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.

That giant gobbling sound (is the 1% eating more and more of the cookies)

The Congressional Budget Office has a new report on trends in the income distribution. The big news is the 1%’s blitzkrieg assault on equality.

But it’s not just another rehash of Census numbers. Two adjustments they made seem especially good. First, they used a tricky matching method to combine Current Population Survey numbers (which do better at benefits and low-income households) combined with Internal Revenue Service data (which is better for high-end data). Second, they adjusted for household size and composition, and calculated distributions before and after taxes and transfers, and among different kinds of income.

The headline is the changing share of after-tax-and-transfer household income. Every group except the top 1% had a smaller share of income in 2007 than they did in 1979, or just an equal share in the case of the 81st-99th percentile group. That means the top quintile’s whole gain came in the top 1%.

That is very important. A source of outrage for the hundreds of thousands of Facebook users posting, commenting, or Liking Occupy Wall St. and its related pages.

It would be misleading, however, to view the chart as showing that incomes fell for the other groups. Income growth has been very skewed toward the top, but it is by no means confined to the top 1%. Here is my graph showing the income cutoffs for each quintile, and for the top slices separately. These are the bottom cutoffs in 1979 and 2007 (in inflation-adjusted dollars), with the percentage change in the backgrounded bars.

(Note there is no cutoff for the bottom quintile — the price of entry for that group is always $0).

Two thoughts about this.

1. Even if there were no 1%, if the graph only included the green bars, there would be plenty of increasing inequality for what might then be called “the 80%” to protest. The 81st-99th folks may be lucky to have the popular anger directed at the grotesque opulence of the sliver above them. (I’m not diminishing the 1%’s income gains, but as Matt Taibbi pointed out yesterday, the object of opposition is not just their income, but their influence.)

2. If you look at the families and networks of the top 1%, how many of them have relatives, friends, and even co-“workers” who are only in the top 10%? Would a self-respecting 1% family be appalled if their son married someone from a stable 5%-er family?

What I’m wondering is whether the 1% folks are merely a statistical convenience rather than a socially cohesive group (class?). That’s an empirical question that national income distributions can’t necessarily answer.

The CBO report is here, a summary is here, and the blog post version is here.

A different media-statistic-trend divorce story

…which also concerns Brad Wilcox, but that’s just a coincidence. I’m sorry I never got around to catching this one, from the June 17 New York Times.

In an interesting article on cultural trends of the well-to-do, the New York Times Fashion & Style section profiled divorced middle-class people who feel ostracized by their class, which has now rebounded against the anything-goes divorce culture of the 1970s.

To lend weight to the generalizations illustrated by the colorful anecdotes, Pamela Paul wrote: “From the 1970s to the 2000s, the percentage of highly educated Americans who believe that divorce should be made more difficult rose from 36 to 48 percent.”

So precise, and right to the point — anti-divorce sentiment increasing among the cultural elite.

Where did this come from? And what do answers to the question mean — “divorce should be made more difficult” — asked before and after no-fault divorce spread across the country? My concerns only deepened when I read, after a quote a few paragraphs later: “… said W. Bradford Wilcox, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project.”

The original statistic was not attributed, but now I went back up in the story, copied “from 36 to 48 percent” and Googled the phrase. Sure enough, there on the first page of hits was Wilcox’s 2010 “State of Our Unions” PDF (co-authored with Elizabeth Marquardt), saying:

…the percentage of American adults expressing the view that divorce should become more difficult fell from 53 to 40 percent among the least educated, stayed constant at 50 percent among the moderately educated, and rose from 36 to 48 percent among the highly educated.

Following the paragraph in the PDF is this infographic:

For whatever reason, neither Wilcox’s text nor Paul’s article mentions the arbitrary 25-60 age restriction. That’s a small error compared with not attributing the statistic to a partisan source.

Fortunately, anyone with a microscope can see that the graph was made from data from the General Social Survey, which is available in a free, not-too-hard-to-use web-based utility here. So there is little reason to just quote a Templeton foundation-funded blog post, when you can go straight to the source – a product of peer-reviewed funding from the lowly National Science Foundation. In fact, an NYT intern could have included data from the 2010 GSS as well, since it was out by the time of this 2011 article — so there was no need to even consult Wilcox’s 2008 data.

Trending DIVLAW

GSS has asked the DIVLAW question since 1974: “Should divorce in this country be easier or more difficult to obtain than it is now?” California’s first-in-the-nation no-fault divorce law was in 1970, and it was spreading across the country at the time, so this was a big issue in 1974. What does it mean now? I’m not sure.

Anyway, just looking at the “highly educated,” by which Wilcox means BA degree or higher, this is the percentage answering the question, “more difficult”:

In the NYT story and the Wilcox report this trend is “from 36 to 48 percent.”*

The GSS utility helpfully calculates confidence intervals, and I’m glad to report that if you pool the years 1974-1979 on one end, and 2000-2008 on the other, you do indeed get a statistically significant increase at 95% confidence in the percentage of people with BA degree or higher thinking divorce should be “more difficult.”

This fits with Wilcox’s narrative, in which liberal attitudes from the cultural elite have wrecked the families of the poor, after which the rich turned back to more sensible family values (and church) for their own purposes, further exacerbating the gaps between rich and poor. This is a simple argument which relies on tortured facts. Wilcox and Andrew Cherlin advanced it together in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed last fall, with this helpful illustration:

But the figure reveals a wrinkle that would — sorry to say — complicate the story. Let’s call it a dramatic reversal of the trend in attitudes toward divorce!

Look back at that trend. Instead of focusing on 1970s versus 2000s, look instead at the “early 2000s” (2000, 2002, and 2004) versus the “late 2000s” (2006, 2008, 2010). By that breakdown, the percentage of BA+ folks saying divorce should be “more difficult” fell from 54.1% to 44.2% — a 10-point drop that is also statistically significant at the 95% confidence level. That change is almost as big as the whole 1970s-2000s swing of 12 points that Wilcox and the NYT reported.

This doesn’t fit the NYT story, which is attempting to capture a recent trend.

One problem may be that archaic question about how “difficult to obtain” divorce should be. Compare that with the Gallup poll, which instead asks “whether your personally believe that in general [divorce] is morally acceptable or morally wrong.” They didn’t break it down by education level, but the trend over the 2000s was toward “morally acceptable”:

The “then and now” story in which the 1970s serves as a post-1950s bogey man is easy. I think the reality is not.

Real research addendum

The Wilcox-Marquardt report actually cites a paper in Journal of Marriage and Family by Steven Martin and Sangeeta Parashar, “Women’s Changing Attitudes Toward Divorce, 1974–2002: Evidence for an Educational Crossover,” which broke the story of the diverging social-class trends in attitudes toward divorce (using the same DIVLAW question). Their analysis was published in 2006 based on GSS data through 2002 (before the crash in elite attitudes toward divorce). It’s a serious analysis that tries to explain — or at least put in context — why college-educated women might be moving more in the direction of opposing divorce.

They conclude that, as divorce becomes less common for people with college degrees — which it has — then the opposition to divorce among these cultural elites is increasingly abstract. Martin and Parashar presciently wrote:

If a low probability of divorce reduces the personal salience of divorce for college graduates … they might increasingly view divorce and its attendant hardships as a social problem caused by other people’s behavior. If this occurs, trends in divorce attitudes could exacerbate family inequalities and sharpen class delineations in the “culture wars” over the future of families.

That seems plausible to me. I don’t know if the post-2002 change in attitudes seriously alters this story — it’s ultimately too much weight for one quaint attitude question to bear — but it’s worth considering.

*In a normal news story on a poll, the “margin of error” is reported, which I think is the 95% confidence interval for sampling error. When quoting a “report,” though, apparently that is not required.

Sociology wedding sleuth (because you can’t make this stuff up)

Yesterday’s plantation-owning politicians beget today’s banking oligarchy.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. The wedding of Margaret Gawthrop Klarberg and Bruce Lee Kennedy II doesn’t really cement the banking oligarchy. It just shores it up a little. She, a Penn graduate (via Phillips Academy), a senior vice president for marketing at Bank of America. He, a graduate of Dartmouth and Stanford, a vice president for investment managing at D. F. Dent, and a former banking analyst for Goldman, Sachs.

They, amazingly, both are descended from governors of Virginia, with counties named after their families, and family fortunes built on plantations that happened to own slaves. You can’t make this stuff up. According to the NY Times story — which voids a couple’s right to not have their family history used in sociology lessons:

The bride and bridegroom each trace their ancestry to Virginia’s Colonial era. She is a descendant of Thomas Barbour, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1769 until 1775. The bridegroom is a descendant of Patrick Henry (1736-1799), founding father and first governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

That’s more than enough to get the sociology wedding sleuth — powered by Google and Wikipedia — up and running.

So, she is a descendant of Thomas Barbour, a member of the House of Burgesses. They have a county (or maybe two) named after them. Thomas’s son James, born in 1775, was the really famous one, a governor of Virginia, a U.S. senator, and U.S. secretary of war. As a child of the Barbour plantation, he got his own start as a young plantation owner at the tender age of 23, when, according to (how-could-it-be-wrong?) Wikipedia, “With wedding gifts from his father, James was able to slowly acquire his own personal wealth. By 1798, he owned several slaves and was prepared to begin his own plantation.”

James  Barbour (right), and Margaret Gawthrop Klarberg, descended from Barbour’s father, Thomas.

Thomas Jefferson designed one of the family’s houses, the ruins of which remain a historic landmark and site of a winery:

According to one published history, the family traces its American origins to the 17th century. One guy in the Barbour family of Virginia (John S.), who was in the House of Representatives from Virginia in the 1820s, had a son (John S.), a railroad executive, later in the U.S. Senate. Another son (James), served in the state legislature and was a member of the secession convention, and then served on the staff of Confederate General Richard Ewell. James’s son Alfred M. was the commandant of the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry at the time of the John Brown raid. Etc, etc.

The groom’s family also has a county named after them! His ancestor, the Founding Father Patrick Henry, also got slaves for his wedding, according to Wikipedia: “As a wedding gift his father-in-law gave the couple six slaves and the 300-acre Pine Slash Farm.”

Patrick Henry (left), and his descendant, Bruce Kennedy II.

We also learn, from The Dartmouth, that Bruce’s sister, Heningham,

is the 14th generation to possess the name. The first Heningham was a lady in waiting for Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife. The name has been passed on throughout the centuries, though not always directly from mother to daughter, and also to both men and women.

As of 2008, she was reported to own a charming 2,700-sq. foot home in Philadelphia, which she bought from her dad, around the corner from the Betsy Ross house in the city’s old historic district.

Ah, the mysteries of love.

Reproducing childhood hardship

A new long-term study of children born in Britain in 1958 finds that girls exposed to hardship at early ages are more likely to have low-birthweight babies and preterm births. That is, the children of hardship were more likely to bear children who face hardships right out of the starting blocks.

“Hardship” data were collected at several home visits in childhood and adolescence. They were grouped by a process called factor analysis to produce a total hardship score. The components used, and their groupings are here:

The hardship effect on birth complications partly resulted from the fact that girls with more hardships as children were more likely to smoke as adults, and more likely to be poor themselves. But the statistical analysis showed this didn’t account for all of the childhood hardship effect. (We already know that smoking itself is passed from parents to children.)

More evidence for the intergenerational transmission of social class, via health outcomes. That social class has such momentum is not surprising. The question (which this study can’t answer) is how much social policy or institutions impede or derail — rather than accelerate — that intergenerational train.