Unconventional Wisdom

By Jeremy Adam Smith | May 10, 2007 | 0 comments

I just got back from the tenth anniversary conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, a network of family researchers that I recently joined. There they released a new report entitled "Unconventional Wisdom" that summarizes recent research and clinical findings by CCF members. Some highlights:

In contrast to the media focus on gender differences, a new consensus challenging this view is emerging from the research literature. Many well-designed studies find no significant gender differences with respect to such cognitive and social behaviors as nurturance, sexuality, aggression, self-esteem, and math and verbal abilities. The big story is that there is far greater within-gender variability on such behaviors than there is between-gender difference. For example, when young boys act up and get physical we are accustomed to hearing their behavior explained away by their high levels of testosterone. In fact, boys' and girls' testosterone levels are virtually identical during the preschool years when rough-and-tumble play is at its peak.

When we compare the work-day hours that Gen-X and Boomer fathers spend caring for and doing things with their children in 2002, we find that Gen-X fathers spend significantly more time with their children, an average of 3.4 hours per workday versus an average of 2.2 hours for Boomer fathers — a difference of more than 1 hour. Because Gen-X fathers typically have younger children than Boomer fathers, we adjusted for the age of youngest child and still found the same significant difference favoring Gen-X.

Numerous studies reveal the benefits to a relationship and family when a father participates in housework. Women are more prone to depression and to fantasize about divorce when they do a disproportionate share of the housework. Wives are more sexually interested in husbands who do more housework. And children appear to be better socially adjusted when they regularly participate in doing chores with Dad. In my clinical experience, men do more in homes when they have stronger egalitarian attitudes, and when their wives are willing to negotiate standards, act assertively, prioritize the marital friendship, and avoid gatekeeping.

People often think that women whose husbands make "good money" stay home when they have children. But it takes being married to men in the top 5th percentile (men earning more than $120,000 a year) to seriously reduce women's employment — only 54 percent of mothers with husbands with these top earnings worked for pay. Among married women whose husbands were in the top 25 to 5 percent of all earners (making salaries ranging from about $60,000 to $120,000), 72 percent of mothers worked outside the home, almost identical to the 71 percent work participation figures among married moms whose husbands' earnings were in the lowest 25 percent of men's wages. Women's own education has a much bigger effect on her likelihood of working than her husband's earnings; highly-educated women who can earn a lot typically don't become stay-at-home mothers.

Despite concerns of policy makers that children are not receiving sufficient parental time, married parents' time with children is higher now than during the "golden era" of the nuclear family in 1965: Married mothers increased their time in childcare by 21% (from 10.6 to 12.9 hours per week between 1965 and 2000) and fathers have more than doubled their time in childcare (from 2.6 to 6.5 hours per week). How have they done this? Mothers in particular have shed large quantities of housework in order to accommodate their increased time with children. Married parents of today's era also spend more time multitasking, and less time with their spouse and friends and extended family. Although parent-child time has increased over the years, almost half of American parents continue to feel they spend too little time with their children, particularly married fathers who spend less time overall with children than married mothers. Married mothers also long for more time for themselves and both mothers and fathers feel they have too little time for each other.

In a study of 130 couples from wedding until their first babies were three years old, John and Julie Gottman found that 67% of couples had a big drop in relationship happiness and a big increase in hostility in the first 3 years of the baby's life. In addition, the parents' hostility during pregnancy was associated with baby's responsiveness at three months. Based on this, they designed and tested an intervention to help new parents: the workshop reversed the drop in couple happiness and the increasing hostility. They also found a reduction in postpartum depression. At three years old, the babies whose parents had been to a workshop were more advanced in terms of emotional and language development. Part of this was due to father's involvement: the workshops improved father's involvement.

A nationally representative study of more than 1000 young people in the 3rd through the 12th grades asked children: "If you were granted one wish that would change the way that your mother's/your father's work affects your life, what would that wish be?" In a parallel study, more than 600 employed mothers and fathers were asked to guess what their children would wish. Most parents (56%) guessed that their children would wish for more time with them. But more time was not at the top of children's wish list. Only 10% of children made that wish about their mothers and 15.5% made that wish about their fathers. Most children wished that their mothers (34%) and their fathers (27.5%) would be less stressed and tired.

Men and women who were married or had children were asked in 1977 and again in 2002, "How much do your job and family life interfere with each other?" In 1977, 41 percent of women, but just 34 percent of men, reported experiencing some or a lot of work-family interference. By 2002, however, more men (46 percent) than women (41 percent) reported experiencing work-family stress. Fathers in dual-earner families are no more likely to experience some or a lot of work-family interference (53%) as fathers who are in single earner families (52%).

Based on a representative sample of a major metropolitan area, almost eight out of ten young adults who grew up in a home with a work-committed mother believe that this was the best option. In contrast, those who lived in homes where mothers did not work in a committed way are more divided in their outlooks, with close to half wishing their moms had pursued a different path. Those who lived in a single-parent home are similarly divided. While a slight majority wished that their biological parents had stayed together, close to half concluded that, while not ideal, a parental separation provided a better alternative than living in a conflict-ridden or silently unhappy home. Conversely, among children who grew up in an intact home, most agreed that this was the best arrangement, but four out of ten felt their parents might have been better off apart. In all these family arrangements, sustained parental support and economic security are more important than family form in shaping young adults' satisfaction with their childhood experiences.

The full report is well worth a read.

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About The Author

Jeremy Adam Smith edits the GGSC’s online magazine, Greater Good. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Are We Born Racist?, and The Compassionate Instinct. Before joining the GGSC, Jeremy was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter!


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