Tag Archives: Parenting

A step toward civilization (and have more children), Shanghai edition

Over the course of two weeks in China, I saw several versions of signs like this:

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“A small step forward, a big step for civilization” (向前一小步, 文明一大步).

This one is posted in the old-town section of Nanxun (now a tourist attraction), naturally, above a urinal.* Invoking civilization may be overblown for the problem of men standing too far away (which didn’t seem to be especially extreme, compared to U.S. urinals), but China has a long tradition of using dramatic slogans to call citizens to higher common purpose. Here was one that struck me, in downtown Shanghai:

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Every family striving to become a civilized family; everyone involved in its creation (家家争做文明家庭; 人人叁与创建活动).

This is from the Shanghai public health authorities. (No, I don’t know Chinese, but I love trying to use a dictionary, and I ask people.) The fascinating thing about that is the composition of the civilized family pictured: father, mother, two grandparents, and two children. 

Fertility rates in China are well below replacement level, as they are in other East Asian countries, meaning the average woman will have fewer than two children in her lifetime and the population will eventually shrink (barring immigration). China’s total fertility rate nationally is probably at about 1.5. In Shanghai, a metro area with some 20 million people, the norm was already one child per family before the one-child policy was implemented in 1980, and fertility has continued to fall; it most recently clocked in at a shockingly low .88 per woman as of 2008.

Reasons for ultra-low fertility are varied and contested, but likely culprits include expensive housing and education costs for children. It was reported to me informally that about half of children can go to college-track high schools instead of vocational schools, and that is determined by a standardized test administered at the end of middle school. That puts tremendous pressure on parents with middle-class aspirations. Which helps explain the extensive system of expensive supplemental private education, as promoted by this ad I saw in an upscale mall:

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School advertisement, Shanghai

The website for this company promises, “Super IQ, Wealth of Creativity, Instant Memory Capacity.” How many kids are you going to send to this private program?

One of the five perfect, super-involved parents at the parent-child class is a man, which may or may not seem like a lot. Of the many people taking their kids to school on scooters, I didn’t see a lot with more than one child, and the only picture I got was of one piloted by the apparent dad (note also something you don’t see here much: schoolboy in pink shirt):

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Man taking children to school, Shanghai

This recalls another probable cause of low-low fertility, the gender-stuck family and employment practices that keep women responsible for children and other care work (scooter dads notwithstanding). In conjunction with women outperforming men in college graduation rates these days (as in the U.S.), this indirectly reduces fertility by leading to delayed marriage, and directly reduces fertility by causing parents to decide against a second child.

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Grandparent, parent, child, in Hangzhou

The weak system of care hurts on both ends, with people having fewer children because raising them is expensive, and people needing children to take care of old people because public support is lacking. This may be one reason why grandparents can have a positive effect on parents’ motivation to have children, as reported by Yingchun Ji and colleagues (including Feinian Chen, who hosted my visit). The fact that it is common for grandparents to provide extensive care for their grandchildren, as Feinian Chen has described (paywall), presumably helps strengthen their pronatal case.

Lots of pictures of grandparents taking care of a single grandchild to choose from. Here’s one, from the (awesome) Shanghai Museum:

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Grandparent and child, Shanghai

The one-child policy ended in 2016, and couples no longer have to get permission to have a first or second child (but they do for a third or more). This change alone, although a better-late-than-never thing, may not do much to increase birth rates. That is the conclusion from studies of families for whom the policy was relaxed earlier. Sadly, although birth rates were already falling dramatically in the 1970s and the one-child policy was not responsible for the trend, the policy still (in addition to large scale human rights abuses) created many millions of one-child families that will struggle to meet intergenerational care obligations in the absence of adequate public support. (Here’s a good brief summary from Wang Feng, Baochang Gu, and Yong Cai.)

This is a challenge for civilization.

The pictures here, and a few hundred more, are on my Flickr site under creative commons license.


Americans who love the funny translations of signs in China may be in for some disappointment, as the Standardization Administration has announced plans to implement thousands of stock translations in the service sector nationwide.

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Births to 40-year-olds are less common but a greater share than in 1960

Never before have such a high proportion of all births been to women over 40 — they are now 2.8% of all births in the US. And yet a 40-year-old woman today is one-third less likely to have a baby than she was in 1947.

From 1960 to 1980, birth rates to women over 40* fell, as the Baby Boom ended and people were having fewer children by stopping earlier. Since 1980 birth rates to women over 40 have almost tripled as people started “starting” their families at later ages, but they’re still lower than they were back when total fertility was much higher.

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Sources: Birth rates 1940-1969, 1970-2010, 2011, 2012-2013, 2014-20152016; Percent of births 1960-1980, 1980-2008.

Put another way, a child born to a mother over 40 before 1965 was very likely the youngest of several (or many) siblings. Today they are probably the youngest of 2 or an only child. A crude way to show this is to use the Current Population Survey to look at how many children are present in the households of women ages 40-49 who have a child age 0 (the survey doesn’t record births as events, but the presence of a child age 0 is pretty close). Here is that trend:

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In the 1970s about 60 percent of children age 0 had three or more siblings present, and only 1 in 20 was an only child. Now more than a quarter are the only child present and another 30 percent only have one sibling present. (Note this doesn’t show however many siblings no longer live in the household, and I don’t know how that might have changed over the years).

This updates an old post that focused on the health consequences of births to older parents. The point from that post remains: there are fewer children (per woman) being born to 40-plus mothers today than there were in the past, it just looks like there are more because they’re a larger share of all children.

* Note in demography terms, “over 40” means older than “exact age” 40, so it includes people from the moment they turn 40.

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Civility in the swelter (Hershey Park edition)

This post combines my love of vacations (context), my habit of taking pictures of people in public places (data)*, and my sociological tendency to invent big conclusions from minor events (theory). As with last year’s selfie post , I hope you don’t take from this that I don’t really love vacations.

With 3.2 million annual visitors, Hershey Park is barely in the top 20 amusement/theme parks in the country. And unlike the top draws, all Disney properties, I reckon Hershey mostly draws a local and regional crowd, which means they’re not as rich as the average Disney visitor.

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What interests me is the way this lower-middle amusement park creates the context for civility in a very diverse environment, even as racial and ethnic conflagration seems to be breaking out all over.

It’s very racially and ethnically diverse, and most of the Whites either aren’t rich or they’re hiding their wealth well.

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Why didn’t Charles Murray, in his obnoxious “do you live in a bubble” quiz, which is supposed to test your exposure to and familiarity with working-class White culture (yes, just White culture, though the PBS promoters of the quiz only mentioned that after people complained), ask about amusement parks, where White working class people spend their vacations mingling with — or at least in close proximity with — racial minorities?

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Including in the historically-fraught pool.

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Some may be merely standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people from different races. But I saw more interracial couples and families than I usually see in my diverse suburb.

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Are they just tolerating each other, or are they really getting along? Of course, I’m White and rich and blind to all sorts of things, but I’m not stupid. I have no doubt there were slights and insults and aggressions going on outside of my perception (though I was looking for them). But there were also the kind of casual moments of “us just getting along” that usually go unremarked, like when parents enjoy watching their kids having fun together.

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I’m not making an argument about the relative racism apparent across classes. I know your feed today is probably awash in racist stuff coming from all over the social spectrum. I’m more interested in what the social context does to interpersonal interaction. The park is very leveling, economically. The poorest people are obviously excluded, and the richest aren’t interested. And then most people buy tickets before they arrive, and it’s in a remote place, so there is no one visible who can’t get in, no obvious fast lane for rich people (even at the rides, unlike Disney). We all ride the same tram from the parking lot to the gate, so the car interaction is minimized. We go through the same giant line to enter, and then wait in the same lines to ride the same rides and eat the same food once inside.

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There are ways to spend more money conspicuously, buying extra crap, but there is less of that than I’ve seen at Disney or Universal Studios (have you priced a genuine Princess dress lately?). In short, it brings out what a lot of different Americans have in common: overpaying for entertainment, overeating greasy food, and alternately yelling at and loving on their children.

I’m reminded of two things. One is that there is less racial conflict and violence in the U.S. than there was in the past (dating the data trends here is obviously debatable). The level of racism — structurally and interpersonally — is still way too high, of course. But it partly stands out now because we have more casual, positive interaction, than we did in the past. Social movement scholars will tell you that periods of improving relations are ripe for upheaval and unrest, because expectations are raised and subordinate groups are empowered. Don’t draw from the level of conscious resistance we see now the conclusion that conditions are worse than ever, because that’s not how it works.

Two is that civility can be engineered. In 2002 my friend Jennifer Lee wrote of the “important untold story [of] the mostly quotidian nature of commercial life in neighborhoods like New York’s Harlem and West Philadelphia,” areas at the time experiencing racial tension erupting in occasional violence around the issue of ethnic turf and racism in retail spaces. This Civility in the City was partly the product of deliberate, conscious effort by store owners and employees to preserve it. The level of interpersonal conflict and expression of animosity is not determined by structural inequalities alone. That deep inequality remains the defining American problem of our time. I don’t know how the level of interpersonal conflict plays into our ability to confront and address that inequality — and I’m not saying we should settle for civility over equality — but I’m sure it’s somehow relevant.

* This is ethical and legal as long as I’m not trying to harm anyone – millions of people do it every day. If you happen to be in one of these pictures and want me to take them down I will happily oblige. Before you get mad about me using these pictures, close your eyes and think of all the pictures you’ve seen just this week of strangers who did not consent to have their pictures taken.

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That time when your research is used to justify ripping a baby from the arms of its loving adoptive parents

UPDATE: Judge Johansen has rescinded his order

Brad Wilcox and Mark Regnerus lost in their attempt to turn the federal courts against marriage equality. The work they did culminated in a paper published under Regnerus’s name, and Regnerus is the name most associated with its bogusness, but it was Wilcox who led the effort to raise the money (some of which he kept), helped direct the study, and weaseled it into the journal by serving as a peer reviewer for its publication. (Two subsequent studies reanalyzed the Wilcox/Regnerus data, and thoroughly debunked its results — here and here; you can get the full story by following the links in this post.)

Although they failed in their quest to affect the Supreme Court, their work lives on in the very small, evil minds of anti-gay fanatics around the world, who continuously cite the original paper. One of those men is Judge Scott Johansen, a juvenile court judge in Carbon County, Utah (the state’s seventh district), who has cited unspecified “research” to justify his decision to take a one-year-old baby from the home of Beckie Peirce and April Hoagland, a married lesbian couple who are the child’s foster parents. With the approval of the baby’s biological mother and child welfare authorities — who did the routine thorough investigation and vetting that all adoptive parents (including me) have endured — the two were moving ahead with plans to legally adopt the baby when Johansen, a law graduate of the Mormon Brigham Young University, handed down his decision. The decision is set to take effect next Tuesday (November 17). His decision is not public, but he told the couple his own research showed it was better for children to be raised by a heterosexual couple. We don’t need to ask what research he has in mind.

Legal efforts continue, and officials — including the governor of Utah — have asked the judge to reconsider.

If your research was used like this, what would you do?

So, this is the point of all the work Wilcox and Regnerus did. We must assume they wanted exactly this decision, but on a much larger scale; they wanted same-sex couples to be denied the right to adopt children, and children to be denied the right to have married gay and lesbian parents. They would apparently rather see a one-year-old child who has spent three months with a loving family ripped from that family rather than face the fate of having lesbian parents.

If I’m wrong, and I would be especially happy to be wrong in this case, then Wilcox and Regnerus should be the first experts lining up to convince Judge Johansen that he’s making a mistake, that the actual well-being of the child, and the civil rights of its parents, should come before slavish devotion to religious dogma. In fact, speaking up right now might actually do some good.

Wilcox has gone out of his way to sing the praises of the “deep normative and religious commitments to marriage and to raising children within marriage” in Utah specifically. But he doesn’t comment on this aspect of Utah’s holiness — the deep commitment that has led the Mormon church to announce a wretched, hateful policy under which it will not bless or baptize the children of gay and lesbian couples unless they denounce their parents.

Now might be a good time for Wilcox’s sham Institute for Family Studies — which has yet to ever use the words “lesbian,” “gay,” or “homosexual” on its web pages — to break its silence and take a stand for children and family well-being.

I’ll be holding my breath.

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NYT magazine infographic: not just dumb and annoying

This graphic from the New York Times magazine is bad data presented poorly (and reproduced poorly, by my camera phone):

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It’s presented poorly because those blood stains are impossible to compare since you can’t discern their edges, and it appears they don’t taper toward the edges at the same rate. Maybe they simply resized one of them to get the relative size, which would be wrong. Anyway, if they cared about communicating the data they probably would have used real data in the first place. (You could also complain that a red speckle-cloud is unfriendly to some color-blind people.)

It’s bad data because it’s an online NYT reader survey, which — although it’s from the “research and analytics” department (and no, I’m not going to add “analytics” to my Windows dictionary) — represents unknown sample selection effects on an undefined population. In other words, who cares what they think?

A survey like that would be a start if it was the only way you had to answer an important or hard-to-measure issue, and if you clearly stated that it was likely unreliable. But in this case there is good, nationally-representative data on this very question. So if NYT Magazine wanted to inform its readers of something, they could have used this.

Here’s the good data — from the General Social Survey — in a graph that is at least a lot better: this is good data in a chart that’s easier to read accurately, includes a breakout by strength of opinion, and uses more accessible colors (click to enlarge).

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I think the NYT Magazine graphics violations are not just dumb and annoying — here’s another post all about them — I think they harm the public good. Graphics like this spread ignorance and contribute to the perception that statistics – especially graphic statistics – are just an arbitrary way of manipulating people rather than a set of tools for exploring data and attempting to answer real questions. (If you want awesome real graphics, check out Healy and Moody’s Annual Review of Sociology paper.)

P.S., I wrote more about spanking here.

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Updated age education birth figures

As fertility continues in the news (see last week’s post on rising birth rates for women with higher education), I am preparing for a planned appearance today on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, on the “grandparent deficit” associated with births at advanced parental age. So I updated some old figures I made in 2012.

These come from two posts:

  • Poverty Poses a Bigger Risk to Pregnancy Than Age, which argued that a focus on parental age was distracting us from economic inequality. I concluded: 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.
  • Births to mothers in their forties are less common now than in the old days, which explained that, although first births at older ages are more common, the birth rate among older women is lower now than it was during the Baby Boom. That is, women aren’t more likely to have a kid at age 40 now — they’re just more likely to have their first at that age.

Here are three figures I’ve updated.

The first shows the distribution of births by education within each age group of mothers. It shows, for example, 85% of women under 20 who had a birth in 2013 had a high school education or less. The highest levels of education are found among women have babies in their late 30s (note these are not just first births):

work.xlsxThe next one shows the same information, but now arranged as percentages of all births. This shows, for example, that 27% of all births are to women in their late 20s, with the majority of those having some college education or less:

work.xlsxFinally, the odd phenomenon in which, although the percentage of all births to women age 40+ has increased to the point that it surpassed the Baby Boom years, the birth rate for women that age is still much lower than it was:

advanced age trends.xlsxSo the average 40-year-old was more likely to have a baby in 1960 than today (15.5 per 1000 versus 10.5 per 1000), but a baby born today is more likely to have a mother 40 or older (2.3% versus 2.8%). That’s because more people were having births at all ages in 1960. The U-shape here reflects two historical trends: first, the total number of children per woman declined, which meant fewer born at older ages because people stopped earlier. Then, as marriage age increased, along with women’s education, women started delaying their first births, which led to increasing birth rates — and proportions of births — at older ages.

Sources:

The source for the first two figures is my analysis of 2013 ACS data from IPUMS.org. The last one is from National Center for Health Statistics reports: here, here, here, and here; as well as a couple of old Statistical Abstracts, here and here.

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Color and the making of gender in early childhood

Most of today’s readers weren’t following this blog back when I started writing about color preferences. Those posts are listed under the color tag. Now there’s a new paper on the subject that helps me think about how gender works in young children.

It’s called, “Preferences for Pink and Blue: The Development of Color Preferences as a Distinct Gender-Typed Behavior in Toddlers,” by Wang Wong and Melissa Hines, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the same journal where I published my paper on how adult color preferences are affected by the sex of their children. (Their paper is paywalled, but since we’re personal friends feel free to ask me for a look at my licensed copy.)

The researchers studied 126 children ages 20-40 months in a UK college town. The pertinent parts of their findings, for my purposes are: girls prefer pink over blue more than boys; but the the gap starts out quite small before age two and widens to age 3; the preferences are unstable, that is, the pinker girls and bluer boys at age 24 months are not the pinker girls and bluer boys at age 36 months. (The preferences were measured by asking which color they liked better on a card, and letting them choose between pink and blue gender-neutral toys.)

Whenever there is research showing differences between the sexes, I always like to look for the overlap (see, e.g., this post). That’s because people fixate on the differences to confirm their presumption that the differences are total, fixed, and baked in or genetic. This underlies the whole fixation on the dimorphism question. So when they report girls are more likely to choose pink over blue than boys, I plug the means and standard deviations into my graphing spreadsheet to see the implied distributions (assuming normality). Here is the overall pattern:

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So, you can decide whether you think that’s a big difference, but you should factor in the size of the overlap. The change over about 14 months was pretty impressive, with boys and girls pulling apart. Here are the curves at 20-26 versus 34-40 months:

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One possible interpretation of this pattern is that color preference is learned rather than baked in at birth, and this is a time kids learn it. That interpretation is strengthened by the further finding that, while the gender difference increases from age 2 to age 3, it’s not stable within individuals. That is, whether a kid was pink-positive or -negative at time 1 was not a predictor of their preference at time two. That’s what this figure shows — girls are more likely to be in the top-right, but the time-1–time-2 slopes aren’t significant:

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That’s more evidence against the idea that the sex difference in color preference is determined at birth, which is also consistent with the historical evidence, as Jo Paoletti’s work shows.

Children themselves have a strong motivation to perform their gender identity in ways that please adults or perhaps other children, and that tendency exacerbates early sex differences. They can anchor this performance to an arbitrary marker like color. From the paper (references removed):

Gender-related cognitive processes have been implicated in the acquisition of gender-typed color preferences. Specifically, gender-typed behaviors may be acquired through self-socialization after children have developed gender identity, and become self-motivated to adopt gender norms.

Unlike critics of this blog, I don’t fear that gender differences will be erased if we don’t continuously reinforce and celebrate them. People will figure out ways to make the “natural” differences count enough to get the job done when they need to. And reducing the pressure will help decrease both gender inequality and the stigma experienced by non-conforming people.

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