Winter 2002 (P70-101)
which is pulled from SIPP reports.

A survey of young Latinos showed many hadn’t applied to college because they had heard colleges are too selective and too expensive.

"Perceptions of College Financial Aid Among California Latino Youth," Maria Estela Zarate, Ph.D. and Harry P. Pachon, Ph.D., The Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, June 2006. This is from a study by the University of Southern California for all Latinos of eligible college age, many of whom were not in college. They were asked to estimate how much they thought colleges cost, from their local community college to the UC system colleges. The respondents way overestimated the costs. They also were asked how good their grades had to be to get admitted to these state colleges and local colleges, and again, they believed their own grades made them ineligible – when in fact that was not the case. The study authors cite the solution to this problem as proper media coverage of the issue. The report said they would have been more likely to attend college if exposed to better information.

In addition, Ashley Merryman discussed the issue with young Latinos in Los Angeles, blamed their misimpression on what the media tells them.

We also interviewed Dr. Teresa Toguchi Swarz, Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota, Department of Sociology. Her research (ongoing) shows that the media's shaming of college kids who live at home is hurting Hispanic and Asian families. These immigrant kids aren't lazy; they live at home because it's their culture and they don't have the money to both live apart from their parents and pay for college tuition. Nevertheless, the media coverage has made them feel defensive, embarrassed, and Un-American. Dr. Swarz co-presented (with Erika Busse) a version of this data, in a speech entitled, “Young Adults’ Understanding of Their Relationships With the Parents: Preliminary Findings from Interviews with Diverse Ethnic Groups,” given at the American Sociological Association Convention in Montreal, Quebec on August 11, 2006.