Tag Archives: Parenting

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.


Filed under In the news, Me @ work, Research reports

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.


Filed under In the news

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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200 researchers respond to Regnerus paper

This is a letter signed by 200 researchers, including me. The effort was organized by Gary Gates, a scholar (acting in an individual, not institutional capacity) at the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute.

Letter to the editors and advisory editors of Social Science Research

As researchers and scholars, many of whom with extensive experience in quantitative and qualitative research in family structures and child outcomes, we write to raise serious concerns about the most recent issue of Social Science Research and the set of papers focused on parenting by lesbians and gay men. In this regard, we have particular concern about Mark Regnerus’ paper entitled “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.”

LGBT parenting is a highly politicized topic. While the presence of a vibrant and controversial public debate should in no way censor scholarship, it should compel the academy to hold scholarship around that topic to our most rigorous standards. We are very concerned that these standards were not upheld in this issue or with this paper, given the apparently expedited process of publication and the decision to publish commentaries on the paper by scholars who were directly involved with the study and have limited experience in LGBT parenting research. We also have serious concerns about the scholarly merit of this paper

In this letter, we detail the specific concerns that lead us to request that you publicly disclose the reasons for both the expedited peer review process of this clearly controversial paper and the choice of commentators invited to submit critiques. We further request that you invite scholars with specific expertise in LGBT parenting issues to submit a detailed critique of the paper and accompanying commentaries for publication in the next issue of the journal.

We question the process by which this paper was submitted, reviewed, and accepted for publication. The paper was received by the journal on February 1, 2012. A revision was received on February 29, and the paper was accepted on March 12. This suggests that the peer review process and substantive revisions occurred within a period of just five weeks. According to the peer review policy of the Social Science Research website hosted by Elsevier, the first step of the review process is an initial manuscript evaluation by the editor. Once deemed to meet minimum criteria, at least 2 experts are secured for a peer review. The website states that, “Typically manuscripts are reviewed within 2-3 months of submission but substantially longer review times are not uncommon” and that “Revised manuscripts are usually returned to the initial referees upon receipt.” Clearly, Dr. Regnerus’ paper was returned to him very quickly, because he had time to revise the manuscript and get it back to the journal by February 29th. Further, it appears that a second substantive peer review may not have occurred as the paper was accepted just two weeks after the revision was submitted.

The five-week submission to acceptance length was much shorter than all of the other articles published in the July 2012 issue. The average period of review for papers published in this issue was more than a year and the median review time was more than ten months. As we note below, there are substantial concerns about the merits of this paper, and these concerns should have been identified through a thorough and rigorous peer review process.

We further question the selection of commenters for the Regnerus paper. While Cynthia Osborne and Paul Amato are certainly well-respected scholars, they are also both active participants in the Regnerus study. According to her curriculum vitae, Dr. Osborne is a Co-Principal Investigator of the New Family Structure Survey. Dr. Amato served as a paid consultant on the advisory group convened to provide insights into study design and methods. Perhaps more importantly, neither Osborne nor Amato have ever published work that considers LGBT family or parenting issues. A cursory examination of this body of literature would reveal a wide range of scholars who are much more qualified to evaluate the merits of this study and were neither directly involved in the study design nor compensated for that involvement.

We have substantial concerns about the merits of this paper and question whether it actually uses methods and instruments that answer the research questions posed in the paper. The author claims that the purpose of the analysis is to begin to address the question, “Do the children of gay and lesbian parents look comparable to those of their heterosexual counterparts?” (p. 755). He creates several categories of “family type”, including “lesbian mother” and “gay father” as well as “divorced late,” “stepfamily,” and “single-parent.” But, as the author notes, for those respondents who indicated that a parent had a “same-sex relationship,” these categories were collapsed to boost sample size:

That is, a small minority of respondents might fit more than one group. I have, however, forced their mutual exclusivity here for analytic purposes. For example, a respondent whose mother had a same-sex relationship might also qualify in Group 5 or Group 7, but in this case my analytical interest is in maximizing the sample size of Groups 2 and 3 so the respondent would be placed in Group 2 (LMs). Since Group 3 (GFs) is the smallest and most difficult to locate randomly in the population, its composition trumped that of others, even LMs. (There were 12 cases of respondents who reported both a mother and a father having a same-sex relationship; all are analyzed here as GFs, after ancillary analyses revealed comparable exposure to both their mother and father).

By doing this, the author is unable to distinguish between the impact of having a parent who has had a continuous same-sex relationship from the impact of having same-sex parents who broke-up from the impact of living in a same-sex stepfamily from the impact of living with a single parent who may have dated a same-sex partner; each of these groups are included in a single “lesbian mother” or “gay father” group depending on the gender of the parent who had a same-sex relationship. Specifically, this paper fails to distinguish family structure and family instability. Thus, it fails to distinguish, for children whose parents ever had a same-sex relationship experience, the associations due to family structure from the associations due to family stability. However, he does attempt to distinguish family structure from family instability for the children of different-sex parents by identifying children who lived in an intact biological family. To make a group equivalent to the group he labels as having “lesbian” or “gay” parents, the author should have grouped all other respondents together and included those who lived in an intact biological family with those who ever experienced divorce, or whose parents ever had a different-sex romantic relationship. That seems absurd to family structure researchers, yet that type of grouping is exactly what he did with his “lesbian mother” and “gay father” groups.

It should be noted that the analyses also fail to distinguish family structure from family stability for single mothers; this group included both continuously single mothers and those single mothers who had previously experienced a divorce.

The paper employs an unusual method to measure the sexual orientation of the respondents’ parents. Even if the analyses had distinguished family stability from family structure, this paper and its accompanying study could not actually directly examine the impact of having a gay or lesbian parent on child outcomes because the interpretation of the measurement of parental sexual orientation is unclear. The author acknowledges as much when he states:

It is, however, very possible that the same-sex romantic relationships about which the respondents report were not framed by those respondents as indicating their own (or their parent’s own) understanding of their parent as gay or lesbian or bisexual in sexual orientation. Indeed, this is more a study of the children of parents who have had (and in some cases, are still in) same-sex relationships than it is one of children whose parents have self-identified or are ‘‘out’’ as gay or lesbian or bisexual.

Respondents were asked whether their parents had ever had a same-sex relationship. The author then identifies mothers and fathers as “lesbian” or “gay” without any substantiation of parental sexual orientation either by respondents or their parents. Given the author’s stated caveats, it is both inappropriate and factually incorrect for him to refer to these parents as “gay” or “lesbian” throughout the paper.

We are very concerned about the academic integrity of the peer review process for this paper as well as its intellectual merit. We question the decision of Social Science Research to publish the paper, and particularly, to publish it without an extensive, rigorous peer review process and commentary from scholars with explicit expertise on LGBT family research. The methodologies used in this paper and the interpretation of the findings are inappropriate. The publication of this paper and the accompanying commentary calls the editorial process at Social Science Research, a well-regarded, highly cited social science journal (ranking in the top 15% of Sociology journals by ISI), into serious question. We urge you to publicly disclose the reasons for both the expedited peer review process of this clearly controversial paper and the choice of commentators invited to submit critiques. We further request that you invite scholars with specific expertise in LGBT parenting issues to submit a detailed critique of the paper and accompanying commentaries for publication in the next issue of the journal.


Sociology and family studies: Silke Aisenbrey, Katherine R. Allen, Eric Anderson, Nielan Barnes, Amanda K. Baumle, Debbie Becher, Mary Bernstein, Natalie Boero, H.M.W Bos, Lisa D Brush, Neal Caren, Mary Ann Clawson, Dan Clawson, Philip N. Cohen, D’Lane Compton, Shelley J. Correll, David H. Demo, Catherine Donovan, Sinikka Elliott, Louis Edgar Esparza, Laurie Essig, Myra Marx Ferree, Tina Fetner, Jessica Fields, Melissa M. Forbis, Gary J. Gates, Naomi Gerstel, Katherine Giuffre, Gloria González-López, Theodore Greenstein, Jessica Halliday Hardie, Mark D. Hayward, Melanie Heath, Amie Hess, Melanie M. Hughes, Shamus Rahman Khan, Michael Kimmel, Sherryl Kleinman, Charles Q. Lau, Jennifer Lee, Jean Lynch, Gill McCann, Tey Meadow, Sarah O. Meadows, Eleanor M. Miller, Debra Minkoff, Beth Mintz, Dawne Moon, Mignon R. Moore, Chandra Muller, Nancy A. Naples, Peter M. Nardi, Alondra Nelson, Jodi O’Brien, Katherine O’Donnell, Ramona Faith Oswald, Joseph M. Palacios, C.J. Pascoe, Dudley L. Poston Jr., Nicole C. Raeburn, Kimberly Richman, Barbara J. Risman, Sharmila Rudrappa, Stephen T. Russel, Virginia Rutter, Natalia Sarkisian, Saskia Sassen, Liana C. Sayer, Michael Schwalbe, Michael Schwartz, Christine R. Schwartz, Pepper Schwartz, Denise Benoit Scott, Richard Sennett, Eve Shapiro, Eran Shor, Wendy Simonds, Sarah Sobieraj, Judith Stacey, Arlene Stein, Verta Taylor, Debra J Umberson, Suzanna Danuta Walters, Jacqueline S. Weinstock, Amy C. Wilkins, Cai Wilkinson, Kristi Williams, Kerry Woodward. Psychology: Nancy Lynn Baker, Meg Barker, Joel Becker, Steven Botticelli, Petra M Boynton, Mark Brennan-Ing, Alice S. Carter, Carol A. Carver, Armand R. Cerbone, Kirstyn Y.S. Chun, Victoria Clarke, Gilbert W. Cole, M. Lynne Cooper, Howard H. Covitz, Dennis Debiak, Rachel H. Farr, Herb Gingold, Abbie E. Goldberg, Carla Golden, Robert-Jay Green, Beverly Greene, Harold D. Grotevant, Sarah A. Hayes-Skelton, Stacy S. Horn, Sharon G. Horne, Harm J. Hospers, Steven E. James, Darren Langdridge, Chet Lesniak, Heidi Levitt, William D. Lubart, Carien Lubbe-De Beer, Tasim Martin-Berg, James P. Maurino, Ximena E. Mejia, Roger Mills-Koonce, Lin S. Myers, Jo Oppenheimer, Susan M. Orsillo, David Pantalone, Jeffrey T. Parsons, Maureen Perry-Jenkins, Madelyn Petrow-Cohen, Todd R. Poch, Scott D. Pytluk, Damien W. Riggs, Lizabeth Roemer, Ritch C. Savin-Williams, J. Greg Serpa, Louise Bordeaux Silverstein, Bonnie R. Strickland, Karen Suyemoto, Lance P. Swenson, Fiona Tasker, Marcus C. Tye, Richard G. Wight. Other scholars: Paula Amato, Ellen Ann Andersen, Mary Barber, Judith Bradford, Robert P Cabaj, Ryan M. Combs, Christopher Conti, Russel W. Dalton, John D’Emilio, Anne Douglass, Jack Drescher, Oliva M. Espin, Nanette Gartrell, Patti Geier, Alan Gilbert, Ann P. Haas, Ellen Haller, Nicole Heilbron, Tonda Hughes, Daniel Hurewitz, Jesse Joad, Debra Kaysen, Sang Hea Kil, Martha Kirkpatrick, Holning Lau, Arlene Istar Lev, Lisa W. Loutzenheiser, Michael F. Lovenheim, Catherine A. Lugg, Gerald P. Mallon, Laura Mamo, Sean G. Massey, Kenneth J. Meier, Stephen O. Murray, Douglas NeJaime, Henry Ng, Julie Novkov, Loren A. Olson, Donald L. Opitz, Katherine Parkin, Jessica Peet, Victoria Pollock, Jesus Ramirez-Valles, Nancy J. Ramsay, Paul J. Rinaldi, Barbara Rothberg, Esther Rothblum, Ralph Roughton, Leila J. Rupp, Shawn Schulenberg, Ken Sherrill, Vincent M. B. Silenzio, Stephen V. Sprinkle, William J. Spurlin, Carole S. Vance, Angelia R. Wilson.


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Bad science on top of stigma for lesbian and gay parents

In the category of op-ed pieces The Man chose not to publish, here’s what I wrote about Mark Regnerus’s Social Science Research article “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.” Blog readers get a special edition with links sprinkled in.

"happy gay parents" collage courtesy Google Image search

Collage from the top page of a “happy gay parents” Google image search.

By Philip N. Cohen

What do you get when you combine bad science with ideological motives? A disingenuous attempt to stigmatize families that distracts from the serious problems many of them face.

Conservative activists last week leaped to embrace a paper purporting to show that the adult children of gay and lesbian parents fare poorly compared to those raised by stably married heterosexual couples. Although many social scientists – myself included – believe the study is seriously flawed, it immediately became a weapon in the political arsenal against marriage and parental rights for gays and lesbians.

The researcher, sociologist Mark Regnerus, analyzed survey responses from young adults who described their family structure growing up. He compared those who lived their whole childhoods with two married, biological parents, to those who reported that one of their parents had ever had a same-sex romantic relationship. The finding: those in the latter category were more likely to report having a variety of economic and emotional problems.

There are two design problems that render the study unfit for drawing meaningful conclusions. First, the parents who ever had a same-sex relationship are a widely diverse group that share not only sexual orientation, but, more importantly, a history of family instability. Although they include a tiny number of couples who raised their children as long-term, committed partners, the vast majority were single or divorced parents. Any difference that might be the result of parents’ sexual orientation is confounded with the differences between those in long-term stable marriages versus disrupted families.

Second, the study did not take into account many background factors known to have dramatic effects on child wellbeing. For example, it is a sad fact that those from wealthy backgrounds are (on average) more likely to get and stay married (to each other), and more likely to have children who grow up to be rich and successful. Totally apart from sexual orientation, any study of how family background affects adult outcomes needs to take such material factors into account. The Regnerus study falls far short of the depth and quality necessary to draw even basic conclusions.

The research was derailed by its obsessive focus on sexual orientation – over more tangible factors that do affect children’s wellbeing. That is why the researcher lumped all gay and lesbian parents together, rather than differentiating families based on parenting practices, family stability or access to resources. That emphasis is not surprising, however, because Regnerus has a published track record as a social conservative advocate for “traditional” marriage, what he calls “the gold standard of a married mom and dad.” And the study was the product of funding by the arch conservative Witherspoon Institute and Bradley Foundation.

In the article itself, Regnerus wisely included some disclaiming language, cautioning against a causal interpretation of the role of parents’ sexual orientation. He wrote, “I have not and will not speculate here on causality, in part because the data are not optimally designed to do so.” Without that caveat, the paper never would have passed muster for a peer-reviewed publication.

However, Regnerus has since sacrificed that scientific pretense for his political convictions. “The most significant story in this study,” he declared, “is arguably that children appear most apt to succeed well as adults when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father.” As he knows, however, his stably married-couple families had many opportunities and advantages over the other parents that the study could not account for.

For children to grow up happy and successful, loved and secure, parenting does matter – a parent or parents who love, care for, and develop a positive relationship with their children. Also vitally important are access to financial resources, community support, good schooling, housing, healthcare and basic security. When families have these assets, they are very likely to have positive outcomes regardless of the gender of their parents.

This is what researchers and child welfare organizations mean when they say the sexual orientation of parents should not be a determining factor in children’s adoption, placement or support. In fact, the major American medical academies and associations – pediatricians, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers – all support the adoption and parenting rights of gay and lesbian couples.

Too many children in this country have serious problems that need attention – in their families, schools, housing, healthcare and nutrition – for us to devote our energies to self-serving ideological crusades that do more to stigmatize families than help them to succeed. It would be especially harmful – and shameful – if such a study were used to justify denying foster and adopted children the right to live in the loving families of gay and lesbian parents who are prepared to care for them.

 I previously posted on the rushed timeline of the article, with some more links.


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TOTN: Challenges for single parents

I shared a segment on Talk of the Nation with Isabel Sawhill, ostensibly triggered by her op-ed in the Washington Post, “20 years later, it turns out Dan Quayle was right about Murphy Brown and unmarried moms.” It was mostly not about preventing unmarried parenting or analyzing the trends, but about the current issues and problems single parents face (education, custody, work hours, dating, among others).

It’s 30 minutes, and they’ve posted the audio and a transcript online here. (Unfortunately, the transcript has a few places where the names of the speakers are scrambled.)

Here are a few of my comments:

On the role of government in promoting marriage:

ME (it says “SAWHILL” here): I think it’s important for us to try to get beyond wringing our hands over the decline of marriage. The government hasn’t been able to do very much of anything to reverse that trend, despite kicking millions of people off welfare. That was supposed to encourage marriage. Promoting marriage through the Healthy Marriage Initiative…

NEAL CONAN: It was supposed to encourage other things, too, of course.

COHEN: Right, no, it was very successful at encouraging work, but if you look back at what they were saying at the time, it was about encouraging marriage, also.

How government policy should address the problems of single parent families:

I think if you look at the benefits of marriage, which are very real, if you break them down, you find that many of them are not – are quite tangible. They’re not mysterious. And as Isabel said, childcare is one of them, time – but also security, health insurance, stable housing. These are among the things that are transferred from married parents to their children in terms of benefits, and those are things where we should try to focus our energies rather than worrying about the marital status of the parents.

On the importance of single parents being able to continue their education:

I think it’s important to realize that there are different ways of investing in children’s future. It can be direct through their own education and care, and it can also be through investment in the skills and opportunities of the parents. And if we can cross that hurdle of public recognition that we have a collective interest in that kind of investment, I think we’ll be much better off and find that, like with good-quality childcare, making education available to single parents may translate into not only economic benefits for them but future benefits for the children.

For a souvenir, I took this picture of the Talk of the Nation green room:


Filed under In the news, Me @ work

Play, supervision and pressured parenting

Americans about my age and older all seem to have stories about how we survived our school playgrounds without today’s cushy soft surfaces, safety-oriented climbing structures, and running water.

Here is a picture of the playground at my elementary school. I myself survived a fall off one of those seesaws onto the broken-glass-strewn asphalt, with nothing but a scrape to show for it (attended to by the school secretary — there was no “school nurse” back then either).
In the safety craze in recent decades, sadly, real seesaws were one of the first things to go.

Go back another few generations, and you’ll find stories like this — about 200 children killed in the streets of New York in 1910 (from the NYT Jan. 1, 1911).

Most of those kids weren’t in cars or wagons; they were playing in the streets, doing work for their families, or just wandering around unattended — there were no public playgrounds. In contrast, in 2009 there were about 10 pedestrian or cycling children killed by vehicles in New York City. Ah, the good old days.*


A USDA program uses digital cameras to analyze food selections and waste content as trays come and go from the lunch line in schools with high obesity rates.

As things have gotten safer for America’s children, of course, parents have become ever more concerned with their safety, as well as with their learning and development. Somewhere in America on a Sunday a few weeks ago, in an affluent community, a public playground was bubbling with activity. Every child seemed to be enjoying a rollicking good time on the latest safety-designed play equipment, cushioned by a luxuriously deep bed of mulch.

Also, each child seemed to be within a few feet of a parent or other adult caretaker — coaching, encouraging, spotting, supervising.

In recent years, concern about the physical fitness of children has increased, especially among poor children. Some researchers have asked whether the proximity of safe neighborhood playgrounds is one cause of the social class disparity in obesity rates. That would make sense because obesity rates are lower among children who play outdoors. But the relationship between social class and playing outdoors is not clear at all. Rich children have more access to some kinds of facilities, but poor children have more free time — and, where there is public housing, it usually includes playgrounds, like this one photographed in the 1960s:


Photo by Ann Zane Shanks.

In Annette Lareau’s analysis of family life and social class, Unequal Childhoods, children of middle class and richer parents spend more time in organized activities, and poorer kids spend more time in unstructured time (including play and TV). But as these pictures show, there’s play and there’s play. Are middle class parents hovering more than poorer parents do, and with what effect?

Consider a recent article by Myron Floyd and colleagues (covered here), which attempted to assess the level of physical activity among children in public parks by observing 2,700 children in 20 public parks in Durham, NC:

[The] presence of parental supervision was the strongest negative correlate of children’s activity… the presence of adults appears to inadvertently suppress park-based physical activity in the current study, particularly among younger children. … This result should be used to encourage park designers to create play environments conducive to feelings of safety and security that would encourage rather than discourage active park use among children. For example, blending natural landscapes, manufactured play structures, and fencing in close intimate settings can be used to create comfortable environments for children and families. Such design strategies could encourage parents to allow their children to freely explore their surroundings, providing more opportunities for physical activity.

Interestingly, park in the pictured above has a fence around it so that parents can hang around at a distance with little fear for their children.

Under social pressure

In Under Pressure, one of many books bemoaning the excesses of over-parenting, Carl Honoré wrote:

Even when we poke fun at overzealous parenting … part of us wonders, What if they’re right? What if I’m letting my children down by not parenting harder? Racked by guilt and terrified of doing the wrong thing, we end up copying the alpha parent in the playground.

The point is not just that some parents have overzealous supervisory ambitions, driven by unequal investments in children and a threateningly competitive future. I think there is a supervision ratchet that feeds on the interaction between parents. In an article called “Playground Panopticism,” Holly Blackford summarized her observations:

The mothers in the ring of park benches symbolize the suggestion of surveillance, which Foucault describes as the technology of disciplinary power under liberal ideals of governance. However, the panoptic force of the mothers around the suburban playground becomes a community that gazes at the children only to ultimately gaze at one another, seeing reflected in the children the parenting abilities of one another.

This plays out in everyday interaction, whether one wants to engage it or not. If everyone else’s kid is closely supervised while yours is running around bonkers on her own, is a parent to do? If the other parents insist that their kids not go “up the slide” and yours just scrambles past them, you feel the pressure. (You also put the other parent in the position of violating another taboo — supervising someone else’s child.) So it’s not just fear of underparenting that drives parents to hover — it’s also the cross-parent interactions. These are the moments when contagious parenting behavior spreads.

*I started looking at this after reading about it in Viviana Zelizer’s Pricing the Priceless Child, in which she writes, “The case of children’s accidental death provides empirical evidence of the new meanings of child life in twentieth-century America.”

Reminder: This blog post does not constitute research, but rather commentary, observation and recommendations for reading and discussion. The description of my childhood playground, and of one recent afternoon at one park, are anecdotes, something that stimulates reflection on wider issues, not empirical evidence or data.


Filed under Me @ work, Research reports

Little man meet little cupcake

This stuff is a-dime-a-dozen, but I still love it.

These are the Luvable Friends 6-Pack Flannel Receiving Blankets available from Amazon (and this is not a paid product placement). They come in two color sets. A blue theme for “little man”…

…and a pink theme for the “little cupcake.”

So what are we supposed to wrap the little women in?

Follow the Family Inequality color obsession with posts under the color tag.


Filed under Me @ work

On the mundanity of American family life

The world has been through a lot since 2004. Some things don’t seem to have changed much.

I’ve stared at this pattern for a while, and if there are trends to it — evidence of the recession, the wars, the elections, or the rise of social media, for example — I don’t seem them. You can view or download the underlying data here. Maybe you’ll do better.

I can’t predict the future with certainty, but I bet both searches will peak this year in early June. Is this reassuring, numbing, boring, or inspiring?


Filed under In the news, Me @ work