Tag Archives: Parenting

Why do anti-gay people (maybe, possibly) beat their children?

The other day, Mark Regnerus (of Regnerus study fame) speculated in a blog post that pornography, with its “veritable fire-hose dousing of sex-act diversity,” might be increasing support for gay marriage:

In the end, contrary to what we might wish to think, young adult men’s support for redefining marriage may not be entirely the product of ideals about expansive freedoms, rights, liberties, and a noble commitment to fairness. It may be, at least in part, a byproduct of regular exposure to diverse and graphic sex acts.

As I was working on a chapter on family violence and abuse, I was trying to decide how to divide the discussion of corporal punishment between the abuse chapter and the parenting chapter. I checked the General Social Survey for attitudes toward spanking and found a solid (but declining) two-thirds who agree that sometimes kids need “a good, hard spanking.” (Would the number be lower if they didn’t include “good” in the question?).

So on a whim I asked: What could cause this virulent anti-child attitude, which seems to prevalent in our society? May it be, at least in part, a byproduct of hostility toward some other group, such as gays and lesbians? Sure enough!

spank-homo-attitudes

I’m not saying anti-homosexual views are the only cause of child abuse, but it’s something to look into.

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When regular old mothers aren’t old-enough looking

As I wrote about the older-birth-mothers issue recently (first, and then), I didn’t comment on the photo illustrations people are using with the stories. But when an alert reader sent this one to me, from Katie Roiphe’s post in Slate, I couldn’t help it:

roiphe-stock-pageSomething about that picture and “women in their late 30s or 40s” rubbed my correspondent the wrong way, or rather, led her to write, “Late 30s or early 40s?!?”

Since this was from a legit website that credits its stock agency, I was able to visit Thinkstock and search for the photo. Sure enough:

roiphe-stockOf course, it’s not news, so the title “Middle-aged woman holding her newborn grandson” doesn’t make it a less true illustration of the older-mother phenomenon than one captioned “Desperate aging woman clings to feminist myth that it’s OK to delay childbearing.” But it gives you an idea of what the Slate editor was looking for in the stock photo.

I looked around a little, and found one other funny one. Another Slate essay, this one by Allison Benedikt, was reprinted in Canada’s National Post, and they laid it out like this:

nationalpost-grayest

When I visited the Getty Images site, I discovered this picture was taken in China. Here’s how it’s presented:

nationalpost-grayest-stock

This one, which is a picture of real people, looks like it could be a grandmother, or maybe more likely a caretaker. Regardless, it’s sold as an illustration of a story about China’s elderly having too few grandchildren to take care of them, which is vaguely related to the content of the story, but that’s not what the Post’s caption points to:

It’s true that older parents are more established and experienced but many of those experiences are, from a genetic point of view, negative, says Allison Benedikt.

Anyway, there were others where the women looked pretty old for the story, but I couldn’t find them in the catalogs, so I stopped.

This is all relevant to one of my critiques of these stories, which is that they make it seem like having children at older ages has become more common than it was in the past. That’s true compared with 1980, but not 1960. The difference is it’s more likely to be their first child nowadays. So Benedikt is way off when she writes,

Remember how there was that one kid in your high school class whose parents weresooooo old that it was weird and creepy? That’s all of us now. Oops.

As I showed, 40-year-old women are less likely to have children now than they were when she was a kid. And when Roiphe writes of the “50-year-old mother in the kindergarten class [who] attracts a certain amount of catty interest and disapproval,” she should be aware that the disapproval – which I don’t doubt exists – is not about the increased frequency of older mothers, but about how people think about them.

I guess any of these stories could also have been illustrated with my own photo, from Taiwan, which I used to illustrate a post about low fertility rates — implying this presumed grandmother was happy because she at least has a grandchild. (You’re welcome to use the picture for that purpose, free clip-art searchers of the future, but please don’t describe it was a birth mother and her child.)

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Births to mothers in their forties are less common now than in the old days

In my post the other day I suggested that, when it comes to children’s health, mothers’ health is a bigger issue than mothers’ (advancing) age when they give birth. I was motivated to post it by the widespread discussion of Judith Shulevitz’s essay in the New Republic, “How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society” — discussion that has continued with today’s On Point (which I haven’t heard yet), including the author Elizabeth Gregory, who has written Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood (which I haven’t read yet).

In the comments, several people (Reeve Vannamen and relfal) brought up the issue of later births in the olden days (before 1970). We need to think about two different issues: having first children at a later age, and having any (or many) children at a later age. For some questions of children’s health – especially the sperm-mutation issue with autism – I don’t think it matters: an older-age birth is an older age birth. The same goes for the angst over whether children will know their grandparents, whether parents will be too old to take them to soccer practice, and so on.

On the other hand, “starting a family” at an older age (because, remember, it’s not a “family” until you have kids), is a different issue, with its own implications for total fertility rates, the age composition of the population, etc.

Both having any children and having first children at older ages have been increasing in recent decades, but having any children at older ages is not historically unprecedented. Here are the birth rates for women ages 40-44, from 1940 to 2011, along with the percentage of all children born to those women from 1960-2010:

maternal-age-40-11

Sources: Birth rates 1940-1969, 1970-2010, 2011; Percent of births 1960-1980, 1980-2008.

Birth rates to women ages 40-44 are still substantially lower than they were in the olden days. So the number of kids whose parents will be over 60 when the kids come back to live with them after college is lower now despite an increase for 30 years.

On the other hand, the percentage of kids born to older mothers has surpassed those rates, because these are more often first or second, rather than third or fourth or fifth children. Put another way, the chance that women will have their first, and possibly only, baby at an older age has increased since 1960. While the overall birth rate for older women is still lower than it was in 1960, the first-birth rate is much higher. Here is the birth rate among women with no previous births, for those aged 35, 40 and 45, from 1960 to 2005:

first birth rates 60-05

Source: Table 4 on this page.

In 1960, only 4% of women who reached age 35 without having a baby had one that year. They probably weren’t just delaying their childbearing intentionally or putting off finding a mate while they pursued their careers. On the other hand, by 2005 almost 9% of those who reached age 35 without having a baby had one that year. The late first birth has become much more common.

Now if you go back to the promo blurb for On Point, you see how the issues are jumbled together:

American parents are having kids old and older. Look around. Are those two that child’s parents? Or its grandparents? It is very often hard to know these days. In many ways, this has been liberating. Twenty-somethings with a child-free, diaper-free decade of youth. People with time and space to start careers. But there is a price, and it’s becoming clearer. Older parents juggling kid’s soccer and their own aches and pains. Kids who won’t know their grandparents. Parents who won’t know their grandkids. And a baby bust.

The hardships faced by older parents are nothing new, but parents used to have more kids around when they went through them. It’s good to keep an eye on the issues separately.

Note: there is some more background and analysis in my working paper: here.

 

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Poverty Poses a Bigger Risk to Pregnancy Than Age

Originally published in TheAtlantic.com.

The problem of income inequality often gets forgotten in conversations about biological clocks.

The dilemma that couples face as they consider having children at older ages is worth dwelling on, and I wouldn’t take that away from Judith Shulevitz’s essay in the New Republic, “How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society,” which has sparked commentary from Katie Roiphe,Hanna RosinRoss Douthat, and Parade, among many others.
The story is an old one—about the health risks of older parenting and the implications of falling fertility rates for an aging population—even though some of the facts are new. But two points need more attention. First, the overall consequences of the trend toward older parenting are on balance positive, both for women’s equality and for children’s health. And second, social-class inequality is a pressing—and growing—problem in children’s health, and one that is too easily lost in the biological-clock debate.

Older mothers

First, we need to distinguish between the average age of birth parents on the one hand versus the number born at advanced parental ages on the other. As Shulevitz notes, the average age of a first-time mother in the U.S. is now 25. Health-wise, assuming she births the rest of her (small) brood before about age 35, that’s perfect.

Consider two measures of child well-being according to their mothers’ age at birth. First, infant mortality:

cohen_infantmortality.pngSource: Centers for Disease Control.

Health prospects for children improve as women (and their partners) increase their education and incomes, and improve their health behaviors, into their 30s. Beyond that, the health risks start accumulating, weighing against the socioeconomic factors, and the danger increases.

Second, here is the rate of cognitive disability among children according to the age of their mothers at birth, showing a very similar pattern:

cohen_infantmortality2.pngSource: Calculations made for my working paper, available here. To match up children with their birth parents in the Census, I had to limit the sample to children living with two married parents, where both are in their first marriage, so it’s a pretty select group.

Again, the lowest risks are to those born when their parents are in their early 30s, a pattern that holds when I control for education, income, race/ethnicity, gender, and child’s age.

When mothers older than age 40 give birth, which accounted for 3 percent of births in 2011, the risks clearly are increased, and Shulevitz’s story is highly relevant. But, at least in terms of mortality and cognitive disability, an average parental age in the late 20s and early 30s is not only not a problem, it’s ideal.

Unequal health

But the second figure above hints at another problem—inequality in the health of parents and children. On that purple chart, a college graduate in her early 40s has the same risk as a non-graduate in her late 20s. And the social-class gap increases with age. Why is the rate of cognitive disabilities so much higher for the children of older mothers who did not finish college? It’s not because of their biological clocks or genetic mutations, but because of the health of the women giving birth.

For healthy, wealthy older women, the issue of aging eggs and genetic mutations from fathers’ run-down sperm factories is more pressing than it is for the majority of parents, who have not graduated college.

If you look at the distribution of women having babies by age and education, it’s clear that the older-parent phenomenon is disproportionately about more-educated women. (I calculated these from the American Community Survey, because age-by-education is not available in the CDC numbers, so they are a little different.)

cohen_infantmortality3.pngMost of the less-educated mothers are giving birth in their 20s, and a bigger share of the high-age births are to women who’ve graduated college—most of them married and financially better off. But women without college degrees still make up more than half of those having babies after age 35, and the risks their children face have more to do with high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and other health conditions than with genetic or epigenetic mutations. Preterm births, low birth-weight and birth complications are major causes of developmental disabilities, and they occur most often among mothers with their own health problems.

Most distressing, the effects of educational (and income) inequality on children’s health have been increasing. Here are the relative odds of infant mortality by maternal education, from 1986 to 2001, from a study in Pediatrics. (This compares the odds to college graduates within each year, so anything over 1.0 means the group has a higher risk than college graduates.)

cohen_infantmortality4.pngThis inequality is absent from Shulevitz’s essay and most of the commentary about it. She writes, of the social pressure mothers like her feel as they age, “Once again, technology has given us the chance to lead our lives in the proper sequence: education, then work, then financial stability, then children”—with no consideration of the 66 percent of people who have reached their early 30s with less than a four-year college degree. For the vast majority of that group, the sequence Shulevitz describes is not relevant.

In fact, if Shulevitz had considered economic inequality, she might not have been quite as worried about advancing parental age. When she worries that a 35-year-old mother has a life expectancy of just 46 more years—years to be a mother to her child—the table she consulted applies to the whole population. She should breathe a little bit easier: Among 40-year-old white college graduateswomen are expected to live an average extra five years compared with those who have a high school education only.

When it comes to parents’ age versus social class, the challenges are not either/or. We should be concerned about both. But addressing the health problems of parents—especially mothers—with less than a college degree and below-average incomes is the more pressing issue—both for potential lives saved or improved and for social equality.

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The disparate lives of fifth graders

A new study of about 5,000 fifth-grade students in the three public school districts shows wide disparities by race/ethnicity in a number of important health practices and outcome measures. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed unadjusted disparities and then attempted to account for them statistically with common control variables, such as family socioeconomic status and school characteristics.

Here is a breakdown of some of the indicators (my graph):

On all but alcohol consumption (remember these are fifth graders), the white students showed advantages over Black and Latino students. In the subsequent analysis, the authors showed what amount of the disparity was accounted for by the different control variables. Here is their graph illustrating the findings:

It shows, for example, that about 10 points out of the 20-point difference between Latinos and Whites on the frequency of reporting fair or poor health is accounted for by their control variables. For Black children, about four points out of the eight point difference is accounted for. (These gaps would likely be larger if private school students were included.)

Determining the causal story behind these disparities is interesting and important, however it is most important to realize that at the descriptive level these represent major disparities in the lived experience of young children who are blameless.

It is interesting to note that some of these practices and outcomes speak to parenting practices, which has been the subject of a growing literature in recent years. However, after Annette Lareau reported that parenting practices in her study differed more by social class than they did by race, class has been the focus of much of this research. For example, although I did not see it, a study by Jessica McCrory Calarco at Indiana University, presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association last week, looks very interesting. She used observation and interviews and found stark differences between middle-class and working-class parent-child interactions. From the press release:

Working-class parents, she found, coached their children on how to avoid problems, often through finding a solution on their own and by being polite and deferential to authority figures. Middle-class parents, on the other hand, were more likely to encourage their kids to ask questions or ask for help.

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Exaggerating gender changes

It is great to acknowledge and celebrate the increase in father involvement in parenting. But it is not helpful to exaggerate the trend and link it to the mythmaking about looming female dominance. Yesterday’s feature in the Sunday New York Times does just that, and reminds me that I meant to offer a quick debunking of Hanna Rosin’s TED talk.

The story is headlined “Just Wait Till Your Mother Gets Home.” The picture shows a group of dads with their kids, as if representing what one calls “the new normal.” Careful inspection of the caption reveals it is a “daddy and me” music class, so we should not be surprised to see a lot of dads with their kids.

The article also makes use of a New Yorker cover, which captures a certain gestalt — it’s a funny exaggeration — but should not be confused with an empirical description of the gender distribution of parents and playgrounds:

Naturally, the story is in the Style section, so close reading of the empirical support is perhaps a fool’s errand. However, I could not help noticing that the only two statistics in the story were either misleading or simply inaccurate. In the category of misleading, was this:

In the last decade, though, the number of men who have left the work force entirely to raise children has more than doubled, to 176,000, according to recent United States census data. Expanding that to include men who maintain freelance or part-time jobs but serve as the primary caretaker of children under 15 while their wife works, the number is around 626,000, according to calculations the census bureau compiled for this article.

The Census Bureau has for years employed a very rigid definition of stay-at-home dads, which only counts those who are out of the labor force for an entire year for reasons of “taking care of home and family.” This may seem an overly strict definition and an undercount, but if you simply counted any man with no job but with children as a stay-at-home dad, you risk counting any father who lost a job as stay-at-home. (A former student of mine, Beth Latshaw (now at Appalachian State University), has explored this issue and published her results here in the journal Fathering.)

In any event, those look like big numbers, but one should always be wary of raw numbers in the news. In fact, when you look at the trend as published by the Census Bureau, you see that the proportion of married couple families in which the father meets the stay-at-home criteria has doubled: from 0.4% in 2000 to 0.8% today. The larger estimate which includes fathers working part-time comes out to 2.8% of married couple families with children under 15. The father who used the phrase “the new normal” in the story was presumably not speaking statistically.

Source: My calculations from Census Bureau numbers (.xls file). Includes only married-couple families with children under age 15.

That’s the misleading number. The inaccurate number is here:

About 40 percent of women now make more than their husbands, the bureau’s statistics show, and that may be only the beginning of a seismic power shift, if new books like “The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, And Family,” by Liza Mundy, and “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women,” by Hanna Rosin, are to be believed.

I guess in these troubled times for the newspaper business it might be acceptable to report X and Y statistic “if so-and-so is to be believed.” But it is a shame to do so when the public is paying the salary of people who have already debunked the numbers in question. Just the other day, I wrote about that very statistic: “Really? No. I don’t know why this keeps going around.” Using freely available tables (see the post), I calculated that a reasonable estimate of the higher-earning-wife share is 21%. In fact, on this point Liza Mundy and Hanna Rosin and are not to be believed.

Source: My graph from Census Bureau numbers

TED: Misinformation frequently spread

There is a TED talk featuring Hanna Rosin from the end of 2010, and I finally got around to watching it. Without doing a formal calculation, I would say that “most” of the statistics she uses in this talk are either wrong or misinterpreted to exaggerate the looming approach of female dominance. For example, she says that the majority of “managers” are now women, but the image on the slide which flashes by briefly refers to “managers and professionals.” Professionals includes nurses and elementary school teachers. Among managers themselves, women do represent a growing share (although not a majority, and the growth has slowed considerably), but they remain heavily segregated as I have shown here.

Rosin further reports that “young women” are earning more than “young men.” This statistic, which has been going around for a few years now, in fact refers to single, child-free women under age 30 and living in metropolitan areas. That is an interesting statistic, but used in this way is simply a distortion. (See this post for a more thorough discussion, with links.)

Rosin also claims that “70% of fertility clinic patients” prefer to have a female birth. In her own article in the Atlantic, Rosin reports a similar number for one (expensive, rare) method of sex selection only (with no source offered) — but of course the vast majority of fertility clinic patients are not using sex selection techniques. In fact, in her own article she writes, “Polling data on American sex preference is sparse, and does not show a clear preference for girls.”

Finally, I don’t think I need to offer statistics to address such claims as women are “taking control of everything”and “starting to dominate” among “doctors, lawyers, bankers, accountants.” These are just made up. Congress is 17% female.

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Work-family decisions, in person

Here’s an interesting new study on work-family decisions around the time of childbirth.

Medora Barnes has written, “Having a First Versus a Second Child: Comparing Women’s Maternity Leave Choices and Concerns,” in Journal of Family Issues. It’s a nice research design, with 16 school teachers interviewed — half having a first child, half having a second — before and after they have the baby, interviewed with and without their partners.

Here’s one nugget:

Nate: The day care is more her decision. I would say it was mainly Jenn who makes those decisions. Ultimately when it came down to making the final decision, we discussed it. But she took more of the lead on finding things out, especially with the first [child]. The second time around, she did the leg work and then—that one might have been more equal, but ultimately it was her decision on where they were going to go.

Jennifer: Yeah, the first time Nate had no part in it. The second time, I think he did more because I said to him, “You need to help me with this!” I was torn . . . and he was kind of like, “Whatever you think is right.” I got annoyed and I said, “I’m asking you. I want your help with this! What do you think?” I was like, “They’re your kids too!  What do you really think?” Because I didn’t want it to just be choosing [a day care] based on which person was cheaper or whatever.

Nate: Whatever.  [There is a pause, and then we all laugh at his clear dismissal of the issue]

And on the issue of being pressured to take more time off work:

Oh yeah! I remember having a conversation with Matthew’s sister. She said, “What! Oh! Only taking six weeks? Blah, blah, blah.” And I was thinking, “I am not going to put us in debt so that I can stay home for six more weeks!” I’m just not going to do it. It’s ridiculous. The baby’s not going to remember if I was there or not. You know? She’ll be fine! (Jill, elementary special education teacher, second-time mother)

Lots of good material for discussing women’s and couple’s decision-making about work-family issues (based on research, not stereotypical cartoons).

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