Tag Archives: children

Deciphering a well-told data story, cars are good for kids edition

Brad Wilcox has written up his best case for how marriage protects women and girls from violence. I discussed his initial post earlier, but the blowup has prompted me to provide more general advice for the critical data citizen — reader, writer, and editor — who has to decide what to believe when someone comes at them with a data story.

I have some tips about that at the end, but first this elaborate setup.

The information in this section is true

Consider three stories:

  • When Melanie Thernstrom’s toddler, Kieran, first ate cheese, he immediately had a massive allergic attack. His face swelled, his skin turned red and scaly, and he started gasping for breath. They jumped in their car and rushed to the hospital, where doctors were able to save him.
  • Chicago mother Tynisha Hilliard had six children in the car when someone opened fire. “Mommy, I’m shot,” said her nine-year-old boy from the back seat. Hilliard immediately sped to the nearest hospital. “My reaction was to save my son. That’s all I can do, save my son,” she said. After emergency surgery for a gunshot wound to the chest, the boy was expected to survive.
  • When Dodgers catcher A. J. Ellis’s wife, Cindy, went into labor, they hopped in the car and headed for NYU hospital, normally a 35-minute drive. Despite racing through traffic with a police escort, they didn’t make it in time – the baby was born in the back seat – but they arrived at the hospital moments later, met by an emergency crew that whisked mother and child to care and safety in the hospital.

What do these stories have in common? Children’s lives saved by cars.

Is this part of a wider phenomenon? I know what you’re thinking: The pollution from cars hurts children, the vast resources devoted to infrastructure for cars could be spent instead in ways that help children, the need for gas causes wars all the time, and the individualism promoted by car culture contributes to social isolation instead of community efficacy.

Maybe. But let’s theorize a little. Here are three ways cars might be good for children’s health:

  • Kids whose families have cars can get them to doctors in an emergency. Considering that in modern societies a lot of what kills children is various kinds of accidents and medical emergencies, this could be a major advantage.
  • Say what you want about individualism, but it’s emerged as a modern character trait in tandem with the cultural shift that brought us the view of children as priceless individuals. Car culture is a major prop of individualism, so it’s reasonable to hypothesize that people who drive individual cars are more totally devoted to their priceless individual children’s well-being (rather than, say, the well-being of children in general).
  • Being able to transport oneself at will — any time, any place — may create a sense of self-efficacy, of mastery over one’s environment, which makes people refuse to accept failure (or illness or death), and thus devote themselves more confidently to their survival and the survival of their children.

Don’t take a theoretical word for it, though — let’s go to the data. Here are three small studies.

Cars and children’s health across countries

First we examine the relationship between the number of passenger cars per capita and the rate of child malnutrition in 110 countries (all the countries in the World Bank’s database that have measures of both variables in the last 10 years — mostly poor countries). The largest — India, China, Brazil, and the USA — are highlighted (click to enlarge).


This is a very strong relationship. This single variable, cars per capita, statistically explains no less than 67% of the variation in child malnutrition rates.

But, you liberals object, cars are surely more common in wealthier countries, so this relationship may be spurious. Sure, income and cars are positively correlated (r=.86, in fact). But when I fit a regression model with both per capita income and per capita cars, cars still have a highly significant statistical association with malnutrition (p<.001). (All the regression models are in the appendix at the end.)

Cars and child death rates across US states

Second, we take a closer look within the United States.  Here there is a lot less variation in both the number of cars and the condition of children. Still, there is a clear relationship between private cars per person and the death rate of children and teenagers: Children are substantially less likely to die in states with more privately owned passenger cars (click to enlarge).


Again, there is less variation in income between U.S. states than there is between countries of the world. But to make sure this is not just a function of state income, I fit a regression model with cars and a control for median household income. The statistical effect of private cars remains significant at the p<.05 level, confirming it is unlikely to be due to chance.

Car commuting and children’s disabilities within the US

Third, let’s go still further, not just comparing US states but comparing children according to the car-driving habits of their parents within the US. For this I got data on children’s disabilities (four kinds of disability) and the means of transportation to work for their parents using the 2010-2012 American Community Survey, with a sample of more than 700,000 children ages 5-11.

Sure enough, children who live with parents who drive to work are substantially less likely to have disabilities than those who don’t live with a parent who drives to work:


Again, could this be because richer families are more likely to include car-driving parents? The regressions (below) show that, although it is true that children in richer households are less likely to have disabilities, the statistical effect of parents’ commuting method remains highly significant in the model that includes household income.

In summary: Children are less likely to be malnourished if they live in a country with more cars per person; they are less likely to die if they live in a state with more cars per person, and they are less likely to have disabilities if they live with parents who commute to work by car. All of these relationships are statistically significant with controls for income (of the country, state, or family). These are facts.

One interpretation

Compare this analysis to the question of marriage and violence. In their piece for the Washington Post (discussed here), Brad Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson wrote about #YesAllWomen:

This social media outpouring makes it clear that some men pose a real threat to the physical and psychic welfare of women and girls. But obscured in the public conversation about the violence against women is the fact that some other men are more likely to protect women, directly and indirectly, from the threat of male violence: married biological fathers. The bottom line is this: Married women are notably safer than their unmarried peers, and girls raised in a home with their married father are markedly less likely to be abused or assaulted than children living without their own father.

With the facts above I can accurately offer this parallel construction:

Some cars pose a real threat to the health and safety of children. But obscured in the public conversation about auto safety, pollution, and environmental degradation is the fact that some other cars are more likely to protect children, directly and indirectly, from threats to their health and safety: cars driven by their own, responsible, caring parents. The bottom line is this: Children in places with more cars — and in families where parents commute by car — are notably healthier than peers without cars.

At the end of his followup post, Brad concludes:

Of course, none of these studies definitively prove that marriage plays a causal role in protecting women and children. But they are certainly suggestive. What we do know is this: Intact families with married parents are typically safer for women and children. … That’s why the conversation about violence against women and girls … should incorporate the family factor into efforts to reduce the violence facing women and girls.

I am equally confident in my conclusion:

Of course, my brief studies don’t definitively prove that cars plays a causal role in protecting children’s health and safety. But they are certainly suggestive. What we do know is this: Societies and families with cars are typically safer and healthier for children. That’s why the conversation about children’s well-being should incorporate the car factor into efforts to reduce the harms too many children continue to experience.

Another interpretation

Both the marriage story and the car story are misleading data manipulations that substitute data volume for analytical power and present results in a way intended to pitch a conclusion rather than tell the truth.

When is a non-causal story “certainly suggestive”? When the person giving you the pitch wants you to believe the conclusion.

Please do not conclude from this that all data stories are equally corrupt, and everyone just picks the version that agrees with their preconception. Not all academics lie or distort their findings to fit their personal, political, or scientific conclusions. I may be more motivated to criticize Brad Wilcox because I disagree with his conclusions (and there may be people I agree with who use bad methods that I haven’t debunked), but that doesn’t mean I’m dishonest in my interpretation and presentation of evidence. Like a real climate scientist debunking climate-change deniers, I am happy that discrediting him is both morally good and scientifically correct (and I think that’s not a coincidence).

There are two main problems with both the cars story and the marriage story. First is selection into the independent variable condition (marriage and car ownership). People end up in these conditions partly because of their values on the dependent variable. For example, women in marriages are less likely to be raped on average because women don’t want to marry men who have raped them, or likely will rape them — the absence of rape causes marriage. In the case of children with disabilities, there is evidence that children’s disabilities increase the odds their parents will divorce (which means at least one of the parents isn’t in the household and so can’t be a car-commuting parent in the ACS data).

The other main problem is omitted variables. Other things cause both family violence and children’s health, and these are not adequately controlled even if researchers tell you they control for them. Controlling for household income (and other easily-measured demographics) does not capture all the benefits and privileges that married (or car-owning) people have and transfer to their children. For tricky questions of selection and omitted variables, we need to get closer to experimental conditions in order to provide causal explanations.

Tips for critical reading

So, based on Wilcox’s car story and my car story, here are practical tips to help you avoid getting hoodwinked by a propagandist with a PhD — or a data journalist looking at a mountain of data and a tight deadline. These are some things to watch out for:

Scatter plot proof

Impressive bivariate relationships; they may be presented with mention of control variables but no mention of adjusted effect size. That’s what I did with my scatter plots above. If you have adjusted results but don’t show them, it’s selling a small net effect with a big unadjusted label. (Wilcox examples here; Mark Regnerus does this, too.)

Axis truncation

A classic example is the Obama food stamp meme, but Wilcox had a great example a few years ago when he wanted to show the drop in divorce that resulted from hard times pulling families together during the recession. If you assume divorce is always going up (it fell for decades), this looks like a dramatic change (he called it “the first annual dip since 2005″):

No head-to-head comparison of alternative explanations

This is a lot to ask, but real social scientists take seriously the alternative explanations for what they observe, and try to devise ways to test them against each other. Editors often see this as a low-hanging fruit for removal, because cutting it both shortens the piece and strengthens the argument. In the rape versus marriage story, Wilcox nodded to the alternative explanation that “women in healthy, safe relationships are more likely to select into marriage” — which he called “part of the story” — but he offered nothing to help a reader or editor adjudicate the relative size of that “part” of the story. This connects to the next red flag.

Greater than zero proof

Sometimes just showing that something exists at all is offered as evidence of its importance. That’s why I included three anecdotes about children being saved by private passenger cars — it happened, it’s real. The trick is to identify whether something matters in addition to existing. Here’s a Wilcox example where he showed that a tiny number of people said they didn’t divorce because of the recession; here’s an example in which Nate Cohn at the NYTimes Upshot said that 2% of Hispanics changing their race to White was “evidence consistent with the theory that Hispanics may assimilate as white Americans.” Neither of these provide any comparison to show how important these discoveries were relative to anything else — other reasons people delay divorce? other reasons for race-code changes? — they just exist. This is reasonable if you’re discovering a new subatomic particle, but with social behavior it’s less impressive.

Piles of studies

The reason I presented the car results as the three separate “studies” was to make the point that you can have a lot of studies, but if none of them prove your point it doesn’t matter. For example, in his post Wilcox linked to a series of publications about how children whose parents weren’t married were more likely to be sexually abused, but none of them handle the problem of selection into marriage I described above. Similarly, a generation of research showed that women who have babies as teenagers suffer negative economic consequences, but those effects were all exaggerated because people didn’t take selection into account (women with poor economic prospects are more likely to have babies as teenagers).

Describing one side of inequality as a social good

Let’s say that, in street fights, the person with a gun beats the person with a knife more than 50% of the time. Do we conclude people should have more guns? Some benefits are absolute and have no zero-sum quality to them. (I can’t think of any, but I assume there are some.) Normally, however, we’re talking about relative benefits. The benefits of marriage, or the economic benefits of education, are measured relative to people who aren’t married or schooled.

The typical description of such a pattern is, “This causes a good outcome, we should have more of it.” But we should always consider whether the best thing, socially, might be to reduce the benefit — that is, solve the problems of the people who don’t have the asset in question — rather than try to increase the number of people with the asset.

The benefit of cars that comes from being able to get to the hospital quicker may only be relative to the poor suckers stuck in an ambulance while your personal cars are blocking up Manhattan.

Ambulance stuck in Manhattan, by Philip Cohen

Ambulance stuck in Manhattan, by Philip Cohen

Appendix: Regression results



Filed under In the news

Girls braced for beauty

Sociologists like to say that gender identities are socially constructed. That just means that what it is, and what it means, to be male or female is at least partly the outcome of social interaction between people – visible through the rules, attitudes, media, or ideals in the social world.

And that process sometimes involves constructing people’s bodies physically as well. And in today’s high-intensity parenting, in which gender plays a big part, this includes constructing – or at least tinkering with – the bodies of children.

Today’s example: braces. In my Google image search for “child with braces,” the first 100 images yielded about 75 girls.


Why so many girls braced for beauty? More girls than boys want braces, and more parents of girls want their kids to have them, even though girls’ teeth are no more crooked or misplaced than boys’. This is just one manifestation of the greater tendency to value appearance for girls and women more than for boys and men. But because braces are expensive, this is also tied up with social class, so that richer people are more likely to get their kids’ teeth straightened, and as a result richer girls are more likely to meet (and set) beauty standards.

Hard numbers on how many kids get braces are surprisingly hard to come by. However, the government’s medical expenditure survey shows that 17 percent of children ages 11-17 saw an orthodontist in the last year, which means the number getting braces at some point in their lives is higher than that. The numbers are rising, and girls are wearing most of hardware.

A study of Michigan public school students showed that although boys and girls had equal treatment needs (orthodontists have developed sophisticated tools for measuring this need, which everyone agrees is usually aesthetic), girls’ attitudes about their own teeth were quite different:


Clearly, braces are popular among American kids, with about half in this study saying they want them, but that sentiment is more common among girls, who are twice as likely as boys to say they don’t like their teeth.

This lines up with other studies that have shown girls want braces more at a given level of need, and they are more likely than boys to get orthodontic treatment after being referred to a specialist. Among those getting braces, there are more girls whose need is low or borderline. A study of 12-19 year-olds getting braces at a university clinic found 56 percent of the girls, compared with 47 percent of the boys, had “little need” for them on the aesthetic scale.

The same pattern is found in Germany, where 38 percent of girls versus 30 percent of boys ages 11-14 have braces, and in Britain – both countries where braces are covered by state health insurance if they are needed, but parents can pay for them if they aren’t.

Among American adults, women are also more likely to get braces, leading the way in the adult orthodontic trend. (Google “mother daughter braces” and you get mothers and daughters getting braces together; “father son braces” brings you to orthodontic practices run by father-son teams.)


Caption: The teeth of TV anchors Anderson Cooper, Soledad O’Brien, Robin Roberts, Suzanne Malveaux, Don Lemon, George Stephanopolous, David Gregory, Ashley Banfield, and Diane Sawyer.

Teeth and consequences

Today’s rich and famous people – at least the one whose faces we see a lot – usually have straight white teeth, and most people don’t get that way without some intervention. And lots of people get that.

Girls are held to a higher beauty standard and feel the pressure – from media, peers or parents – to get their teeth straightened. They want braces, and for good reason. Unfortunately, this subjects them to needless medical procedures and reinforces the over-valuing of appearance. However, it also shows one way that parents invest more in their girls, perhaps thinking they need to prepare them for successful careers and relationships by spending more on their looks.

When they’re grown up, of course, women get a lot more cosmetic surgery than men do – 87 percent of all surgical procedures, and 94% of Botox-type procedures – and that gap is growing over time.

As is the case with lots of cosmetic procedures, people from wealthier families generally are less likely to need braces but more likely to get them. But add this to the gender pattern, and what emerges is a system in which richer girls (voluntarily or not) and their parents set the standard for beauty – and then reap the rewards (as well as harms) of reaching it.

Note: I didn’t find any sociological studies of this. Why don’t you do one?


Filed under Research reports

Is the rising tide of falling crime driven by fatherlessness?

Kay Hymowitz, who sometimes works out of a PO Box rented by Brad Wilcox, writes in the LA Times (excerpting heavily):

As far back as the 1970s, family researchers began noticing that, although both girls and boys showed distress when their parents split up, they had different ways of showing it. …  Boys … “externalized” or “acted out”: They became more impulsive, aggressive and “antisocial.”… Boys from broken homes were more likely than their peers to get suspended and arrested. … And justice experts have long known that juvenile facilities and adult jails overflow with sons from broken families. Liberals often assume that these kinds of social problems result from our stingy support system for single mothers and their children. But the link between criminality and fatherlessness holds even in countries with lavish social welfare systems. … If the trends of the last 40 years continue — and there’s little reason to think that they won’t — the percentage of boys growing up with single mothers will keep growing. No one knows how to stem that tide.

Ah, the link between criminality and fatherlessness again. So ingrained is the assumption that crime rates always go up that conservatives making this argument do not even see the need to account for the incredible, world-historical drop in violence that has accompanied the collapse of the nuclear family. I know Kay Hymowitz knows this, because we’ve argued about it before. But if her editors and readers don’t, why should she make a big deal out of it?

In this graph I show the scales down to zero so you can see the proportional change in each trend: father-not-present boys ages 10-14 and male juvenile violent-crime arrest rates.


I’m not arguing about whether boys living without fathers are more likely to commit crimes. I’m just saying that this is very unlikely to be the major cause of male juvenile violent crime if the trends can move so drastically in opposite directions at the same time. These aren’t little fluctuations. Even if you leave out the late-80s-early-90s spike in crime, arrests fell about 40% from 1980 to 2010 while father-absent boys increased almost 50%.

If you are going to argue for a strong association — which Hymowitz does — and use words like “tide,” you should at least acknowledge that the problem you are trumpeting is getting better while the cause you are bemoaning is getting worse.


Filed under In the news

Parents live in the gendered world of their children, too

I did a little research hinting at the way gendered childhood might affect parents – by looking at how the gender of their children affected their favorite colors.

Because gendering – especially around consumption – is so fierce, I figure that’s got to be the tip of the iceberg. I thought of that walking to the kids’ school the other day:

Maybe the mothers dressed to match the kids because it was the first day of school. Or maybe they have more matching clothes so that coincidences like this happen more often at random. Who knows?


Filed under Me @ work

Time with young children

On weekdays, women in households with young children spend twice as much time caring for the children as men do. On weekends the ratio is only 1.5-to-1. Details on the chart, which has grid-lines at 6-minute intervals (click to enlarge):


Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These are averages per day calculated from time diaries recording the “primary activity” at each point in the day. Note that this does not do anything with marital status or household composition, so a lot more of these women are single mothers. That’s not a flaw in the presentation, though. Part of having a lot of single mothers means they spend more time with children, as these data show.


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The banal, insidious sexism of Smurfette

Originally published by TheAtlantic.com. An update to my old post on the first Smurf movie (which keeps getting traffic from people Googling for Smurf names).
Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Animation

The Smurfs, originating as they did in mid-century Europe, exhibit the quaint sexism in which boys or men are generic people – with their unique qualities and abilities – while girls and women are primarily identified by their femininity. The sequel doesn’t upend the premise of Smurfette.

In the original graphic novels, Smurfette (or La Schtroumpfette in French) was the creation of the evil Gargamel, who made her to sow chaos among the all-male Smurf society. His recipe for femininity included coquetry, crocodile tears, lies, gluttony, pride, envy, sentimentality, and cunning.

In the Smurfs 2, there are a lot of Smurfs. And they all have names based on their unique qualities. According to the cast list, the male ones are Papa, Grouchy, Clumsy, Vanity, Narrator, Brainy, Handy, Gutsy, Hefty, Panicky, Farmer, Greedy, Party Planner, Jokey, Smooth, Baker, Passive-Aggressive, Clueless, Social, and Crazy. And the female one is Smurfette–because being female is enough for her. There is no boy Smurf whose identifying quality is his gender, of course, because that would seem hopelessly limited and boring as a character.

These characters, originating as they did in mid-century Europe, exhibit the quaint sexism in which boys or men are generic people–with their unique qualities and abilities–while girls and women are primarily identified by their femininity. The Smurfs 2, which premiered last weekend and came in third at the box office, doesn’t upend the premise of Smurfette.

Here are the Smurf characters McDonald’s is using for their Happy Meals:


When you buy a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, the cashier asks if it’s for a boy or a girl. In my experience, which is admittedly limited to my daughters, girls get Smurfette. I guess boys get any of the others.

The Way It’s Never Been

Identifying male characters by their non-gender qualities and females by their femininity is just one part of the broader pattern of gender differentiation, or what you might call gendering.

There are two common misconceptions about gendering children. One is that it has always been this way – with boys and girls so different naturally that all products and parenting practices have always differentiated them. This is easily disproved in the history of clothing, which shows that American parents mostly dressed their boys and girls the same a century ago. In fact, boys and girls were often indistinguishable, as evident in this 1905 Ladies’ Home Journal contest in which readers were asked to guess the sex of the babies (no one got them all right):

Source: Jo Paoletti, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America

The other common perception is that our culture is actually eliminating gender distinctions, as feminism tears down the natural differences that make gender work. In the anti-feminist dystopian mind, this amounts to feminizing boys and men. This perspective gained momentum during the three decades after 1960, when women entered previously male-dominated occupations in large numbers (a movement that has largely stalled).

However, despite some barrier-crossing, we do more to gender-differentiate now than we did during the heyday of the 1970s unisex fashion craze (the subject of Jo Paoletti’s forthcoming book, Sex and Unisex). On her Tumblr, Paoletti has a great collection of unisex advertising, such as this 1975 Garanimals clothing ad, which would be unthinkable for a major clothier today:

unisexclothes1.pngAnd these clothing catalog images from 1972 (left) and 1974 (right):

unisex_MERGED.jpgToday, the genders are not so easily interchangeable. Quick check: Google image search for “girls clothes” (left) vs. “boys clothes”:

googleboysgirlsclothes.pngToday, a blockbuster children’s movie can invoke 50-year-old gender stereotypes with little fear of a powerful feminist backlash. In fact, even the words “sexism” and “sexist,” which rose to prominence in the 1970s and peaked in the 1990s, have once again become less common than, say, the word “bacon”:

Source: Google Books ngrams

And the gender differentiation of childhood is perhaps stronger than it has ever been. Not all differences are bad, of course. But what Katha Pollitt called “the Smurfette principle“–in which “boys are the norm, girls the variation”–is not a difference between equals.


Filed under In the news

Father care: The more things don’t change, the more they stay the same

The U.S. Census Bureau has released its new report on childcare. This provides a good followup treatment for the hyperventilation induced by fear of fathers taking over (or being relegated to) childcare.*

First, the trend that fits my story of stalled gender progress. Among married fathers with employed wives, how many are providing the “primary care” for their children? That is, among the various childcare arrangements the children are in while their mother is at work, how many are in their fathers’ care more than in any other arrangement? Answer: 10%, which is virtually unchanged from a quarter-century ago:

father-primary-careSource:  U.S. Census Bureau, Who’s Minding the Kids? Child Care Arrangements: Spring 2011. (There was a methodology change in 1997, before which Census asked parents to name their primary arrangement, which they now calculate from the hours in each arrangement.)

Not a lot of change for a quarter century in which we’re told everything has changed.

However, in fairness to the change-is-happening community, here is the trend for the percentage of fathers who say they are providing ANY care to their children while their mothers were at work.


Source: As above.

I don’t give this much weight since it might reflect greater sensitivity to the importance of saying fathers provide care, but there you have it: it’s higher, and it shows some increases up until the early 1990s, which is when gender equality in general stalled on many indicators. Since the mid-1990s: Nothing.

Please note these figures don’t show the total contribution of fathers, but only reflects those married with children, whose wives are employed.

One interesting source of father care is mothers’ shiftwork. As Harriet Presser reported two decades ago, the 24/7 economy stimulates some task sharing among couples. In the current report, the Laughlin writes:

Preschoolers whose mothers worked nights or evenings were more likely to have their father as a child care provider than those with mothers who worked a day shift (42 percent and 23 percent, respectively)

* The report was written by Lynda Laughlin — have you credited a government bureaucrat by name for something valuable they did today?


Filed under In the news