Institute for Family Studies Blog https://ifstudies.org/blog The Institute for Family Studies (IFS) is dedicated to strengthening marriage and family life, and advancing the well-being of children, through research and public education. Instant Family Offers a Funny, Yet Honest Portrayal of Foster Care and Adoption https://ifstudies.org/blog/instant-family-offers-a-funny-yet-honest-portrayal-of-foster-care-and-adoption https://ifstudies.org/blog/instant-family-offers-a-funny-yet-honest-portrayal-of-foster-care-and-adoption by Naomi Schaefer Riley (@NaomiSRiley)

Does it take a “special” person to be a foster parent? This is the question at the heart of the new movie, Instant Family, starring Mark Wahlberg (“Pete”) and Rose Byrne (“Ellie”). On the one hand, Pete and Ellie are an unremarkable couple who have achieved some measure of success flipping houses. (There’s even a joke at the beginning about them watching “Fixer Upper” together.) But on the other, how many of us would welcome three abused, neglected, and ill-behaved children into our homes just because we saw their sweet photos on a website one night?

Pete and Ellie have drifted into their 30s focusing on their careers and not thinking much about when or how they are going to have children, but when Pete suggests that he doesn’t want to be an old father and jokes that they should just get a 5-year-old, Ellie takes the suggestion seriously. What follows is a funny, crude, but not inaccurate take on the journey of foster parents trying to adopt. Which is unsurprising since it’s based on the experience of the movie’s director and producer, Sean Anders.

Initially, of course, Pete is gung-ho about the idea, saying that he and Ellie are good at seeing the potential in things and fixing them up. In the first few minutes of the movie, he manages to compare foster kids to rescue dogs and houses that are falling apart. This kind of early idealism, though rarely uttered so clumsily, is not uncommon among foster parents I’ve interviewed. 

The people who are part of their training program are also easily recognizable. Gay couples and evangelicals are disproportionately represented among foster parents, as are couples who have not been able to have children through natural means. As a secular, heterosexual couple who have never tried to have kids on their own, Pete and Ellie are probably the least representative.

The movie contains plenty of slapstick humor, but it’s hard to think of a single problem or issue in foster care that does not come up. For example, Ellie’s family thinks it’s a terrible idea for them to take in someone else’s “damaged goods.” They start off thinking of taking in one child but then end up with three because they don’t want to break up a sibling group. Pete asks the social worker, Karen (played by Octavia Spencer), whether it’s okay that they are considering fostering kids who are Hispanic, wanting to know if it will seem as if they have a “white savior” complex. Karen explains that there are not enough foster parents of any color to care about this. Describing the couple who are caring for the children when Pete and Ellie first meet them, Karen suggests that they are mostly doing it for the money.

Moreover, the teenage girl in the group is used to acting as the mother for her siblings and thinks of herself as an adult and not someone who would have to live by someone else’s rules anymore. The children have trouble sleeping and eating, and they have difficulty adjusting to a routine. Pete and Ellie’s marriage suffers under the stress—they even wonder for a minute if they should give the kids back. This is a significant reason for the high turnover rate among foster parents. 

And then there is the biological mother of the children, who's been in and out of jail and using drugs but shows up wanting the children back. Substance abuse is among the most common reasons that children end up in foster care. But Pete and Ellie are faced with the possibility that after everything they have done to build up a trusting and loving relationship with the children over the course of several months, the children may be sent back to their mother. Karen pulls no punches about the fact that family reunification is the name of the game. And as long as the mother has remained clean and followed a reunification plan, she is the default caregiver.

The movie is a comedy, so you can probably guess how things work out. In real life, things might have just as easily gone differently. The truth is that couples like Pete and Ellie are special because unlike so many other Americans with the time and resources, they decide to bring a stranger’s children into their home. But if enough of the public take the movie’s message to heart, maybe Pete and Ellie won’t be so special after all.  

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.  

*Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

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Tue, 20 Nov 2018 07:30:00 -0500
‘Sex Recession?’ Blame Marriage Stagnation https://ifstudies.org/blog/sex-recession-blame-marriage-stagnation https://ifstudies.org/blog/sex-recession-blame-marriage-stagnation by Charles Fain Lehman (@CharlesFLehman)

Americans are having less sex. Demographer Jean Twenge has found that adults today have sex about nine fewer times annually than in the 1990s. Twenty-two percent of adults reported having no sex in 2016, compared to 18% in the late 1990s. This is in large part because Millennials have less sex than both their parents and grandparents did at the same age. Gen. Z looks to be even less active: the CDC has found that just 40% of high schoolers have ever had sex, down from 54% in 1991.

This decline—especially among young people—is what a recent Atlantic cover story labeled the “sex recession.” In that essay, Atlantic senior editor Kate Julian does an admirable job of reviewing a whole host of changing behaviors—increased porn use and masturbation, achievement-oriented culture, rising depression and concurrent anti-depressant use, etc.—that might explain why Americans do “it” less.

But there is one major factor to which Julian only gives passing attention: marriage. Americans have conspicuously transitioned en masse from a more sexually active group—married people—to a less sexually active one—the unmarried. Any talk of a “sex recession” must acknowledge this marriage stagnation.

Today, there are fewer Americans married, and more Americans single, than at any point in at least the past 140 years. As the figure below illustrates, Census data show that the married proportion peaked in 1960, driven by surging marriage rates after the end of World War II.

From the 1960s onwards, however, there was a stunning reversal. From a post-war high of nearly three-quarters of the population, the married proportion has fallen by 22 percentage points. Today, only a minority of Americans are married.

The effect is even more pronounced among young adults—the people for whom the sex drop is most concerning. Americans are of course getting married later, but even looking at those aged 25 to 34—solidly out of college and into adulthood—we find that more than 80% were married in 1960, and less than half as many are married today.

This shift has major implications for the frequency with which Americans have sex. That’s for one simple reason: as Twenge writes, “married people have sex more often on average than unmarried people.”

It is not hard to imagine why. Television’s depiction notwithstanding, the single life is filled with barriers to sex. Ceteris paribus, any two single people potentially interested in coitus have less reason to trust one another, have less ground for shared emotional intimacy, and less steady “access” to one another as compared to a married couple. For millennia, the great appeal of marriage to many has been that it generally provides consistent access to at least some sex.

What was true a thousand years ago is true now. We know this from the General Social Survey, which polls respondents on the frequency with which they have sex. The distribution of sex among the married is roughly bell-shaped: some have a little, some have a lot, but most have at least some. The mode frequency is two to three times a month.

The distribution of the never-married population, by contrast, is inverted. It is possible to have a lot of sex while not being married, but it is just as possible to have no sex at all. And most of the “in-between” categories—sex one to four times a month—are far less prevalent among the never married.

This all implies that the distribution of sex among the married is far more equitable than among the unmarried. Copulating while single is a crapshoot, with the population composed of haves and have-nots. But most people who are married have sex — married men and women alike get at least a little. A mass transition of the population from one group to another thus explains a lot about why there are more “have nots” overall.

Zooming in on young adults tells a related story. In general, they have a lot of sex—the modal frequency is two to three times a week for married and unmarried alike. But essentially zero married 25- to 34-year-olds are sexless, while a sizable proportion of the young unwed have sex once a year or less.

In other words, if there is a glut of young people who don’t have sex, that group is overwhelmingly clustered among the unmarried. The implication is that those people are sexless in no small part because they are not participating in humans’ most reliable avenue to sex.

Importantly, declining marriage doesn’t totally explain the sex recession. As Nicholas Wolfinger has written for IFS, there’s been a significant drop in sex among married people. Why is an open question; labor force drop out, declining testosterone, and the allure of electronic distractions could all play a role. Still, the within-marriage sex decline is far less pronounced than the great shift of Americans, especially young Americans, from wedding vows to bachelorhood.

There is no monocausal explanation for why marriage has dropped—shifts in culture, economics, and politics all play a role. What we can say is that Julian is probably right: dating apps, widespread porn use, and the eroticization of popular culture have not made Americans more likely to have sex. If America wants to reverse this—and reap all the rewards that come with a robust sex life—then maybe it’s time to think about making it easier, and more popular, to get hitched

Charles Fain Lehman is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon, where he covers crime, law, drugs, immigration, and social issues. Reach him on twitter @CharlesFLehman.

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Mon, 19 Nov 2018 07:30:00 -0500
Friday Five 253 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-253 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-253 by Bill Coffin (@billcoffin)

The Bridesmaids Are Multiplying
Caroline Kitchener, The Atlantic

A Simple Way to De-escalate Couple Conflicts
The Family Institute at Northwestern University

Half of Millennials Make Out Their Relationship Is Happier Than It Really Is
Relate

Addressing the Family-Sized Hole Federal Tax Reform Left for States
Richard C. Auxier, Elaine Maag, Tax Policy Center

FRPN Grantee Report: Evaluating Mother and Nonresidential Father Engagement in Coparenting Services in a Fatherhood Program
Sarah Whitton, Kimberley Sperber, Karen Ludwig, Aaron Vissman & Harold Howard, Fatherhood Research & Practice Network

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Fri, 16 Nov 2018 08:00:00 -0500
Michelle Obama’s Advice for a Lasting Marriage: Get Help When You Need It https://ifstudies.org/blog/michelle-obamas-advice-for-a-lasting-marriage-get-help-when-you-need-it https://ifstudies.org/blog/michelle-obamas-advice-for-a-lasting-marriage-get-help-when-you-need-it by Ashley McGuire

Many admire the marriage of former first couple Barack and Michelle Obama, and with good reason. The couple was and is an openly affectionate and happy couple, routinely seen around town on romantic dates, despite the strains of political life. But recently, Michelle has opened up about the marital struggles they’ve endured in their 26-year marriage, and in doing so, offers an important reminder that even the best of marriages require continual work.

In what has been called a “marriage bombshell” on tour for her just-released memoir, Becoming, Michelle Obama revealed multiple strains on their early years of marriage, starting with their fertility struggles. In an interview with “Good Morning America,” she revealed that she had a miscarriage, something that made her feel “lost and alone.” She added, “I felt like I failed because I didn’t know how common miscarriages were because we don’t talk about them.”

Indeed, it is estimated that 10% to 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, and in most cases, the reasons are often unclear, leaving women to blame themselves. And yet one study found that more of half respondents believe miscarriages are rare. “I would say that after a miscarriage, the vast majority of women look back at the week leading up to the miscarriage and think about what they might have done to cause [it],” noted the study’s author. “The truth is that in the vast majority of cases, there is nothing that the woman did that caused the miscarriage.”

Still, there is no doubt pregnancy loss brings blame and resentment that can strain a marriage. One study found that couples that experienced a miscarriage were 22% more likely to separate; that number jumps to 40% for couples that experience a stillbirth. The Obamas didn’t separate, but they did eventually turn to artificial means to conceive.

And, for their marriage, they turned to marital counseling. 

When Michelle revealed that she and the former president underwent couples therapy, the news shattered perceptions of their “perfect” marriage. But it also bolstered perceptions that their marriage is real. Michelle describes an experience that is no doubt familiar to countless spouses across the country—namely, struggling through daily life with a spouse with a demanding job, especially one that requires a lot of travel.

In her book, she writes: “When it came down to it, I felt vulnerable when he was away.” In an interview with Oprah, she elaborated that through therapy, she learned to communicate this isolation with Barack, and to understand that given his own broken home growing up, her husband “didn’t understand distance the same way.” Barack was more accustomed to distance in relationships, but to Michelle, “Love is the dinner table, love is consistency, it is presence.”

While marriage is fundamentally about permanent unity, it is important to remember that it brings together two fundamentally different people. Sorting through those differences takes a lifetime, and outside help is often needed. Michelle Obama does all married couples a great service in helping to lift the stigma that surrounds seeking counseling. So often it is viewed as a last-ditch effort to save a failing marriage. But Michelle paints it as something ordinary to help marriage partners sort through the normal struggles of married life like travel, loneliness, and even loss.

“I know too many young couples who struggle and think that somehow there's something wrong with them,” she told ABC News. “And I want them to know that Michelle and Barack Obama, who have a phenomenal marriage and who love each other, we work on our marriage. And we get help with our marriage when we need it.”

Here’s hoping her witness helps more couples who need it to do the same, and with no shame.

Ashley E. McGuire is a Contributing Editor at the Institute for Family Studies. Her new book is Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female (Regnery, 2017).

*Photo credit: Pete Souza

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Thu, 15 Nov 2018 07:30:00 -0500
New Census Report Provides a Snapshot of Child Well-Being https://ifstudies.org/blog/new-census-report-provides-a-snapshot-of-child-well-being https://ifstudies.org/blog/new-census-report-provides-a-snapshot-of-child-well-being by Alysse ElHage (@AlysseElHage)

The U.S. Census Bureau has released a new report highlighting several key indicators of child well-being. The report is based on data from Wave 1 of the 2014 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). Although the main focus of the SIPP is to collect information on labor force participation, household income, and participation in federal assistance programs, it also collects information from parents on family structure, parent-child interaction, children's school engagement and achievement, and children's involvement in extra-curricular activities, including religious activities. 

The report starts with basic information about the characteristics of children's families, which is one of the best indicators of child well-being. The majority of children lived in two-parent families in 2014—most in married-parent families (61%), while 5% lived with two unmarried parents. Overall, 25% of children lived in mother-only families, while 5% lived in father-only families, and 3% lived in families where neither parent is present, such as with grandparents. 

Most children (nearly 60%) also lived with one or more biological/adopted siblings but no half/step siblings; about 11% with only half/step siblings; 8% with siblings who are adopted/biological and half/step; and 22% without any siblings. Moreover, 23% of children lived in families with incomes below the poverty threshold. 

Here are five additional findings from the report that are noteworthy.

1. Most parents are highly engaged with their children. The report measures "parental interaction" by looking at three questions from the SIPP: how often parents and children eat dinner together, how often parents take their children on outings, and how often parents read to their children. A majority of parents of all races say they go on outings with their kids at least twice a week (about 80%) and eat dinner together as a family most evenings. When it comes to reading, there is a wider gap by race: with 54.5% of Black parents reading to their children at least 5 days a week versus 75.6 % of White non-Hispanic parents. At least 85% of children of every race and Hispanic origin eat dinner with their families at least five days a week, which is great news since frequent family dining is linked to a wide range of protective factors for children and adolescents.

2. Children are as involved in extracurricular activities as they were 15 years ago. With all the concern over children spending too much time with screens, it is encouraging to learn that (as of 2014, at least) kids are more involved in sports than they were in the previous decade. For example, the percentage of school-aged children who participated in sports increased from 36% to 42% between 1998 and 2014. While the percentage of children involved in school clubs has declined, student involvement in extracurricular lessons has fluctuated over the years to be about the same in 2014. At the same time, children in lower-income families are less likely to be involved in all three extracurricular activities: for example, 24% of children in poverty participated in sports, compared to 57% of children in higher-income families.

3. Unfortunately, children’s monthly participation in religious activities has declined, dropping from 65% in 2006 to 54% in 2014. The report points out the decline is “consistent with research showing that children today participate less frequently in religious activities than previous cohorts.” That’s bad news for children in light of research linking religious involvement in childhood to better mental, emotional, and physical health for adolescents and young adults.

4. Children's school performance is closely related to their parents' education level. The SIPP asks parents if their child has ever been expelled, repeated a grade, or participated in a gifted program. As the figure below indicates, children of higher-educated parents perform better on all three questions than students with less-educated parents. 

Although this report does not compare students by their parents' marital status for school achievement, a large body of research shows that students in married-parent families generally perform better in school than those who are raised in other family forms. 

5. Children’s engagement in school is associated with parents' education and marital status, as well as with being more involved in extracurricular activities. The SIPP also asks parents “the extent to which the child did schoolwork only when forced to, did just enough schoolwork to get by, always did homework, and cared about doing well in school.” Of the 49 million children enrolled in school, 35% are highly engaged, with girls (42%) being more so than boys (29%). Black students (36%) and White students (35%) were about the same, and Asian children were the most likely of all racial groups to be highly engaged in their studies (49%). 

Characteristics related to family structure, parental education, and student involvement in extracurricular activities were all linked to better school engagement. For example, 37% of children with married parents were highly engaged, versus 30% of children with never-married parents. Similar to school achievement, children of higher-educated parents were also more engaged in school: 40% of children with a college-educated parent were highly engaged, compared to 33% of children with lesser-educated parents.

Finally, students were more likely to be engaged in school when they also played a sport, joined a club, or had educational lessons outside the classroom. School engagement was also positively associated with being involved in more than one extracurricular activity.

Alysse ElHage is Editor of the Institute for Family Studies blog. 

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Wed, 14 Nov 2018 07:30:00 -0500
Your Family, Your Choice https://ifstudies.org/blog/your-family-your-choice https://ifstudies.org/blog/your-family-your-choice by Oren Cass (@oren_cass)

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Mr. Cass’s new book, The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America, released today by Encounter Books. 

America’s obsession with consumption, and with consumer welfare as the ultimate measuring stick for individual and family well-being, has eroded our commitment to pluralism—to a society in which people can build lives that align with their values and priorities. Measures like “Gross Domestic Product” create the convenient illusion of a homogenous population benefiting (or suffering) in lockstep. The most efficient economic arrangements, which produce the greatest output for consumption, are the presumptively superior ones. 

Real life is not so simple. Having two parents work while the children attend daycare may be more efficient, understood in a narrowly economic sense, but a community consisting entirely of such households is one that many families would rather not live in. Growth may be fastest if we channel everyone to wherever his economic output is greatest, but pluralism will improve real prosperity if the options it leaves available more closely match people’s abilities and the range of life choices they wish to make. If two-parent families could support themselves with only one parent working outside the home in the past, then something is wrong with “growth” that imposes a de facto need for two incomes. 

Unfortunately, policy programs marketed under the auspices of expanding choice often have designs that do just the opposite—channeling families toward the policymaker’s preferred outcome. Take the “childcare calculator” created by the progressive Center for American Progress (CAP) to show the purported opportunity cost of staying home to raise children.CAP pretends that its goal is merely to place “financial tradeoffs in the economic framework of opportunity costs,” helpfully explaining that “Jane,” an elementary school teacher who has her first child at age 26, will lose $707,000 of lifetime income if she leaves the labor force until her child starts kindergarten. But the bias is obvious if the value of staying home is not presented alongside the value of working. Why is there no opportunity-cost calculator for delegating your child’s upbringing? For that matter, why is there no opportunity-cost calculator for choosing to work at CAP instead of becoming a petroleum engineer?

Lest its motive remain unclear, CAP complements its calculator with a “policy solution”: a new government program to pay for childcare, worth up to $14,000 per child. This would be offered in the name of relieving financial “constraints,” but that would not be its effect. Even a minimum-wage job will typically cover the cost of childcare, albeit without leaving much income to take home. If someone prefers working to staying home, finances do not constrain that choice; recall, the point of CAP’s calculator is to show that staying home is expensive.

CAP’s policy proposal merely ensures that anyone who does face financial constraints will pursue its preferred—and now government-subsidized—decision. Going to work would generate both earned income and taxpayer funds to take care of the kids. Staying home would mean neither. This is a twofer for CAP: advancing the progressive goals of getting women out of the home and into the workforce, while also producing more income that can be taxed to fund yet more government programs. The benefit that CAP touts is not satisfied parents, healthier kids, or stronger families and communities; rather, it’s “an additional 5 million women in the labor force and $500 billion in increased GDP.”

A policymaker committed to pluralism, by contrast, would ask how to expand Jane’s options so that she can strike the balance between earned income and other productive pursuits that she finds fulfilling. One option might be to encourage sufficient new construction to make housing affordable for one-income families. Another could be allowing Jane to borrow against future earnings during the years that she stays home or works part time, smoothing her consumption despite family-induced income volatility. Yet another might be framing labor regulation in a way that gives employers an incentive to offer a range of different relationships to employees with different priorities—the opposite, it’s worth noting, of the current approach, which aims to bar via discrimination law any sign of differential treatment.

A view that always celebrates the triumph of new and more efficient economic configurations over the traditional or obsolete naturally chafes at the idea that preserving or creating choices should be an object of public policy. The answer to this must be “yes, but.” Yes, those efficient economic dynamics drive GDP higher, reward innovators, and improve material living standards broadly over time; but we must acknowledge the costs to genuine long-term prosperity as well, and we should not expect the benefits always to be larger.

In other contexts, we have no trouble acknowledging such realities. The premise of environmental regulation, for instance, is that pollution’s intangible costs to public health sometimes exceed the value of economic activity. Zoning offers a more direct analogy: even the most valid and widely supported zoning provisions are efforts to preempt forms of economic development that would interfere with people’s enjoyment of their communities. If market interventions to preserve those values at the expense of GDP can be prosperity enhancing, why not ones that keep families strong or career paths open? Such questions may stump our economic models, but to human beings, they make perfect sense.

Oren Cass is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. 

 

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Tue, 13 Nov 2018 07:30:00 -0500
New Findings Add Twist to Screen Time Limit Debate https://ifstudies.org/blog/new-findings-add-twist-to-screen-time-limit-debate https://ifstudies.org/blog/new-findings-add-twist-to-screen-time-limit-debate by Jean Twenge (@jean_twenge)

Editor's Note: This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

If screens are kept at an arm’s length, measures of well-being tend to improve. 

Many parents want to know how much time their kids should be spending in front of screens, whether it’s their smartphones, tablets or TV.

For years, the American Academy of Pediatrics had suggested a limit of two hours a day of TV for children and teens.

But after screen time started to include phones and tablets, these guidelines needed an update. So last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its recommendations: No more than one hour of screen time for children ages 2 to 5; for older children and teens, they caution against too much screen time, but there’s no specific time limit.

This may give the impression that preschoolers are the only ones who need specific limits on screen time, with monitoring less important for older children and teens. Then a study came out last year suggesting that the imperative to monitor screen time for preschoolers may be overblown.

However new research conducted by me and my co-author Keith Campbell challenges the idea that vague directives and loose guidelines are the best approach.

Not only does this study suggest that specific time limits on screen time are justified for preschoolers, it also makes the case for screen time limits for school-age children and teens.

In fact, these older kids and teens may be even more vulnerable to excessive screen time.

A Study Muddies the Waters

Several studies have found that children and teens who spend more time with screens are less happy, more depressed, and more likely to be overweight.

But a study released last year muddied the waters. Using a a large national survey conducted from 2011 to 2012, it found little association between screen time and well-being among preschoolers.

This led some to conclude that screen time limits weren’t important.

“Maybe you’re being too strict with your kid’s screen time,” suggested one headline.

However, this analysis examined just four items measuring well-being: how often the child was affectionate, smiled or laughed, showed curiosity and showed resilience – characteristics that might describe the vast majority of preschool children. This study also didn’t include school-age children or teens.

Diving Into a More Detailed Date Set

Fortunately, a version of that large survey conducted in 2016 by the U.S. Census Bureau included 19 different measures of well-being for children up to age 17, giving researchers a more comprehensive view of well-being across a range of age groups.

In our newly released paper using this expanded survey, we found that children and teens who spent more time on screens scored lower in well-being across 18 of these 19 indicators.

After one hour a day of use, children and teens who spent more time on screens were lower in psychological well-being: They were less curious and more easily distracted, and had a more difficult time making friends, managing their anger and finishing tasks.

Teens who spent an excessive amount of time on screens were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression.

That’s a problem, because this generation of teens, whom I call “iGen,” spends an extraordinary amount of time on screens – up to nine hours a day on average – and are also more likely to suffer from depression.

In fact, we found that excessive screen time had stronger links to lower well-being for teens than it did for younger kids.

That might be because children spend more of their screen time watching TV shows and videos. This kind of screen use is not as strongly linked to low well-being as the social media, electronic games and smartphones used more often by teens.

These results suggest that it is teens – not young children – who may be most in need of screen time limits.

The Case for Clear Guidelines

This research is correlational. In other words, it isn’t clear whether more screen time leads to depression and anxiety, or that someone who’s depressed or anxious is more likely to spend more time in front of screens.

Either way, excessive screen time is a potential red flag for anxiety, depression and attention issues among children and teens.

If we even suspect that more screen time is linked to depression and lower well-being – as several longitudinal studies find – it makes sense to talk about limits.

Right now, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that the screen time of older kids and teens shouldn’t come at the expense of sleep, extracurricular activities and schoolwork. Parents should add up the amount of time teens spend on these other activities, they say, and whatever’s left could be spent in front of screens.

This suggestion is problematic for several reasons.

First, how can a parent be expected, each day, to calculate how many hours their kid spends on these activities? What about shifting schedules and weekends?

Second, it places few limits on teens who don’t spend much time on homework or activities, and could even motivate kids to drop activities if they figure it could mean more allotted time for, say, playing video games.

Even if sleep isn’t affected and homework is done, it’s probably safe to say that playing Fortnite for eight hours a day or scrolling through social media feeds during every free moment probably isn’t healthy.

Parents need clear advice, and specific screen time limits are the most straightforward way to provide it.

The research on well-being, including this new study, points to a limit of about two hours a day of leisure screen time, not counting time spent on schoolwork.

In my view, The American Academy of Pediatrics should expand its recommendation of screen time limits to school-age children and teens, making it clear that two hours a day is a guideline with flexibility for special circumstances. Some parents may want to set a limit of one hour, but two hours seems more realistic as an overall guideline given teens’ current use.

Two hours a day also allows for many of the benefits of screen time for kids and teens – making plans with friends, watching educational videos and keeping in touch with family – without displacing time for other activities that provide a boost to well-being, like sleep, face-to-face social interaction and exercise.

Technology is here to stay. But parents don’t have to let it dominate their kids’ lives.The Conversation

Jean Twenge is a Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University.

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Mon, 12 Nov 2018 07:30:00 -0500
Friday Five 252 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-252 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-252 by Bill Coffin (@billcoffin)

Saving International Adoption
Friday, November 16, 2018 | 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm
American Enterprise Institute

For Families: Five Tips for Cultivating Empathy
Making Caring Common, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Keys to Integrating Relationship Education Into Safety-Net Delivery Systems
Amy Laura Arnold, Kristin Abner, and Robyn Cenizal, NCFR

When the Military Takes a Toll on Your Marriage: Reflections on 'Indivisible'
Gary Chapman, Military.com

Five Tips for Teaching Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education in Schools
Brian Goesling & Julia Alamillo, OPRE

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Fri, 09 Nov 2018 08:00:00 -0500
The Wealth of Nations Begins at Home https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-wealth-of-nations-begins-at-home https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-wealth-of-nations-begins-at-home by W. Bradford Wilcox (@WilcoxNMP) and Alysse ElHage (@AlysseElHage)

Economics has its roots in the Greek word “oikonomia,” which means the “management of the household.” Yet economists across the ideological spectrum have largely neglected the links between household family structure and the macroeconomic welfare of nations. With economics professor Joseph Price, IFS senior fellow W. Bradford Wilcox sought to remedy this oversight by examining the association between family structure and global economic growth in a chapter in the new book, Unequal Family Lives

According to Wilcox and Price:

A stable marriage matters in part because it allows couples to make decisions over time that maximize the economic prosperity of their family unit. Stably married persons have incentives to invest in their marriage and benefit from specialization and economies of scale; their households also tend to earn and save more than their peers who are unmarried or divorced. 

They argue that because of the economic benefits of marriage, “the more children are born and raised in stable, two-parent families, the more a society should experience economic growth.” To test their theory, they utilized marriage statistics, historical data on children, and gross domestic product (GDP) data from over 90 countries between 1968 and 2014. In a fixed-effects regression analysis, they found a positive relationship between marriage and economic growth around the world. Specifically: 

for every 13-percentage-point increase in the proportion of adults who are married, there was an 8 percent increase in per capita GDP, net of controls for a range of sociodemographic factors. Likewise, every 13 percentage point increase in the proportion of children living in two-parent families is associated with a 16 percent increase in per capita GDP, after controlling for education, urbanization, age, population size, and other factors.

They conclude, "There is clearly a link between family structure and economic growth.”

But why would married, two-parent families help to boost the wealth of nations? Wilcox and Price pinpoint three specific mechanisms that may explain the family-wealth connection, showing that more two-parent families 1) foster more household savings, 2) decrease crime, and, 3) improve children’s academic success across the globe.

Household Savings

Consider savings. Using data from the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) to examine the household savings rate in 90 countries, Wilcox and Price find that the proportion of children living in two-parent families is associated with higher savings rates in the countries examined. In fact, the savings rate is nearly double in countries with the most two-parent families, compared to the countries with the fewest two-parent families.

Public Safety

Because safer communities are more prosperous, Wilcox and Price also explored the connection between two-parent families and violent crime in countries around the globe. We know that marriage and stable families help to reduce crime in two primary ways: 1) by discouraging men’s involvement in criminal activities and 2) by reducing children’s risk of involvement in delinquency and crime as adolescents and young adults. They point to neighborhood-level data from the U.S. and Canada, which indicates an association between more married families in a community and less crime. But what about violent crime at the country level? Using data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), they found a strong negative association between the proportion of children raised in two-parent families and homicide rates in 83 countries, including countries in Africa, North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Oceania. 

As the figure above illustrates, the average homicide rate is more than four times larger in countries in the bottom third in terms of children living with two parents compared to countries in the top third. 

Educational Achievement

Another way more marriage and two-parent families may lead to higher economic growth is by boosting human capital for children. As Wilcox and Price explain, “children may benefit from the higher levels of time, money, and stability found in two-parent families, compared to single-parent families,” resulting in better educational outcomes that improve their future career success. In the U.S., there is ample research linking children’s academic success to married families. For example, children in married-parent families are more likely to graduate from high school, earn a college degree, and get a good job as adults than children from single-parent families.

Similarly, in other developed nations, children raised in two-parent families are less likely to repeat a grade and more likely to perform well on standardized testing. Wilcox and Price point to Sweden, Singapore, and Indonesia, where children in single-parent homes are “at least 70 percent more likely to be held back in school compared to their peers from two-parent families.” Moreover, in Europe, children from single-parent families are more likely than those from two-parent families to skip school. 

Overall, Wilcox and Price show that marriage and two-parent families may help to foster global economic growth by increasing household savings rates, decreasing crime, and boosting children’s educational attainment in developed nations. While they acknowledge that their “results cannot definitively prove that family structure has a causal impact on economic growth,” they note, "if nothing else, the patterns documented in this paper suggest that stronger families, higher household savings rates, less crime, and higher economic growth may cluster together in mutually reinforcing ways." 

These findings demonstrate that we cannot fully understand the forces fueling the wealth of nations without also paying attention to the health of the families that call those nations home.

W. Bradford Wilcox is Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Family Studies, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Alysse ElHage is editor of the Institute for Family Studies blog. 

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Thu, 08 Nov 2018 07:30:00 -0500
The Blessing and the Curse of Privilege: An Interview With Amy Julia Becker https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-blessing-and-the-curse-of-privilege-an-interview-with-amy-julia-becker https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-blessing-and-the-curse-of-privilege-an-interview-with-amy-julia-becker by Alysse ElHage (@AlysseElHage)

A few weeks ago, I sat next to my 13-year-old daughter on the wooden pew of a dimly lit, historic Presbyterian church in downtown Durham, where we marveled at the stained-glass windows surrounding us. We were there to hear author Amy Julia Becker discuss her new book, White Picket Fences: Turning Toward Love in a World Divided by Privilege. My daughter was the only child in the audience, which mostly consisted of older, upper-class white men and women and a few young couples. With a paper and pen in her hands (since I insisted she take a few notes), she attracted the approving smiles of some of the women. My reason for bringing her was simple: we have not talked enough about privilege in our family, and I wanted her to begin to think about why some of us have it better than others—whether due to race or economic status or education or family life—and what responsibility that gives us. Although she does not fully appreciate it now, my daughter is living the life of “privilege” I dreamed about as the child of a working-class, single mother: she lives in a stable home with a married mom and dad in a safe neighborhood and attends a private school. These are all good things, but they also mean that she is somewhat insulated from people outside that world—not just people of different races or social classes but also from those whose families are less stable than ours. In White Picket Fences, Amy Julia argues that "privilege harms everyone, those who are excluded and those who benefit from it." She challenged me to consider whether I might be unintentionally harming myself, my children, and others by failing to acknowledge the privilege we enjoy and how that can divide us. We spoke about these issues and more in the following interview, which has been edited for clarity.

Alysse ElHage: Tell me about the title of your book, White Picket Fences, and what you hoped to convey with it. 

Amy Julia Becker: The white picket fence is supposed to convey a happy, beautiful image. But as people get into the book, it is also supposed to say, there’s more than just happy and beautiful here. Thinking very literally about a fence, we built a fence in our front yard when our kids were little to protect them. And that was a good thing. It made the yard safer. It gave them the freedom that was appropriate at the time, which is to be in the yard but not in the street. But over time, a fence can also become constricting. I grew up in a safe and stable home environment, in a school and in a church that I loved, and I’m so grateful for that. And when I look back and think about the fact that there were no people with disabilities and effectively very few people of color in those spaces, wow, it was also limiting and constraining, and it excluded people, and it also hurt me in my experience and understanding of who I was and who other people were. So that image is meant to be both. And maybe this is kind of pushing the metaphor a little bit too far, but I think the message of the image is to keep the gate open. Have your white picket fence, but keep the gate open, walk through, and invite people in. 

Alysse ElHage: I had the pleasure of reading A Good and Perfect Gift, which is about your daughter Penny, who has Down syndrome. How has Penny expanded your understanding of privilege? 

Amy Julia Becker: Having Penny in my life certainly changed things in many ways. But when it comes to privilege, I don’t know if I would have used that word when Penny was born almost 13 years ago. I certainly had been aware that I had social advantages in terms of the education I had received, the family I had, and the fact that I was white. But I had not thought through what that meant for me or for other people. 

When I had a child with a disability, I started to be very aware. I wasn’t just thinking about people who don’t have what I have, but I was experiencing it. Penny is connected to a community of people who historically have been discriminated against and have been excluded. Fifty years ago, they did not have a right to a public education and often were put in institutions, and they still face discrimination today in terms of workplace and in terms of social and medical attitudes. It’s upsetting to think about people who are excluded from opportunities and advantages and who are just put, by no fault of their own, into essentially a different category. In White Picket Fences, I write about a time when I was looking for a preschool for Penny. And I called a preschool that had been recommended. She was two years old, and the preschool director found out she had Down syndrome and said, “We will not be able to accommodate your child.” She had never met her, had never evaluated her. There was no reason, other than Penny’s diagnosis, to make that claim. And I had never experienced an automatic rejection like that before. 

At the same time, Penny was opening me up to people who were really different or felt really different from me—people with intellectual disabilities. I started to think not only about the injustices and really caring personally about people being excluded, but also about the harm to people who were living in an insular world of privilege, like myself. So again, I might not have used the language of privilege to describe all of that, but that was all going on in my head a little bit. And when Penny came, my heart changed, and it became more real and seemed more urgent to me to try to figure out how things might be able to change and how maybe I could participate in that. 

It’s amazing to me that human beings are so frail and so easily anxious and territorial and tribal. But we are also so generous and easily loving and compassionate.

Alysse ElHage: As I was reading your book, I immediately thought about Richard Reeves,’ Dream Hoarders, where he argues that upper-middle-class families are becoming, “greenhouses for the cultivation of human capital.” In it, he talks about the “family stability advantage”—that upper middle class, college-educated Americans are more likely to get married, have kids in marriage, and stay married, which, of course, is linked to a host of positive outcomes for their kids. You did not talk about the family stability advantage you enjoyed growing up, although you were raised by happily married parents. Do you connect your parents’ stable marriage to the privilege you've enjoyed? 

Amy Julia Becker: I absolutely agree that there’s a connection between family stability and privilege. In my case, that stability came through my married parents. But I think stable homes can exist without married parents, it’s just harder. Either way, a stable home provides a tremendous foundation for people who have come from positions of poverty or even just lower-class backgrounds where those kids become the first generation to go to college. So, I think family stability is a huge factor for me and for my kids. 

It’s a good thing that I had married parents, but what I think can easily happen for someone who has been raised by married parents and who is married is that we judge people who aren’t married, and I want to guard against that. I think people with that stability can wonder about people who are not married or who are divorced, "What’s wrong with you as individuals?" when there are collective forces at work—whether it’s financial and tax policies or whether it’s just employment and all sorts of generational systems at play—that affect relationships. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are some aspects of privilege that I think are really good—like marriage—and we want to figure out how to expand those. There are other aspects of privilege that I think are bad. And we want to figure out how to shrink those. But with marriage, it has not always been the case that being in the working class or being poor or not having the same amount of college education meant that you didn’t get and stay married. Right? So, what happened? And is there any way to go back to that? And what policies could we be implementing that might help that? And we also need to be thinking about what creates a stable home environment if you do have a situation with divorce or with a single parent, or with a death in the family—are there ways to encourage stable home environments?

Alysse ElHageYou talk in the book how you came to view some things you had previously seen as blessings as really more about privilege. Give us an example of that tension, and can some things be both?

Amy Julia Becker: Yes. The example I give in the book that’s probably the most prominent is that my husband decided he wanted to be a teacher, even though he did not have any teaching experience, and he did not have a masters in any subject matter and had been a religious studies major in college. So, he went for an interview at a private school. He did not talk about teaching at all in the interview. The dean of faculty called him a couple of weeks later and said, “We’d like you to come back for a full day of campus interviews.” Before he even went through any of his interviews, the dean of faculty said, “I want to let you know that you’ve got the job, and we’re just going to go through these interviews, so you can decide if you want to come here.” I’ve always seen that as answered prayer. So, it was really a wonderful gift to us, and we did see it as God’s provision in our lives. And I still do in many ways. 

A couple of years later, I was telling that story to a colleague of my husband’s. And she said, “Ugh, I hate it when the good ole boy network lets people skip the line.” And all of a sudden, I started thinking, wait, is that what happened? The dean of faculty knew the guy who had known Peter from high school, and he recommended him, and they had family friends in common, and they had gone to the same place in Europe, etc.? I do believe that God orchestrates events and was at work here, but it felt really important for me to acknowledge that if that was providence, it was because God had decided to use the privilege that we have in a providential way, not simply as an answer to prayer. Because if an equally qualified person who had not looked the part had been in that position, I think it’s quite unlikely that they would have had the same treatment. Not to say there is no such thing as Providence or there were no blessings in our life, but I am trying to say this is complicated, and seeing things like this as “blessings from God” can oversimplify the world and fail to acknowledge that privilege is real and that we were benefiting from it. 

Alysse ElHageOne of my favorite passages is where you discuss the different ways you view your family and the Southern town in North Carolina where you spent the early years of your life. You write that you’ve learned, “I can hate the injustice and name the goodness of my life, that I can recognize my parents’ flaws and thank them for their gifts to me, that I can stand in the discomfort of the grief and gratitude of who I am as a child of privilege.” I think we sometimes fear that by naming the evil we have seen or experienced in our families or in our communities, this means we can’t also acknowledge the good and the beautiful things that were there, too. Your point is we can do both. 

Amy Julia Becker: If we think of a Judeo-Christian understanding of humanity here, it’s that we are sinful and beloved. Today, it feels like we want to see people as either, or—like you are either good or bad, instead of believing we are all good and bad. And it’s amazing to me that human beings are so frail and so easily anxious and territorial and tribal. But we are also so generous and easily loving and compassionate. You know, I read stories about people after times of disaster, and we see groups of people doing mob violence, but we can also see groups of people where everyone is helping everyone else. What’s going on here? We are sinful and beloved. We are frail, yet we are incredibly strong and generous. 

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Wed, 07 Nov 2018 07:30:00 -0500
Men and Women: Should We Just Call the Whole Thing Off? https://ifstudies.org/blog/men-and-women-should-we-just-call-the-whole-thing-off https://ifstudies.org/blog/men-and-women-should-we-just-call-the-whole-thing-off by Rachel Lu

Marriage is in decline. This fact is by now so familiar to conservatives that they may be tempted to gloss over an interesting shift in the manner of marriage’s decline. Thirty years ago, Americans were getting married but not staying that way. Today divorce rates are down but wedding bells are also in less demand. Growing numbers of young people are simply staying single. There’s evidence they’re becoming less interested even in casual sex.

Are men and women giving up on each other? It’s starting to feel that way. In the vitriol of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, the #MeToo movement, and our ongoing discussions of “incels,” “NEETs,” and absent fathers, we see rising levels of frustration and rage, often directed indiscriminately from one sex towards the other. Making relationships work has always been a challenge—even casual human interactions can sometimes be a challenge. So what if people decide that it’s just not worth it anymore?

In the vitriol of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, the #MeToo movement, and our ongoing discussions of “incels,” “NEETs,” and absent fathers, we see rising levels of frustration and rage, often directed indiscriminately from one sex towards the other.

A few years back, I became aware of that countercultural strain of identity politics known as the “men’s rights movement.” I first encountered it on social media, of course, and in a quest to grasp its red-pilled logic, I spent some time wandering the fever swamps of male grievance, noting the many interesting parallels between virulent masculinism and the more radical strains of feminism. It added an interesting layer to my perspective on our ongoing war of sexes.

It’s well worth noting that both masculinism and feminism, at least in their more extreme forms, are fundamentally materialist in their logic. Feminism draws regularly on Marxist ideologies, reducing complex social relations to an endless war of classes vying for power. For masculinists, sociobiology is the more defining influence, as huge swaths of culture and custom are reduced to mere expressions of the Darwinian imperative to procreate. It all makes sense, on reflection. Aggrieved women, resenting the natural vulnerability of their bodies, are attracted to political theories that call for the leveling of power disparities. Aggrieved men, by contrast, hope to find in the male body a kind of warrant for dominance, which is bestowed by biology and ostensibly crucial to the survival of the species. Peeling back the layers, it seems that gender crusaders of both types are intensely fixated on brute corporeal realities: the strength of man and the comparative neediness of woman.

Continue reading this essay at The American Conservative . . . .

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Tue, 06 Nov 2018 07:30:00 -0500
Honoring the ‘Invisible Work Force’ of Family Caregivers https://ifstudies.org/blog/honoring-the-invisible-work-force-of-family-caregivers https://ifstudies.org/blog/honoring-the-invisible-work-force-of-family-caregivers by Amy Ziettlow (@RevAmyZ) and Rachel Anderson (@RachelHopeAnd)

National Family Caregivers Month provides an opportunity to learn more about the 32 million Americans caring for an adult loved one. Family caregivers serve as chauffeur, chef, nurse, coach, personal assistant, and advocate. They form an “invisible work force,” with many balancing a full-time job work with private care responsibilities. They spend, on average, 30 hours a week completing care tasks, yet 80% of family caregivers receive no compensation for care, even though they spend nearly $7,000 per year on out-of-pocket expenses related to caregiving.

The costs of care are important to keep in mind as debate continues over adopting a federal paid Family and Medical Leave benefit (FMLA). In July, Massachusetts became the 6th state to adopt laws for paid family leave. Under the new state law, an individual can take up to 12 weeks of time off work to care for a newborn or newly adopted child or for the care needs of a spouse or domestic partner, parent or in-law, or grandparent.

Nationally, though, there is little consensus about what a federal paid leave benefit should cover. Some suggest that paid leave benefits (funded either by employers or public programs) should cover what unpaid FMLA currently does: parental leave, personal medical leave, and care for a family member with a major medical issue. Others support a much narrower purpose: parental leave to care for a new child. Limiting the benefit to parental-leave is attractive to lawmakers because of its clear beginning and end. Other forms of leave, such as caregiver leave, are unpredictable and variable.

Although family caregiving can take many paths and forms, we do know about several common patterns. Reflecting on these may help us think with more specificity about the kinds and lengths of caregiving leave families often need:

1. Acute, Short-Term Periods of Care with Full-Time Paid Support

Michael* was diagnosed with lung cancer two years ago. After the initial diagnosis, he underwent surgery followed by chemotherapy and radiation. His spouse served as his primary caregiver during this intense care window that lasted several months. He entered remission, and life went back to normal levels of activity and independence.

A year later, the cancer returned, and he enrolled in hospice home care.

His spouse suspended her freelance work as a horse-riding instructor in order to care for him. This choice stopped her income stream for the final five weeks of his life. She administered medications, assisted with bathing and meal preparation, coordinated his visit schedule, and simply relished spending precious time with him.

Cancer, knee or hip replacement, and stroke are all health crises that require a short-term, acute period of full-time care until recovery or death. Amy has written here about one recommendation to use hospice enrollment as a trigger for paid family leave; however medical leave can also lead to recovery. Up to 12 weeks of full-time paid leave would have helped Michael’s spouse during both care windows.

2. Long-term Care with Partial Paid Support

Jenny is in her early 90’s, unable to walk without assistance and becomes confused easily. Daily visits by her three children make living at home possible for her. One daughter comes by in the early morning before work to get her up, showered, and in her recliner for the day. Her son stops by over his lunch hour to take her to the bathroom, make a snack, and check in. In the evening, her other daughter readies her for bed.

All three children work full-time. They balance this schedule without needing time off, although they are often exhausted and in need of respite, especially when there are needs that arise in the middle of the night. And, one child could not handle all three visits without employing paid help, taking time off, or requesting flex-time at work.

Dementia, debility, frailty, and Alzheimer’s disease are all medical conditions marked by continual, slowly progressing cognitive or physical decline. This care journey can last for years, even a decade. A paid leave benefit that provides a percentage of salary-replacement could work well for one or all three grown children. Working fewer hours each day, they could spend more time with their mother without the added stress of full-time work demands or loss of wages.

3. Long-Term Care with Intermittent Paid Leave

Arnold lives in an assisted living facility. Due to neuropathy in his legs, he falls about once a year, which leads to a cycle of rehabilitation and recovery that often includes hospitalization and skilled nursing care that leaves him weaker than before the fall. Arnold’s two children work full-time and live several hours away. When a crisis happens, they take off a week of work to come to town, assess the situation, and advocate for their dad with the many health care professionals in his life.

A stroke, a fall, an infection, pneumonia, and congestive heart failure are all medical conditions marked by a slow decline punctuated by crisis events. A paid leave program that provides 5-7 days of paid leave that could be repeated several times a year could provide financial support for these periods away from work. Each caregiver could be eligible for short-term leave and thus enable multiple caregivers, say the two siblings of an ailing parent, to be together when a crisis happens.

Former first lady and family caregiver advocate, Rosalyn Carter said, “There are four kinds of people in this world: those who have been caregivers, those who currently are caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.”

We may not all need paid parental leave but family leave is almost inevitable. The common patterns of caregiving we note in this piece should inform our policy-making, helping us pinpoint distinct purposes and triggers for paid caregiving rather than excluding it from our policy design.

Rev. Amy Ziettlow is pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church and author (with Naomi Cahn) of Homeward Bound: Modern Families, Elder Care, & Loss and Rachel Anderson is the Director of Families Valued at the Center for Public Justice and author (with Katelyn Beaty) of A Time to Flourish: Protecting Families’ Time for Work and Caregiving.

*All names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals. The examples are drawn from families that Amy has served as a parish pastor and chaplain in hospice care.

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Mon, 05 Nov 2018 07:30:00 -0500
Friday Five 251 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-251 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-251 by Bill Coffin (@billcoffin)

How Healthy Start Prevents Child Maltreatment
Child Trends

2018 NCFR Annual Conference Schedule: Nov. 7-10
National Council on Family Relations

How Expectations Affect One's Happiness in Marriage
Dianne Grande, Psychology Today

U of M Program Tracks Conversations Between Parents and Children
WMCAction News

Participation in Responsible Fatherhood Programs in the PACT Evaluation: Associations with Father and Program Characteristics
Julia Alamillo and Heather Zaveri , Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. DHHS

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Fri, 02 Nov 2018 07:30:00 -0400
Seeking Dignity-Based Justice: An Interview With Bruce Western https://ifstudies.org/blog/seeking-dignity-based-justice-an-interview-with-bruce-western https://ifstudies.org/blog/seeking-dignity-based-justice-an-interview-with-bruce-western by Alysse ElHage (@AlysseElHage)

“If we take victimization seriously, what’s the significance of histories of victimization and exposure to trauma for people who have harmed others?” asks sociologist Bruce Western. It is a thought-provoking question that is impossible to ignore if you read his latest book, Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison, which details findings from the Boston Reentry Study (BRS), which followed 122 formerly incarcerated men and women for one year following their release from the Massachusetts prison system. 

In Homeward, Dr. Western, who co-directs the Columbia University Justice Lab, goes beyond statistics to paint a portrait of formerly incarcerated men and women’s complicated personal lives, including the traumatic childhoods many endured. Reading their stories, it is difficult to deny the powerful influence of childhood family life on the criminal justice trajectories of the men and women in the BRS, as well as on their ability to reintegrate upon release. It also becomes painfully clear that something is wrong with the "justice" in our current system, particularly for those who commit crime following early years of father-deprivation, family chaos and violence, poverty, and addiction. 

I spoke with Dr. Western about the complex family lives of the men and women in his study, the vital role of older women in these communities, and how to reform our criminal justice system so that it becomes more focused on the restoration of dignity for both victims and perpetrators. 

Alysse ElHageTell us about the family structure makeup of your study sample in terms of the prisoner’s family of origin. Specifically, how many came from father-absent homes? Did this differ much by race or gender?

Bruce Western: In the study, the father was absent for at least part of their childhood for about 70% of the sample. So, in some cases, their fathers were present at least for a while. But as they got older, they left the home, and in many cases dropped out of their lives altogether. Did it vary by gender? I tend to think not. There was a race difference, and so African American respondents tended to have higher rates of father absence than white and Latino respondents. 

Alysse ElHageRelated to that, the complexity of family life for the formerly incarcerated men and women in your study was really striking—and not just in the lives of the prisoners’ children but in their own families of origin. You share a kind of family tree in the book to illustrate the different and often confusing family relationships. What role did this family complexity play both in why they ended up in the criminal justice system and how well they did after release? 

Bruce Western: Family structure was certainly very complex. And if we think about the children of the respondents, we got a very good picture of the full extent of multi-partner fertility. And the respondents who had two or more kids, multi-partner fertility for them was modal. That means for those that had two or more kids, they had two or more partners more often than not. 

We only had a small sample of women. And for the women, things could be extremely complicated because they may have custody of some of their kids, and it was certainly the case for a few of them, at least, that some of their kids wound up in foster care, some were put up for adoption, but others were not. I think this was one of the striking findings of the study. Thinking about family relationships—there’s a lot of heterogeneity, a lot of unevenness. The men and women, the mothers and fathers we were talking to could be very close and supportive with some of their children and be less connected to others. And that depended, in part, on patterns of custody and the kinds of resources they had, particularly their housing. If they were living in private households, they were more likely to be in closer contact with their kids—their kids could stay overnight and things like that. Obviously, in a more institutional setting like a shelter or a housing program, the kids couldn’t spend time with them at home in the same way. So housing wound up being a big factor in shaping the relationships between the parents and the children. 

How was the story of family complexity—the absence of fathers in many cases—related to the criminal justice involvement of the people we were interviewing? You know, it was complicated. I think, in general, there’s a pattern that we saw in the study, which criminologists have documented, that in families without stable male figures, typically biological fathers, there tended to be less structure, less adult guardianship, particularly in the lives of adolescent boys. And that would be a context in which they were spending more time out on the street at greater risk of getting in trouble, greater risk of coming into contact with police, and so on. So that general pattern was definitely there.

In general, there’s a pattern we saw in the study, which criminologists have documented, that in families without stable male figures, typically biological fathers, there tended to be less structure and less adult guardianship, particularly in the lives of adolescent boys.  

I say it’s complicated, though, because there were certainly many cases, I would say, in which biological fathers were absent, but other father figures had come into their lives. And in many cases, those father figures had played a really positive role. Now, that wasn’t always the case. When we think about the exposure of the respondents to violence, particularly in early childhood, we certainly heard lots of reports of exposure to violence, particularly coming from unrelated males in the household. So, in family homes where there wasn’t a biological father present, sometimes there would be other older men in the household who were involved with the respondents’ mothers, and they could be a source of violence and other trouble in the household.

Alysse ElHageI want to talk for a moment about the often traumatic early lives of many of the former prisoners in your book, and how that should impact our response to crime. You write: “Victims and perpetrators are often one in the same. Violence flares in contexts of family chaos, untreated addiction, and poverty. Having grown up in this context, people in prison have histories of trauma and abuse that date from early childhood….” Just to kind of play devil's advocate for a minute, there may be some who read this and worry about excusing bad behavior, and they might argue that no matter what people have experienced, criminal activity, especially violent crime, deserves punishment. What do you see as the best way forward if we are going to approach criminal justice with dignity and mercy as our goal but also with victims in mind?

Bruce Western: I think our system needs to be much more victim-centered. I think it needs to attend to victimization much more readily, more proactively, more resourcefully than it does currently. What we’re doing currently is helping victims in this strange, very indirect way of not providing help directly, but we punish the offender. Layering on top of that is the social reality that the people who have harmed other people often have serious histories of victimization themselves, and they are growing up and living in the contexts of all of the things you just listed. I think we have to re-examine punishment. And if we take victimization seriously, what’s the significance of histories of victimization and exposure to trauma for people who have harmed others? We have to ask that question. I think, at a minimum, it opens the door to mercy and leniency and compassion. And it doesn’t mean that people are not morally accountable for their acts. I think they have to be. But punishment is a very weak tool for moral accountability. People are very passive in incarceration. They don’t have to acknowledge wrongdoing. They don’t have to acknowledge the harms they’ve caused to victims. They don’t have to engage morally with all the different consequences of the things that they’ve done. All they have to do is serve their time. 

I think we should really be re-examining what moral accountability means and where the punishment is really serving that purpose. I’m quite persuaded by a lot of arguments about restorative justice, which are very victim-centered. And victims want a sincere accounting of harm, in many cases, from the people who have hurt them. And I think we could re-imagine what justice looks like in quite a fundamental way—to take on the social reality of violence and how it happens, which would lead us to a very different way of gaining moral accountability from people who have hurt other people, and do it in a way that is consistent with their own human dignity. Because I think ultimately that’s what we want from a system of moral accountability. We want to elevate people’s human dignity because we’re morally debased when we hurt other people. And we need to give people the opportunity to restore their dignity, and incarceration does nothing for that project, frankly. 

I think we could re-imagine what justice looks like in quite a fundamental way—to take on the social reality of violence and how it happens—which would lead us to a very different way of gaining moral accountability from people who have hurt other people, and do it in a way that is consistent with their own human dignity. 

Alysse ElHageOne of my favorite parts of the book were the stories of older women (often mothers, but sometimes older sisters) who provided emotional, physical, and financial support for many of these men and women after release. You call them “the gatekeepers,” and they are really the unsung heroes in these communities. They often served as a bridge between the former prisoner and his or her children, helping them maintain these critical relationships. It seems to me that these women are an untapped resource for reintegration and restoration. 

Bruce Western: Yes, the older women in the lives of the parents in our sample were oftentimes really the glue that held the family together and certainly did a lot of work to maintain bonds between incarcerated mothers and fathers and their children. And this worked in a lot of different ways. In some cases, before one of the respondents was incarcerated, the kids were over at their grandmother’s house (the mother of our respondent) regularly. And then when the respondents were incarcerated, the kids kept coming over to their grandmother’s house, in part, because she wanted to continue a relationship, and because the mothers of those children needed help and support, too. Staying in contact during incarceration wound up being really important because often people…would call over to their mother’s place each week, and if their kids were visiting, they would get on the phone with their kids, too. And sometimes, although it wasn’t common, when the mothers made visits to prison to visit their sons, they would bring their grandchildren along. So during incarceration, the older women in these family networks would do a lot to sustain relationships between fathers and their kids. And then when the fathers got out, it made a big difference. They weren’t so unfamiliar and alien to their kids, though that would happen also. But where the mothers had been working to maintain these relationships, it was easier for the fathers in our sample to become a presence in their kids’ lives, and particularly if the kids were staying over regularly, and the fathers were also living with their mothers. The mothers were also a huge source of housing support. And if the kids were coming over regularly, they would be able to spend some time with their kids in their own household, which wound up being really important for rebuilding those parental relationships. 

I think as a matter of policy, what we need to be thinking about is how we can support these older women who are doing so much caring work oftentimes across two generations: taking care of their sons who have been incarcerated, and their sons’ kids. And often they’re taking care of their sons’ kids while their sons are locked up. One of the proposals in the book is a returning citizens’ tax credit, which would go to the mother if she is housing a son who has been incarcerated. But I think the idea could be generalized beyond that. You could think of service people coming home leaving the military and returning home. So, with this returning citizen tax credit, a mother could claim a credit to help support the costs that she has borne by housing a son or a daughter who has been incarcerated.  

Alysse ElHage: I really like that idea, and this is something I've seen again and again in my own family, where single mothers will really deplete every resource they have to help rescue their son or daughter who has been incarcerated in order to give them a shot at a second chance. And it seems to me that the men and women who were doing well by the end of your study were the ones who had the most family support, just as you've described. In the book, you talk about this support as being a part of a “thick” public safety, which you argue is the best way to reduce and respond to crime. Explain what you mean by thick public safety and what that looks like? 

Bruce Western: Yeah, so when we think about what really safe communities look like, they’re not safe because they’re very heavily policed, and the courts are really throwing the book at people who get into trouble and come into serious conflict with the law and hurt other people. Communities are made safe because of a whole web of social relationships that are in the family, at the workplace, in community organizations, and faith organizations. Community life on the street has, what Jane Jacobs described, as “eyes on the streets.” Community residents know their fellow denizens, and all of this creates webs of mutual obligation and informal social control. It regularizes behavior. It provides guardianship, particularly for adolescent boys and young men who tend to be most involved in crime. So, it’s this thick web of social relationships that are characteristic of healthy and flourishing communities. And this is where we want to get to as a matter of public policy. In our response to violence and other crime, we want to make interventions that foster this kind of healthy family and community life. Incarceration doesn’t do that. It’s very disintegrative of social life. It draws people out of communities, puts them in far-flung facilities, strains family relationships, and creates the entire problem of re-entry, which people have to find work and housing. 

So, what would intervention look like that tries to promote this thick kind of public safety? I think it’s fundamentally about trying to find a place in communities for people who have harmed others, and we try to do that in a way that builds up social bonds within families, to employers, to community organizations, faith organizations, and so on. Rather than separating them, we connect them. That should be both our model of public safety and the way we respond to all the harms of violence and other crime.  

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Thu, 01 Nov 2018 07:30:00 -0400
Getting Your Kids to Really Listen https://ifstudies.org/blog/getting-your-kids-to-really-listen https://ifstudies.org/blog/getting-your-kids-to-really-listen by Justin Coulson (@justincoulson)

As parents, sometimes you feel like you can talk and talk, and your child just doesn’t listen. Sometimes, they may just have a blank look on their face. Or worse, they do the complete opposite of what you’ve asked them to do!

Kids seem to come with an inbuilt instinct to resist direction from their parents, or to do the opposite of what they’re told. In fact, this "counterwill" is innate to all humans; we are hardwired to be oppositional. Counterwill is "the developmental forerunner of a child’s sense of autonomy," and in that sense, a very important stage in our children’s lives. Our challenge, as parents, is to work around that innate instinct.

When your child seems to be ignoring you, it is easy to slip into anger and frustration. We might find we resort to shouting just to get our child’s attention! Most of us don’t like shouting—either as the giver or the receiver. Research shows that yelling can be just as harmful as smacking or hitting. The effects on our children are almost always negative. We ignore the reasons for their lack of attention. We damage our relationship with them. And it’s not like we’re making them feel more motivated to do what’s right by yelling. There are better ways.

So how do we get our kids to really listen?

This is one of the most common questions that I get from parents. So, if you feel you talk until you’re blue in the face, and still your child doesn’t listen, you’re not alone. Here is what you do:

Speak Softly

If someone starts speaking really loud or yelling at you, your immediate response is usually fight or flight. You just want to get away from them. Our children are no different. So, when we get louder, they listen less.

On the other hand, the more softly a person speaks, the more closely everybody else listens to them. We want to hear what we might be missing out on! And unless your child has a genuine physical ailment that affects their ability to hear, they will respond in the same way.

There’s a simple test to prove this theory. Stand in the doorway of the room your child is in and in a nice quiet voice say, “Who wants ice cream?” I guarantee their ears will prick up! They’re not deaf.

Consider Your Timing

Let’s face it: parents can sometimes be pretty rude when it comes to wanting things done straight away. We often tell our kids to do something and expect them to jump to it without considering what they are doing. And while what they are doing might not seem important to us, it is often deeply important to our child–even if it is “just playing” (remember that play is the most important thing your child can be doing).

If your child is right in the middle of something that matters to them, take a minute to see it from their perspective. Address the issue, calmly, quietly and civilly. If your child is deeply engrossed in a book, you could say, “I see that this book is important to you. Why don’t you finish that page first, but then I want it done.”

Of course, there will be times when you can’t wait, when it really does have to be done right now. But usually, you’ll find there is a little time to give to your child.

Use the “Gentle Reminder”

This is my secret weapon, and it’s what I do when my own kids aren’t listening. I walk over to them and take one of their hands gently and hold it in between both of my own. I’ll then say their name very softly and look them in the eyes. Then using just one or two words, I remind them what I’m after. I’ll say, “Ella, the towel,” or “Abbie, your shoes.”

This gives the kids credit for having a brain. They have to think about what it is I’m after. Ella might think about how she must have left a towel on the floor. Abby might think about where she’s left her shoes, and where they are meant to be.

I’m not angry, I’m speaking softly and kindly, I’ve looked them in the eyes, and asked them to do it. I know I’ve got their attention, and they’ve heard me. They’re listening.

And then I just wait. I just stand there holding their little hands and smiling at them (and sometimes feeling a little silly!). Pretty soon they say, “Oh sorry Dad” and off they go to hang up their towels or sort out their shoes.

So, when your kids aren’t listening to you, which will happen, try these three things. Speak softly. Your kids will hear you better. Consider your timing. Remember that sometimes our agenda is really not that important (and sometimes it is). And use the “gentle reminder.” Touch them, make eye contact, say their name, and use a short verbal cue.

And if all that fails, you can always say “ice cream.”

Dr. Justin Coulson is a bestselling author, husband, and father of 6. His new book is 10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know.

Editor’s NoteThis article originally appeared on the Happy Families blog. It has been reprinted here with permission.

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Wed, 31 Oct 2018 07:30:00 -0400
Knowledge is Power: My Fight Against Postpartum OCD https://ifstudies.org/blog/knowledge-is-power-my-fight-against-postpartum-ocd https://ifstudies.org/blog/knowledge-is-power-my-fight-against-postpartum-ocd by Sammi Trujillo

The phrase, “Knowledge is power,” has become more real to me since becoming a mom. After giving birth to my first child, I fought against unwanted obsessive and compulsive thoughts of harming her—symptoms that were part of a disorder I had never heard of called Postpartum OCD.

The worst obsessive thought I experienced was the mental image of me throwing my daughter down the stairs or over the balcony. Disgust and fear filled my heart every time I came to a staircase, so I avoided staircases as much as possible. When I did have to carry her down the stairs, I would squeeze her tightly, fearing that if I didn’t, the horrible image in my brain would possess my body, and I would be incapable of stopping myself. As she graduated to walking down the stairs with assistance, the intrusive thought graduated to shoving her hard, and I would look away from her while holding her hand. I gained some level of relief when I could finally let her walk down by herself, but I still had to go down first with enough distance between us so as to not imagine pushing her. 

In 2017, after a couple years of struggling with my disturbing thoughts alone, I stumbled across an article that described several different women with the same symptoms that I was experiencing, and my world suddenly changed. I was 28 weeks pregnant with my second child at the time. The first thing I did was tell my husband what I had been hiding from him and, thankfully, he was supportive. After also telling my midwife, I was told that all I could to cope with Postpartum OCD was to take anxiety medication.

What is Postpartum OCD?

Postpartum OCD is a rapid onset subtype of OCD that involves obsessive thoughts of infant-related harm and/or compulsive behaviors that a parent engages in to lower anxiety levels associated with the obsessive thoughts.

From my experience, there is a lack of information about Postpartum OCD, both in terms of what we know and the availability of that limited knowledge for those who are affected by it. A search for publications on this topic in 2018 resulted in only a handful of blog posts, an article in Cosmopolitan magazine, and several academic journal publications that are only available with a subscription. Many of these sources shared personal stories and described the mistreatment, misinformation, and misdiagnosis of parents struggling with Postpartum OCD. The lack of knowledge about Postpartum OCD is an issue for healthcare providers as well as parents, and we need to be doing more to provide information.  

Learning About Postpartum OCD

Since my midwife did not offer me more information, I took it upon myself to learn what I could. Here is some of what I learned through eight months of therapy and further research:

My symptoms had a name. In war, it is considered to be a sign of power and courage to use the correct name for your enemy. Being able to say to health care providers and therapists, “I think I have Postpartum OCD. What do you know about that condition and how can you help me?” is far less scary than saying, “I have no idea what is wrong, but I’m having thoughts of hurting my child.” Knowing and saying the name put me in charge of asking for help.

It is normal and even common for new parents to have unwanted thoughts of infant-harm. Perhaps if I had known that other new mothers had experienced similar negative thoughts about their babies, I could have avoided the development of obsessions altogether. 

Parents who struggle with Postpartum OCD are at little-to-no risk of actually harming their children. Intrusive thoughts of child harm are not the same as feeling desire to harm a child. Most unwanted thoughts of child-harm are “ego-dystonic,” meaning the thoughts go against the parent’s core beliefs and desires for his or her child. This misunderstanding may lead to the unnecessary involvement of the police or social services for parents seeking help. While there are some severe postpartum conditions, such as Postpartum psychosis, that may require such extreme measures to prevent a parent from harming a child, that is less likely to be the case with Postpartum OCD. As UNC-Chapel Hill clinical psychology professor Dr. Jonathan Abramowitz explained

Women with postpartum OCD resist their obsessional thoughts; meaning that they try to dismiss the obsessions or neutralize them with some other thought or behavior. The thoughts seem as if they are against every moral fiber of their being. Consequently, the risk of someone with postpartum OCD acting on their violent obsessions is extremely low (one can never say with absolute certainty that the chances are 0%, but in this case, it’s pretty close).”

Treatments are highly effective Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) are known to be highly effective treatments, just like with regular OCD. CBT involves sharing the specifics of negative thoughts (such as interpretations, triggers, and responses) with a therapist, accepting that negative thoughts are normal for new parents and challenging the parent’s misinterpretation of negative thoughts. ERP involves parents exposing themselves to triggers “while simultaneously refraining from compulsive behaviors.” Medication is not necessary but may be helpful in some cases, especially if immediate relief is needed. 

We have much to learn about Postpartum OCD, and I can contribute by talking about my experience. Like many Postpartum OCD parents, I was scared to tell anyone about what I was going through. Had it not been for the courage of the women in that first article I read, I may never have been able to get help. Researchers and society as a whole will learn more about Postpartum OCD if individuals who struggle with it can find a safe place to share their experiences. 

Spreading knowledge is an important first step in providing caregivers with the power to successfully diagnose and treat Postpartum OCD, helping individuals to feel safe in seeking treatment, and helping direct health care providers towards questions that can provide needed information for these families. The lack of knowledge needs to end, but that can only happen if we are willing to talk about it openly without judgment. Those who may struggle with Postpartum OCD can learn more about this condition by visiting reliable websites, searching in their areas for OCD support groups, and seeking help from knowledgeable caregivers and medical professionals. In the struggle with Postpartum OCD, hope, happiness, and victory are within reach, and a little bit of knowledge just might be the right beginning.

Sammi Trujillo is a senior undergraduate student in the Family Studies program at Brigham Young University, and currently interns with and directs the weekly e-news for the National Association for Relationship and Marriage Education. *The author wishes to thank Julie Haupt and Alan Hawkins for their suggestions and careful reviews of this blog. 

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Tue, 30 Oct 2018 07:30:00 -0400
African Fertility is Right Where It Should Be https://ifstudies.org/blog/african-fertility-is-right-where-it-should-be https://ifstudies.org/blog/african-fertility-is-right-where-it-should-be by Lyman Stone (@lymanstoneky)

Africa’s population is growing fast: faster than the United Nations expected, and faster than some demographers can adequately explain. This has raised concerns among some commentators, particularly non-African elites, that Africa’s birth rate is too high, even unusually high. President Emmanuel Macron, who is childless, previously said that Africa’s poverty was thanks to its high birth rates, and more recently quipped, at an event for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “Present me the woman who decided, being perfectly educated, to have seven, eight or nine children.” 

Of course, many educated women do, in fact, choose to have many children. In response to Macron’s comment, the #PostcardsforMacron hashtag was launched on Twitter to highlight educated moms with many kids. But Macron’s comment was in the spirit of the event, as the Gates Foundation’s own “Goalkeepers Report” recently suggested that “Africa as a whole is projected to nearly double in size by 2050, which means that even if the percentage of poor people on the continent is cut in half, the number of poor people stays the same.” 

Indeed, the whole report focused on population as a key driver of Africa’s poverty.

What’s really going on here is quite simple: United Nations demographers have repeatedly messed up their forecasts of African fertility in more-or-less the same direction, and, rather than give a good explanation about why that is, the development community is responding by faulting Africans for having kids. 

The United Nations’ forecasts for African population by 2050 have been steadily increasing with each new population forecast. Demographers have published papers bemoaning Africa’s curiously slow “demographic transition” to near-replacement fertility. This upward trend in forecast population stems from the fact that U.N. demographers have repeatedly overestimated how quickly Africa’s fertility would decline.

Note that some writers have focused on population estimates in 2100, sharing the 4 billion population forecast: however, 80-year forecast windows are highly unreliable, and the error range provided by the United Nations for 2100 is phenomenally large. Forecasts for 2100 should mostly be ignored.

As you can see, forecasts of future fertility rates for Africa have tended to rise over time in official U.N. projections. You might think, then, that Africa’s fertility is rising! But actually, it isn’t! African fertility is falling! 

So, if Africa’s fertility is already falling, and if the typical Sub-Saharan African woman already doesn’t fit the stereotype of having about 6 or 7 kids, but rather has 4 or 5 kids, and this average is falling, then what’s the problem? Why does the U.N keep getting it wrong? 

The answer turns out to be important: fertility just isn’t falling as fast as the U.N. expects and as some elites in rich countries seem to desire. The entire scary story about African fertility really boils down to fractional differences in the rate of future fertility decline. In other words, Macron’s comments about “6 or 7 or 8” kids are totally irrelevant. Africa’s “problem,” as far as U.N. demographers are concerned, isn’t women having seven kids today; it’s women having three kids, 40 years from now when they “should” have had just two.

Of course, white westerners complaining about African population is a time-honored tradition; that is, it’s part and parcel of old-school racist colonialism. Colonial regimes often tried various inhuman measures to reduce population growth. It’s no surprise the successors to colonial regimes, do-gooder “family planning” NGOs, are pushing the same concerns.

African Fertility is Normal

The truth is, however, that the fear-mongering over African fertility is completely misplaced. Africa’s demographic transition isn’t slow at all: it’s right about where a rational forecaster would predict. 

The best measure of the general level of economic modernization as far as family and reproduction are concerned is child mortality. In rich countries, it’s rare for children to die. In poor countries, it is distressingly common. Thus, throughout history, a country’s rate of child mortality is one of the best predictors of its fertility rate. Basically, as countries get healthier and richer, families can expect that more kids will survive to adulthood, so they don’t need to have as many children. Plus, people get more educated, and better able to manage their fertility. Finally, the shift away from agriculture towards urbanized economic activities, where brains are often more useful than brawn, reduces the economic advantage of having lots of children. Overall, child mortality is a decent predictor of these trends.

As you can see, African fertility is basically where one would expect based on African child mortality rates. In other words, there is no African fertility paradox or mystery! There’s no need for a special explanation of African birth rates! Adding in control variables for urbanization or dependence on agriculture or natural resources doesn’t change the story: African fertility looks fairly normal for its level of development.

The graph below shows the historical path, from 1935 to 2015, of fertility and child mortality for selected African and other countries, using data from Gapminder. As you can see, African countries, in green, don’t look all that unusual. During periods of civil war and unrest, fertility gets unusually high, but other than those periods, the only one of these countries that may be a serious outlier on fertility today is Tanzania. Ethiopia actually has lower fertility today than South Korea had at a similar level of child mortality.

We can produce a similar graph looking at inflation- and local-price-adjusted income instead of child mortality as well. It yields a very similar conclusion: African fertility is not extremely high when compared to benchmarks that reflect actual material conditions, not just an arbitrary assumption by demographers about how fast fertility should fall.

We can also look at bigger aggregates and compare whole regions over time. The graph below uses World Bank data from 1960 to 2016 and shows region-level fertility transition versus income.

As can be seen, Africa’s fertility is quite normal for its income levels. Some regions have had lower fertility, like Asia, and others have had higher, like Latin America or the Middle East. Africa doesn’t look unusual at all and actually has lower fertility at its income level than East Asia had when it was at a similar income level.

It requires too much data to conveniently present every country like this, but the graph below shows every Sub-Saharan African country’s fertility and mortality from 1935 to 2015, as well as the statistical range of where most countries fall, again using Gapminder data.

As you can see, African countries do look like they have moderately-higher fertility than other countries at a similar stage. However, for the most part, they are well within the normal statistical range, and as African countries reach their most developed levels, with child mortality under 75 deaths per 1,000 births, they seem to rapidly fall to average or below-average fertility. And it turns out, a very large amount of that anomalously high fertility can be explained by countries that were still colonized or were experiencing wars. In other words, the problem wasn’t “Africa” but “Western colonization and its legacy.” It takes time for a country to put itself together after those events, and so it makes sense that African countries would experience a short period of above-average fertility.

Finally, the map below shows every Sub-Saharan African country today, shaded by whether their fertility is higher or lower than we would expect based on their child mortality, based on a simple model from child mortality and World Bank fertility estimates.

Some parts of Africa have unusually low fertility, like South Africa, Morocco, Botswana, or Djibouti. These countries have experienced accelerated fertility declines relative to the typical global experience. Other countries do seem to have genuinely higher fertility than is typical for their development level, like Niger, Uganda, or Burundi. But most countries are lightly-shaded, indicating that their fertility levels are very near what you’d guess based on their child mortality rates. Even some very poor African countries actually have lower fertility than you’d expect, like the Central African Republic or Sierra Leone.

In other words, not only is African fertility, in general, declining at a rate very similar to what other regions experienced, but the experience within Africa is extremely diverse. When Western elites lump all of these countries together as just “Africa” or “Sub-Saharan Africa,” they end up talking about every country in this huge region as if it were Niger or Congo.

Population Policies Must Respect Individual Liberty

But perhaps more importantly, my sample of “other developing countries” is heavily skewed by the fact that many developing countries have engaged in controversial and often inhumane fertility suppression programs. The most famous is China’s One Child Policy, which reduced China’s fertility at an enormous humanitarian cost. Likewise, in India, fertility has been reduced partly through less-than-voluntary sterilization camps. Comparing African countries to places where governments cruelly robbed people of their right to reproduce and saying African fertility is higher is both no surprise—and no criticism of Africa. 

Unless, of course, groups like the Gates Foundation have in mind that Africa should experience China- or India-type fertility declines, in which case their implicit argument is that Africa should implement coercive fertility suppression policies. The Gates Foundation’s report explicitly eschews these policies and calls for only such measures as can empower reproductive choices, but by the Gates Foundation’s own estimates, even if African fertility were reduced to only the children African women wanted, there would still be a doubling of the population, which is precisely the scenario the Gates Foundation fears. In other words, Western donors need to get their story straight: do they want Africa to experience East-Asian style fertility declines, or do they want African countries to pursue democratically-compatible, rights-respecting population policies? You can’t have it both ways.

Of course, it’s not clear why Western donors should get any say in the matter. Colonialism ended, and good riddance! Western countries should have learned their lesson: it’s time to stop acting like African policy can be made from London or Paris or Seattle. Truth be told, Western organizations have no right, and no moral credibility, to step in and tell African women what they should or shouldn’t do with their bodies. We would be much better off looking for ways to solve our own fertility problems.

Lyman Stone is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and an Adjunct Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He blogs about migration, population dynamics, and regional economics at In a State of Migration

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Mon, 29 Oct 2018 07:30:00 -0400
Friday Five 250 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-250 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-250 by Bill Coffin (@billcoffin)

Parent-Free Nation?
Amy Guliker, Cardus

Children Growing Up in Families Under Housing Stress
Australian Institute of Family Studies

What Upticks in U.S. Economic Inequality and Incarceration Mean for Marriage
Alix Gould-Werth, Washington Center for Equitable Growth

The Marriage Benefit: Why Marriage Is Healthy Except When It Isn't
Tamara Sher, Clinical Science Insights, The Family Institute at Northwestern University

Is This Any Way to Make Civil Rights Law? Judicial Extension of “Marital Status” Nondiscrimination to Protect Cohabitants
Helen Alvare, Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy

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Fri, 26 Oct 2018 08:00:00 -0400
Will Evolution Undo the Demographic Transition? https://ifstudies.org/blog/will-evolution-undo-the-demographic-transition https://ifstudies.org/blog/will-evolution-undo-the-demographic-transition by Robert VerBruggen (@RAVerBruggen)

Let me run a crazy idea by you. Judging by the conversations I’ve had over the past week, it may help if you’ve had a couple of glasses of wine.

As you may already know, developed countries tend to go through a “demographic transition,” meaning a huge drop in fertility. There are various theories as to what exactly drives this phenomenon, most of which have their critics: Birth control and abortion allow us to satisfy our sexual desires without creating kids to take care of; modern medicine makes the children we do have less likely to die before adulthood, reducing the need to have more; kids no longer do very much work around the farm; women have fewer kids when they get more education and join the workforce; general abundance gives us many ways to amuse ourselves if we decide not to start a family at all; etc. 

But, bottom line, most people have fewer kids than they would have had hundreds of years ago, and some don’t have any.

Demographers generally assume that this process plays out and then stops. Fertility plummets, and then it stays low. But what if this is completely wrong?

The idea here is that changes to our environment have transformed what it takes to pass our genes to the next generation. Today’s environment presumably selects people who consciously want to have kids, for example—a high sex drive can no longer do the trick by itself—and people who don’t stop after one or two even if there are lots of fun or rewarding things they could be doing instead of chasing whiny toddlers. These pressures are different from the ones we were designed to face, many of the old pressures are gone, and there’s every sign that our genetics affect how “well” (in Darwinian terms) we handle the new situation.

Put bluntly, “have more kids” genes exist—whether they work by increasing maternal and paternal instincts, by boosting religiosity, by decreasing educational attainment, or through any number of other possible mechanisms—and they will spread going forward. A similar process could play out among cultures, via the growth of groups that succeed in pressuring their followers to multiply. Over the long run, fertility rates will bounce back. And the long run may come sooner than you think.

Sound bonkers? Well, a new paper by Jason Collins and Lionel Page in Evolution & Human Behavior spells out the math, starting with U.N. population projections and factoring in some basic principles and findings from quantitative genetics. (Blog post summary here.) It’s not proof that this will happen, as it’s permeated with strong assumptions. But it demonstrates that the idea is highly plausible.

The backbone of the paper is the “Breeder’s Equation”: the formula spelling out how much a trait will change, per generation, when it’s selected for. The more strongly genetic a trait is, and the stronger the selection pressures, the bigger the response will be. Specifically, the “narrow-sense heritability” (h) is squared and multiplied by the “selection differential” (S), giving us the response to selection (R).

How do we run this calculation in the case of fertility? The heritability is easy enough to estimate, on the basis of twin studies as well as more modern genetic techniques, with estimates ranging from about 0.2 to 0.4 (on a scale from 0 to 1)—so the authors go with 0.3. The selection differential, meanwhile, is “the difference between the mean fertility of the total population and the mean weighted fertility of the parents (equal to the mean number of children that each child has in their family).” Basically, when a big share of kids are in a small share of families, the selection differential is high. Unfortunately, the authors assume that the distribution of family size follows a certain statistical pattern based on each country’s overall fertility, rather than using the actual distributions, though there’s research showing this pattern (Poisson) is a good fit for the data.

In the U.N.’s models, fertility oscillates but never continuously rises once the demographic transition is over in a given country. When Collins and Page add the Breeder’s Equation to the mix, a lot changes:

[T]here are no substantial differences between the model forecasts for Africa, where most countries are yet to enter the low fertility state following the demographic transition. For Asia, there is a clear difference, with population remaining stable over the second half of the century rather than entering into decline. Europe sees the most dramatic turnaround with a predicted return to population growth instead of prolonged population decline. Our median estimates suggest a European population at around 800 million at the end of the century, near its current level, compared to a base model forecast of 660 million in 2100. North America's population also sees an increased rate of growth with a population estimated to be 150 million higher than in the base model in 2100, at 650 million.

As the authors concede, a major limitation here is that ignoring heritability may not be the only problem with the U.N.’s models. The simple fact that the demographic transition exists shows that environmental changes can happen far more quickly than evolutionary changes—and if new environmental changes push fertility down even further, they could cancel out or even outweigh the bounce-back brought by other forces. In the long run, we’ll probably be outsourcing pregnancy to robotic wombs and uploading our brains to the cloud, after all.

Till then, whether we’ll see a population rebound is an open question. That the modern world will change humanity? That seems guaranteed.

Robert VerBruggen is a deputy managing editor of National Review.

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Thu, 25 Oct 2018 07:30:00 -0400
Helping Low-Income Fathers Form Loving Relationships With Their Children https://ifstudies.org/blog/helping-low-income-fathers-form-loving-relationships-with-their-children https://ifstudies.org/blog/helping-low-income-fathers-form-loving-relationships-with-their-children by Natasha J. Cabrera (@natashajcabrera) and Lisa Gennetian

A young father of a 9-month old baby who agreed to participate in our observational study of fathers, mothers, and babies was visibly uncomfortable when he was asked to play with his son.1 He told us that since the time the baby was born, he had spent very little time with him because he worked all the time.

Another father participating in our study, who became exasperated after 30 minutes of conversation during the survey interview, asked: “So, when are you going to ask me how many jobs I have so I can support my family?” Like the young man mentioned above, this father also worked full time every day, with little reserve left to spend with his children. 

The prevailing public narrative about low-income fathers makes little room for the humanization of the father experience and is both critical of their ability to economically support their children and of those who work such long hours that they are left with little time or energy for their families. This public narrative has been further fueled by popularized messages about “deadbeat” dads and high rates of incarceration among fathers. National statistics of non-involvement do not reveal fathers’ individual stories and personal struggles, and their efforts to do their best for their children financially and emotionally. This proves confusing, not only for fathers but also for the public as the norms, demands, and feasibility of the father as the family’s main breadwinner has dramatically shifted over the prior half-century.

Beyond Money: Father-child Relationships Are Important

Decades of research demonstrates that the quality of the relationship a parent shares with a child is fundamental to the well-being of both parent and child.2 Fathers who are engaged in the daily care of their children become attuned to their children’s needs and are able to respond sensitively and engage in “serve and return” interactions that lead to healthy and nurturing relationships. Such a relationship facilitates a secure attachment and provides the growing infant with a sense of security and love that is sustained across the lifespan.  

Studies also show that fathers who spend time with their children engaged in play can make a big difference in children’s vocabulary development and self-regulatory behaviors. Unstructured rough-and-tumble play interactions typical of fathers promote language skills and children’s emotional regulation.3 Dads can live up to the image of “playmates” for their children with the added bonus that this type of play helps children develop the skills they need for school.

Fathers stimulate language development when they follow the lead of their child and clarify labels as the child reaches for unfamiliar objects and ask “Wh” questions (What’s that? Where did it go?).4 In fact, a recent intervention with teen incarcerated dads has shown that fathers who are taught to establish positive relationships with their children (i.e., follow child’s lead and acknowledge the child’s gestures as a way to communicate) have children who are more secure and have better outcomes than the control group.5

In middle childhood, fathers often challenge their sons and daughters to try new things and tend to encourage autonomy more so than mothers. Such behaviors build confidence and promote independence, both of which help children develop problem-solving skills that facilitate success in academic and social pursuits.   

In adolescence, fathers continue to serve as an important source for advice and conversation, although the research on this population is sparse. Some fathers may withdraw from their teenagers, either to continue to encourage independence in their children or for other reasons such as stress or feelings of being unneeded. For example, adolescent girls tend to rely on their mothers more for emotional support during this time, though their relationship with their fathers continues to build their self-esteem and forms a basis for how to relate to members of the opposite sex.6

Low-Wage Labor Market Interference 

The reality is that many low-income men in the U.S. work in jobs that pay at or near the minimum wage. This not only affects their marriage prospects (or marital relationships), but after working two to three jobs, this also reduces the total earnings that fathers make. Working long and unpredictable hours (conventional characteristics of contemporary low-wage work) and on weekends takes low-income fathers out of the home for the majority of the day, leaving them little time for their families and children. 

The demands of work schedules are especially challenging for parents with young children, who are not yet in full-day school and require more coordination of nonparental care as well as parental attention. For many participants in our study, balancing work and family was a consistent source of stress. As one father told us:7

…once I get out of work I pick him up from her [grandmother’s] house … and once we get home, we cook something, and then it is already too late to go out, so I can’t take him out [to the park]; it is 7 or 8:30 pm.

For many parents, working long hours and multiple jobs is incompatible with their belief that being a “good parent” means spending time with your child, or as one parent told us, “getting to know my kid.” Working long hours presents a potential risk for becoming estranged from family, which can decrease emotional support and have further unfavorable feedback effects on fathers’ financial contribution to the family. 

We have a double standard in this country: If a man is middle class, we value his nurturing and caregiving role in the family. If he is poor, we mostly value his financial contribution.

How Low-Income Working Fathers Make Parenting Work

A long work day is physically exhausting and further drains energy, leaving little room to manage “crises” that typically arise every day with young children. For example, research shows that parents are more likely to increase their involvement at home in response to their children’s behavior problems.8 This involvement might take the form of being at home after school or quitting a job altogether to monitor and supervise children’s activities. This choice to stay (or work at) home to make sure your child is on the right path is not available to everyone. If a low-income father quits his job at McDonald’s to be a “stay-home” dad and raise his children, he would not only lose all of his earnings and thus economic support for his family, but society would generally view this father as lazy or irresponsible.

Yet there are stories of resilience. A man participating in our study about parenting practices put it best: 

Every day the same thing [long working hours and no time to spend with my children], except Saturdays. For example, today she woke up first and she came ‘daddy, I want waffles, I want to go to Los Gringos.’ Saturdays we automatically have breakfast together in Los Gringos. 

In another family, a father who worked three jobs on low wages would wake up his toddler late at night when he got home, so they could play for an hour or two. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have time together from one Sunday to the next. The child was tired the next day, but this was the only way the father saw to manage his responsibilities to support his child financially and to spend time with her.

How to Support Low-Income Fathers

Unfortunately, the low-wage economy, prevailing norms, and policy assumptions may be discouraging some fathers from investing time with their children and compelling other fathers to sacrifice time with their children entirely in favor of providing financial support. What can we do?

First, there needs to be a social and cultural shift away from thinking that low-income fathers cannot be good dads, or that the most important thing they can do for their children is to supply a paycheck. Instead, we need to move toward the idea that a father’s most important contribution to their children is in forming supportive and loving relationships. We have a double standard in this country: If a man is middle class, we value his nurturing and caregiving role in the family. If he is poor, we mostly value his financial contribution. This shift in how we think about fathers needs to be supported by their employers, policy, and the public to nurture opportunities for men in low-wage jobs to attend a recital, or a soccer game, without fear of losing their job.

Second, fathers who do not live with their children need support to stay engaged and connected with them. If they were married and later divorced, they are allowed visitation but usually only two weekends a month. More time requires litigation, which few earning below the median can afford. Custody and visitation are much more complicated for never-married fathers. With exceptions, despite being legally recognized as the father and required to pay child support, they have no legal right to visit their children. So, these fathers must litigate to establish their visitation rights, but few do because they are less able to afford legal counsel than divorced fathers. As a result, access to their children is entirely up to the mothers. Fathers who maintain good relationships with the mothers of their children are likely to see them more frequently than fathers who do not.9

Third, we need to provide programmatic support for fathers, too, not just mothers, to improve their parenting skills and include them in intervention programs designed for parents. Even today, Head Start programs mostly include mothers and their children. There needs to be a concerted effort to communicate to programs that when we say parents, we mean both mothers and fathers and that fathers are an integral part of families.

Natasha Cabrera is a Professor in the Human Development and Quantitative Methodology at the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on adaptive and maladaptive factors related to mothering and fathering, cultural variation in ethnic minority families, and the mechanisms linking early experiences to children’s school readiness. Lisa Gennetian is a research professor at New York University. Her research focuses on understanding what shapes parent economic behavior and how to reduce child poverty.


References

1. Cabrera, N. & Reich, S. (2017, April). “BabyBooks2: A randomized control trial (RCT) to test the effects of a book intervention for low-income mothers and fathers.” In N. Cabrera (Chair), International perspectives on parenting interventions for at-risk families.  Symposium conducted at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Austin, TX.

2. Cabrera, N., Volling, B., & Barr, R., “Fathers are parents, too! Widening the lens on parenting for children’s development,” Child Development Perspectives, v. 12, 3 (September 2018): 1-6. 

3. Cabrera, N., Karberg, E., Malin, J., & Aldoney, D., “The magic of play: Low-income mothers’ and fathers’ playfulness and children’s emotion regulation and vocabulary skills, ” Journal of Infant Mental Health (2017): 14-29.

4. Malin, J.L., Cabrera, N. J, & Rowe, M., “Low-income minority mothers’ and fathers’ reading and children’s interest: Longitudinal contributions to children’s receptive vocabulary skills,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly (2014): 34-55.

5. Rachel Barr, Natalie Brito, Jaclyn Zocca, Samantha Reina, Jennifer Rodriguez, and Carole Shauffer, “The Baby Elmo Program: Improving teen father–child interactions within juvenile justice facilities,” Child and Youth Services Review (2011): 1555-1562

6. Raquel Nogueira Avelar e Silva, Daphne van de Bongardt, Petra van de Looij-Jansen, Anne Wijtzes, Hein Raat, “Mother– and Father–Adolescent Relationships and Early Sexual Intercourse,” Pediatrics 138, issue 6 (December 2018) 

7. Aldoney, D., & Cabrera, N., “Raising American Citizens: Socialization Goals of Low-Income Immigrant Latino Mothers and Fathers of Young Children.” Journal of Child and Family Studies, 25 (2016): 3607-3618.

8. Nermeen E. El Nokali, Heather J. Bachman, and Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal, “Parent Involvement and Children's Academic and Social Development in Elementary School,” Child Development (2010): 908-1005

9. Fagan, J. and Palkovitz, R., “Coparenting and Relationship Quality Effects on Father Engagement: Variations by Residence, Romance.” Journal of Marriage and Family, 73 (2011): 637-653. 

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Wed, 24 Oct 2018 11:44:00 -0400
Does Sexual History Affect Marital Happiness? https://ifstudies.org/blog/does-sexual-history-affect-marital-happiness https://ifstudies.org/blog/does-sexual-history-affect-marital-happiness by Nicholas H. Wolfinger (@NickWolfinger)

The 1960s changed premarital sex. Prior to the sexual revolution, unmarried heterosexual sex partners tended to marry each other (sometimes motivated by a shotgun pregnancy); in more recent decades, first sex usually does not lead to marriage. Figure 1 shows how the odds of having only one lifetime sex partner have declined over the twentieth century for married Americans. The biggest declines occurred for people born between the 1920s and the 1940s, the latter of whom came of age during the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Since then, the chances of having only one lifetime sex partner (or, less often, marrying as a virgin) have held steady for married women at around 40%, and have actually inched up for the past couple of cohorts of married men. This is consistent with broader trends in men’s sexual behavior. The 40% figure is similar to what I found using a different data set (the National Survey of Family Growth) for women marrying before the start of the new millennium (the number is somewhat lower for more recent marriages).

How have our marriages been affected? In an IFS blog post from two years ago, I wrote about the relationship between premarital sex partners and the probability of divorce. Survey respondents who tied the knot as virgins had the lowest divorce rates, but beyond that, the relationship between sexual biography and marital stability was less clear. Having multiple partners generally doesn’t increase the odds of divorce any more than having just a few does so.

The current post extends this research by examining the relationship between premarital sex partners and marital happiness. The obvious prediction for many IFS blog readers may well be that multiple premarital sex partners leads to unhappy marriages, but the relationship probably isn’t that clear-cut. Marital happiness and divorce aren’t always as intertwined as they might seem. A clarifying example is the family demography of the Great Depression. Pervasive financial hardship made marriages less happy, yet the divorce rate fell because divorce and single living seemed unaffordable. A high-conflict but intact family of origin increases the odds of having a disputatious marriage but not the likelihood of divorce. All this research suggests that the effects of one’s premarital sexual biography on marital happiness may not closely follow the findings outlined in my previous post.

Previous research indeed suggests a complex story between premarital sex partners and marital quality. Psychologists Galena K. Rhoades and Scott M. Stanley found that the study respondents who had sex with other people prior to marriage reported lower-quality unions compared to couples who slept just with each other. Multiple sex partners prior to marriage reduced marital quality for women, but not men. Along similar lines, sociologist Jay Teachman showed that premarital sex between future spouses didn’t make divorce more likely, but sex with other people did. A study from the 1980s reported similar findings.

Rhoades and Stanley offer two explanations for this finding, one empirically demonstrable and one speculative. Their data show that premarital sex sometimes leads to premarital fertility, and women (but not men) who have children from other relationships have lower-quality relationships. On the speculative side is their notion that having multiple partners increases awareness of spousal alternatives. It’s evidence for this proposition that the divorce rate increases in regions with more single people; in other words, we’re always willing to consider alternatives to our current mate. By implication, our marriages suffer when we make more comparisons.

What’s missing from these studies is an exploration that considers the effects of a full range of premarital sexual activity on marital happiness using national data. I look at almost 30 years of the General Social Survey, an annual or biennial survey dating back to 1972. Starting in 1989, respondents were asked detailed questions about their sexual biographies.1 My data analysis explores how sexual history affects marital happiness, measured with a variable that contrasts very happy marriages with all others. 

Overall, 64% of respondents report very happy marriages (only about 3% say their marriages aren’t too happy; the balance have “pretty happy” unions). Also, most Americans have less exciting sexual histories than the media would lead us to believe.  The median American woman born in the 1980s has had three sex partners in her lifetime. The median man has had six partners, but only four if he’s a four-year college graduate.

Table 1 shows how a women’s sexual biography affects the happiness of her marriage.2  The first column includes the baseline estimates. Women who’ve only slept with their spouses are, at 65%, most likely to report very happy marriages. Thereafter, there’s a decline that’s statistically-significant but modest in magnitude. The lowest odds of marital happiness, 52% in the baseline model, accord to women who’ve had six-to-10 lifetime sexual partners. Women who’ve had 11 or more lovers are a bit more likely to report happy marriages at 57 percent.

The second, third, and fourth columns of Table 1 introduce a variety of covariates intended to account for the relationship between sexual history and marital happiness.  The second column includes a measure of whether survey respondents have dissolved previous marriages; in other words, whether or they’re in first or higher order marriages. The third column adds two measures of socioeconomic status, education and inflation-adjusted family income. The fourth column contains two measures of religiosity, denomination and frequent church attendance. None of these variables has an appreciable effect on the relationship between sexual background and marital happiness.

Table 2 shows how men’s sexual biographies affect their marital happiness. As for women, men who report only one sexual partner in their lifetime are more likely to report very happy marriages. The benefits of one partner are slightly greater for men than for women: according to the baseline results, 71% of men with one partner are very happy in their relationship. This drops to 65% for men who report two or more sex partners. The happiness penalty for additional partners is modest, only a few percentage points.  Adjusting for differences in marital history, socioeconomic status, and religion make little difference.

To better visualize the results in Table 1, I’ve taken the percentages from the full models for men and women—the models including controls for marital background, socioeconomic status, and religion—and plotted them together in Figure 1. This figure makes clear that the difference between having one and more than one, lifetime sex partner is most consequential in predicting marital quality. For men, there aren’t statistically significant differences in marital quality between men who have two partners and more than two. That is the trend for women too, with two exceptions: female respondents with four partners or 6-10 partners have significantly lower odds of very happy marriages compared to those with two partners. It’s not clear why these two groups of women defy the broader trend, but it should be noted that the percentage differences involved aren’t great.

Who are these Americans reporting just one lifetime sex partner?  They are likely different from their fellows in ways that predict both premarital sexual behavior and marital happiness. Religiosity is an obvious answer, but that doesn’t seem to accord with the data. Denomination and attendance at services do not fully capture religious beliefs and behavior, but we’d still expect these measures to account for part of the association between sexual behavior and marital quality. But that didn’t turn out to be the case, which leads me to question the importance of religion in explaining the happiness of one-partner spouses.

Perhaps genetics can explain the relationship between sexual biographies and marital happiness. Scientists have identified a gene associated with promiscuity and infidelity. And it’s long been known that there’s a purely genetic component to divorce. Maybe it’s some socially determined personality trait. Whatever the cause, it leads people to behave in ways that aren’t conducive to connubial bliss, with adultery being the most obvious and extreme example. Any of these explanations are possible, but none can be identified with these data.

One thing missing from the foregoing results is any direct consideration of whether marriage age affects the association between multiple sexual partners and marital happiness. It’s not part of the data analysis because the General Social Survey only queried respondents about marriage age through 1994, and one more time in 2006. Other things being equal, older respondents have had more time to accumulate extensive sexual histories. And while they generally enjoy more stable marriages than do people who marry young, their marriages are somewhat less happy

To determine whether marriage age is affecting the results, I reran my analysis just for the GSS years that include data on both age at marriage and sexual history (1989-1994, 2006). For purposes of comparison, I also ran the analysis without marriage age to determine the extent to which it could explain the relationship between sexual history and marital happiness.

For both men and women, the baseline models in Table 3 include all the independent variables listed in Tables 1 and 2.3 The subsequent columns include age at marriage (and its square). Overall, Table 3 suggests that adding marriage age to the analysis makes essentially no difference, so it cannot explain the relationship between sexual background and marital quality.  

As noted previously, 3% of the married GSS sample reports being unhappily married. The data show that people with 21 or more partners lifetime are almost twice as likely to be unhappily married as are people with fewer partners: 5.3% of respondents with 21+ partners aren’t happy in their marriages, compared to 2.8% of those with 20 or fewer partners. This sexually adventurous minority is explaining part of the relationship between sexual biography and marital happiness (and they’re less likely to be married in the first place) in conjunction with the happiness boost that corresponds with limiting premarital relations to one’s future spouse.

Some caveats. First, data on sexual partners are likely prone to errors of boastfulness, shame, and memory (consider, for instance, the married respondents claiming zero lifetime sex partners). For these errors to affect the results, they’d have to be systematically correlated with marital happiness, and there’s no prima facie reason to expect that.

Second, data on sex partners and marital happiness are measured at the same point in time. It’s reasonable to assume that the partners preceded marriage in most cases, but in a few instances, they represent adulterous trysts or polyamorous unions. Adultery is both a cause and a consequence of a deteriorating marriage.

Third, a measure of marital happiness with two or three categories is obviously a blunt psychometric instrument. As I suggested earlier in discussing the relationship between marital happiness and divorce, a lot more factors into whether a marriage is good. For instance, one study found that people from divorced families of origin had marriages that were just as happy as unions between people from intact families, yet the former were more likely to think their marriage was in trouble. A person’s sexual history might affect marital happiness in ways that are similarly more complex than can be captured with a single variable.

Finally, there are obvious reasons to expect sample selection bias to affect the results. People who are promiscuous before marriage sometimes don’t stop once they tie the knot, and adultery leads to unhappy marriages and divorce. So, the people most at risk of being in unhappy marriages by virtue of their complicated sexual histories may no longer be represented in the sample of people reporting on the happiness of their marriages. This bias would minimize the effects of premarital promiscuity on marital quality.

In sum, the surprisingly large number of Americans reporting one lifetime sex partner have the happiest marriages. Past one partner, it doesn’t make as much of a difference. The overall disparity isn’t huge, but neither is it trivial.

Consider how the difference in marital happiness based on lifetime sex partners stacks up against differences based on several of the usual social and demographic suspects.4 For a combined sample of men and women, spouses reporting only one lifetime sexual partner are 7% more likely to be happy than are those with other partners in their past.  

This is larger than the five-percentage-point difference associated with a four-year college degree, larger than the six-point difference that comes with attending religious services several times a month or more, and larger than the boost that comes with having an income above the national median.5 On the other hand, the one-partner difference is smaller than racial-ethnic disparities in marital happiness.

Premarital sexual experience affects marital happiness, but perhaps the more important story in these data is that almost two-thirds (64%) of Americans are happy in their marriages.

Nicholas H. Wolfinger is Professor of Family and Consumer Studies and Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the University of Utah. His most recent book is Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Children, and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos, coauthored with W. Bradford Wilcox (Oxford University Press, 2016). Follow him on Twitter at @NickWolfinger.


1. My analysis ignores sexual orientation. Partners can be of either sex; same-sex marriages are included in the tally of marital satisfaction. There are too few gay and lesbian marriages to permit separate analysis. Seven percent of married women and 9 percent of married men claimed zero lifetime sexual partners. Presumably, these respondents misinterpreted the survey question as inquiring about former sex partners. These respondents are treated as having had one sex partner.

2. These results are based on regression standardization of logistic regression results. The baseline model includes measures of survey year, age and its square, race/ethnicity, and family structure of origin (Here and elsewhere, functional form was ascertained via lowess models.) The data are weighted to make the sample nationally representative. Standard errors are adjusted for the weight scheme and design effects.

3. Number of sex partners is top-coded at 10+ for this analysis because of sample size limitations: 24 female respondents reported having 11 to 20 partners; 17 reported 21 or more sex partners. The ensuing results were nonsensical.

4. These analyses are based on men and women, and are similar to those reported in Table 1, and contain all of the covariates in the full models.

5. Inflation-adjusted income is originally reported in 1987 dollars. I converted to 2016 dollars using the Consumer Price Index and rounded.

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Mon, 22 Oct 2018 07:30:00 -0400
Friday Five 249 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-249 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-249 by Bill Coffin (@billcoffin)

Are Siblings More Important Than Parents?
Ben Healy, The Atlantic

Kids' Sleep May Suffer From Moms' Tight Work Schedules
Katie Bohn, Penn State News

Why Does Graduate School Kill So Many Marriages?
Kathryn R. Wedemeyer-Strombel, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Want More Babies? Help Couples Build Stronger Marriages First
June Yong, Channel NewsAsia

Family Strengthening Research (FY 2017)
Office of Planning, Research, & Evaluation, ACF

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Fri, 19 Oct 2018 08:00:00 -0400
The Family Geography of the American Dream: New Neighborhood Data on Single Parenthood, Prisons, and Poverty https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-family-geography-of-the-american-dream-new-neighborhood-data-on-single-parenthood-prisons-and-poverty https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-family-geography-of-the-american-dream-new-neighborhood-data-on-single-parenthood-prisons-and-poverty by W. Bradford Wilcox (@WilcoxNMP), Jacob Van Leeuwen and Joseph Price

The American Dream is in relatively good shape in some communities—like Seattle and Salt Lake—but in comparatively bad shape in other communities—like Atlanta and Baltimore. This means poor kids raised in cities like Seattle and Salt Lake City have a much better chance of moving up in the world, income-wise, than children raised in Atlanta and Baltimore.

This much is clear in the research of Harvard University’s Raj Chetty, who has succeeded in casting a spotlight on the role that geography plays in sustaining or strangling the American Dream in one blockbuster study after another. Chetty’s research, of course, raises a fundamental question: what factors explain why some communities succeed and others fail in generating economic opportunity for poor children in America?

Headlines in prominent media outlets like The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and The Atlantic have fingered factors like “racism,” “poverty,” and “segregation” in explaining why some communities do well and others do poorly in promoting the future economic well-being of the low-income children in their midst. And indeed these factors are key, judging by the work of Chetty and his colleagues

But these factors don’t tell the whole story, as David Leonhardt at The New York Times recently noted. In discussing Chetty’s newest study, which drills down to explore the effects that individual neighborhoods have on the odds that poor kids make it as adults, Leonhardt listed socioeconomic factors like the ones listed above and then asked his readers to guess which factor he had left off the list. He then went on to write this:

I’ve left off one major item from this list, and I’m curious to see whether you noticed. In fact, I left off the second largest correlation... It is: a neighborhood’s share of single-parent households. All else being equal—income, race, educational outcomes—children who grow up in neighborhoods with fewer two-parent families fare notably worse.

What exactly does the relationship between family structure at the neighborhood level and poor children’s odds of realizing the American Dream look like? By merging economic mobility data from Chetty’s project and Census data on family structure at the neighborhood tract level, here’s what we see:

Indeed, Figure 1 indicates that mobility for children who were raised in lower-income families is higher for the kids raised in neighborhoods with lots of two-parent families, and lower for the kids raised in neighborhoods with more single-parent families. Specifically, boys and girls raised in families with a household income in the 25th percentile were much more likely to escape poverty as adults when they were raised in communities replete with two-parent families. 

In fact, as Figure 2 indicates, lower-income boys raised in communities where more than 80% of the parents are single parents usually remain stuck at about the 25th percentile when it comes to their household income as adults, while their female peers generally end up not much better—at about the 31st percentile. In other words, neighborhoods dominated by single parenthood tend to lock in intergenerational poverty.

By contrast, Figure 2 shows that poor boys who grow up in neighborhoods where about 80% of the families are headed by two parents are more likely to land in the 40th percentile in household income as adults, and poor girls in such neighborhoods typically land at the 44th percentile in household income as adults. Clearly, economic mobility is higher for poor kids who grow up in a neighborhood with lots of two-parent families. 

But Leonhardt’s intervention and Chetty’s study also left us curious. What is the link between family structure at the neighborhood level and children’s economic mobility after you control for socioeconomic factors like parental education, race, and poverty in the neighborhood—something that Chetty and his colleagues at Brown and Harvard did not do in their latest study? In other words, is the unique association between family structure robust even after considering these socioeconomic factors? It turns out the answer is yes.

Table 1 indicates that the share of single parents in a neighborhood is statistically significant and the best predictor of mobility for poor children in a neighborhood—at least in comparison to other standard predictors of mobility—when we look at all households with children in a given community. The bottom line here: the family structure that defines and dominates the village is powerfully predictive of economic mobility for poor children in America, even after controlling for other socioeconomic factors that might confound that relationship.

But why does a neighborhood’s family structure matter? Why exactly are villages with more two-parent families better off? Family structure at the neighborhood level matters, in part, because children growing up in communities with more two-parent families are more likely to be surrounded by families who are invested in their child’s schooling, families with a father who is present and working (which has obvious financial benefits and sends the right message to teenagers, especially boys, growing up in the community), and families where fathers help to establish a climate of order and discipline in the home that makes the neighborhood safer. It’s no accident, for instance, that Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson has observed that “Family structure is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, predictors of… urban violence across cities in the United States.”

Indeed, as Figure 3 illustrates, we find that there is a strong link between adult incarceration and neighborhood family structure. Communities with more single-parents are much more likely to have boys who end up being incarcerated as adults in their late twenties or early thirties. For instance, in their newest study, Chetty and his colleagues drew attention to the fact that black men growing up poor in two different neighborhoods in Los Angeles had dramatically different odds of being incarcerated as adults:

For example, 44% of black men who grew up in the lowest-income families in Watts, a neighborhood in central Los Angeles, are incarcerated on a single day (April 1, 2010 – the day of the 2010 Census). By contrast, 6.2% of black men who grow up in families with similar incomes in central Compton, 2.3 miles south of Watts, are incarcerated on a single day.

There are a number of factors separating these two neighborhoods, but it’s fascinating to note that single-parenthood was much higher in Watts than it was in Compton when these men were growing up: to be precise, the share of single parents for Watts was 87%, whereas the share of single parents for Compton was 50% in the 1980s, when these men were children.

Figure 4 provides another, more general look at the trends here for lower-income men in their late twenties and early thirties across the United States. It shows that poor boys born between 1978 and 1983 growing up in neighborhoods with more than 90% of the families headed by two parents had only a 3% risk of being imprisoned in 2010. By contrast, poor boys living in neighborhoods where more than 20% of the parents were single parents had a 5% risk of being in prison or jail in 2010—by the time they reached their late twenties or early thirties.

Moreover, in a multivariate context, one of the strongest neighborhood predictors of incarceration for young men from lower-income families is family structure. Table 2 indicates the share of single parents in a neighborhood, it turns out, is a bigger predictor of incarceration in adulthood than race, education, and poverty in a neighborhood. Here, then, we have yet more evidence that family structure at the community level is strongly linked not only to economic mobility but also to incarceration. Indeed, this suggests that one mechanism that explains why family structure matters for the economic mobility of boys is that it influences the odds that they run afoul of the criminal justice system.

These findings on economic mobility and incarceration are especially striking because the role that family structure plays is often downplayed in media and academic coverage of poverty, economic mobility, and even incarceration. This is a point that Leonhardt made in discussing the importance of family structure in Chetty’s newest study: 

I want to highlight this result because I think that my half of the political spectrum — the left half — too often dismisses the importance of family structure. Partly out of a worthy desire to celebrate the heroism of single parents, progressives too often downplay family structure. Social science is usually messy, with correlation and causation difficult to separate. But the evidence, when viewed objectively, points strongly to the value of two-parent households (and, no, the parents don’t need to be heterosexual).

In other words, judging by Raj Chetty’s latest study, and our new analysis of the ecological data related to it, it looks like a neighborhood dominated by two-parent families gives poor children a better shot at realizing the American Dream. 

W. Bradford Wilcox is Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Family Studies, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Joseph Price is Professor of Economics at Brigham Young University. Jacob Van Leeuwen is a researcher in the Economics Department at Brigham Young University. Note: Christian Felix created the figures for this article.

*Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons (original link here)

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Wed, 17 Oct 2018 09:30:00 -0400
Premarital Cohabitation Is Still Associated With Greater Odds of Divorce https://ifstudies.org/blog/premarital-cohabitation-is-still-associated-with-greater-odds-of-divorce https://ifstudies.org/blog/premarital-cohabitation-is-still-associated-with-greater-odds-of-divorce by Scott Stanley (@DecideOrSlide) and Galena Rhoades

A new study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family finds that the “premarital cohabitation effect” lives on, despite what you’ve likely heard. The premarital cohabitation effect is the finding that those who live together prior to marriage are more likely, not less, to struggle in marriage. It has a long and storied history in family science.

Michael Rosenfeld and Katharina Roesler’s new findings suggest that there remains an increased risk for divorce for those living together prior to marriage, and that prior studies suggesting the effect has gone away had a bias toward short versus longer-term effects. They find that living together before marriage is associated with lower odds of divorce in the first year of marriage, but increases the odds of divorce in all other years tested, and this finding holds across decades of data.

Numerous Recent Studies Reported No Impact of Premarital Cohabitation

A number of relatively recent studies suggested that the premarital cohabitation effect has gone away among cohorts marrying in the last 10 or 15 years. Rosenfeld and Roesler pay particular attention to a report from the National Center for Health Statistics by Copen, Daniels, Vespa, and Mosher in 2012, which suggested there was no increased risk associated with premarital cohabitation in the most recent (at the time) cohort of the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG; 2006 – 2010). Reinhold came to the same conclusion in 2010, and while not cited in the new study, Manning and Cohen reached the same conclusion in 2012, incorporating data from as late as the 2006 to 2008 cohort of the NSFG.1 While all of these studies used the NSFG, Rosenfeld and Roesler had longer-term data for the most recent cohort they study (up to 2015). Contrary to these prior conclusions, they found that there remains a clear link between premarital cohabitation and increased odds of divorce regardless of the year or cohort studied. (In all these studies, the focus is on first marriages.)

The theoretical underpinning for all the prior papers noted above was the belief that, as living together became more normative, it would no longer be associated with negative outcomes in marriage. One reason often suggested is that there is no longer a stigma among friends and family about living together before marriage. Another reason, theoretically, is that those living together prior to marriage are no longer as select for higher risk as in the past because most people are doing it.

Based on a different line of reasoning, another prominent study also concluded that there was no longer an added risk for divorce associated with premarital cohabitation. However, in that study, Kuperberg (2014) concluded the risk was more about moving in together at a young age (before the middle 20s) than moving in together before marriage, per se. That’s one among many potentially important nuances in this complex literature.2

Recent Studies May Have Been Premature

Cohabitation is the gift that keeps on giving to family science, providing generations of scholars with the opportunity to say, “look here, wow, this is strange.” For starters, it’s counterintuitive that living together before marriage would not improve one’s odds for a successful marriage. And yet, whatever else is true, there is very scant evidence to support this belief in a positive effect (more on that in this piece; see also this.)

Enter Rosenfeld and Roesler. Their new paper is quite complex statistically, but their insight boils down to two things easily explained. First, they believe studies that suggested that the premarital cohabitation effect has disappeared simply did not have outcomes for divorce far enough out for those who had married in the recent cohorts that they examined. Second, they show that premarital cohabitation is associated with a lower risk for divorce, but only very early in marriage (in the first year); in contrast, the finding flips, with premarital cohabitation being associated with higher risks for divorce in years after that first year. That’s what earlier studies could not address. In particular, Rosenfeld and Roesler suggest that those who live together before marriage have an advantage in the first year because they are already used to all the changes that come with living together. Those who go straight into marriage without living together have a bigger immediate shock to negotiate after marriage, and as a result, have a short-term increased risk that’s greater than those already living together. But that’s short-term, and the risk remains long-term.

Here is a quote from the new paper (see pages 7-8):

Figure 2 shows that, for the years in which the NSFG has substantial numbers of marriages and breakups, there was no apparent trend over time in the raw or adjusted odds ratios of breakup for premarital cohabitation. Given the enormous changes over time in the prevalence of premarital cohabitation (see Figure 1), Figure 2 shows a surprising stability in the association between premarital cohabitation and marital dissolution over time.


Note: Used with permission of the National Council on Family Relations. 

Theories of Increased Risk

There are three dominant theories of causality in how living together before marriage could be associated with worse outcomes (on average) in marriage—explaining why the finding is just not what most people expect it should be. Rosenfeld and Roesler address the first two but did not say anything about the third.3

Selection. This theory is simply that there are many factors associated with who cohabits when and why, and with whom, and that those factors are also associated with how marriages will turn out regardless of cohabiting experience. For example, it’s well known that those who are more economically disadvantaged are more likely to: live together outside of marriage, live together with more than one partner, have a child with a cohabiting partner prior to marrying, and struggle in marriage. Other factors are religiousness, traditionality, and family history (parental divorce, etc.). The selection explanation is that those who cohabit in riskier ways (e.g., before marriage, before engagement, with more than one partner) were already at greater risk. In the strongest view of selection, living together does not add to the risk at all because it’s all already baked in. There is a lot of evidence for selection playing an important role in this literature, and scholars in this area note this and address it in various ways.

The Experience of Cohabiting Changes Things. In an older line of research that was brilliant but badly needs updating, Axinn and Barber (1997) showed that cohabiting changes attitudes about marriage and divorce, lowering esteem for marriage and increasing acceptance of divorce. This is consistent with scores of studies in psychology that show that attitudes will cohere to behavior. Earlier, Thornton, Axinn, and Hill (1992) showed that cohabiting led to people becoming less religious. Rosenfeld and Roesler include a lot on the theory of experience, but mostly use it to emphasize the short-term benefit of already experiencing living together when transitioning into marriage.

It’s counterintuitive that living together before marriage would not improve one’s odds for a successful marriage. Yet, whatever else is true, there is very scant evidence to support this belief in a positive effect. 

Inertia. We have argued since the early 2000s for another causal theory in this line of research. Drawing on theories of commitment, we suggested that what nearly everyone misses in understanding the risk associated with cohabitation is pretty simple: moving in together makes it harder to break up, net of everything else. The added risk is due to how cohabitation substantially increases constraints to remain together prior to a dedication to a future together maturing between two partners. Two key papers on this perspective are here and here.4

One primary prediction from the inertia hypothesis is that those who only started living together after being already committed to marriage (e.g., by engagement or actual marriage) should, on average, do better in marriage than those who may have prematurely made it harder to break up by living together before agreeing on marriage. The inertia hypothesis completely embraces selection, suggesting that relationships already at greater risk become harder to exit because of cohabitation. Various predictions from the inertia hypothesis have been supported in ten or more studies, seven of which include tests of the prediction about pre-cohabitation levels of commitment to marriage (aka plans for marriage prior to living together)—and this latter finding exists in at least six different samples across a range of outcomes.5

There is no particular reason to expect that the inertia risk will dissipate with increased acceptance of cohabitation because the mechanism is about the timing of the development of aspects of commitment, not about societal views and personal attitudes. For living together to lower risk in marriage, the benefit of learning something disqualifying about a partner has to exceed the costs of making it harder to break up that comes with sharing a single address. Hence, inertia is another possibility along with experience that could explain the persistence of a cohabitation effect, such as found by Rosenfeld and Roesler.6

Other Possibilities. Other factors that may be associated with differential outcomes include pacing (Sassler et al.), age at the time of moving in together (Kuperberg), and premarital fertility (Tach & Halpern-Meekin). All such theories of moderated outcomes suggest that the risks of living together before marriage are greater for some groups than others. Rosenfeld and Roesler are not really addressing this issue. However, they did find that the risks associated with premarital cohabitation were lower for African Americans. While that’s a subject far beyond our focus here, it does not surprise us. For most groups, cohabitation is no particular indicator of higher commitment. However, it may well signal higher levels of commitment among groups where marriage has declined a great deal, like African Americans.

Rosenfeld and Roesler also note that the risks of living together before marriage were even greater among those who had lived with more than just their mate prior to marriage. That finding is consistent with many other studies, including Teachman (2003).

It Lives

Research on premarital cohabitation has long been mired in arguments about causality, with the dominant view being that selection explains most, if not all, of the risk. However, many studies in the history of this field have controlled for putative selection variables and still found an additional risk. In fairness, it is not possible to control for all aspects of selection in such studies. Without randomly assigning people to walk different pathways before marriage, causality can never be proven. Arguments ensue—and since when does evidence cause us to stop arguing anyway when people are passionate about their view on something?

Rosenfeld and Roesler’s new study breathed life into a finding many concluded was dead.

Scott M. Stanley is a research professor at the University of Denver and a fellow of the Institute for Family Studies (@DecideOrSlide). Galena Rhoades is a research associate professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Denver.


1. We are mystified why the new paper does not cite or address the findings by Manning and Cohen. That study seems like it is the most recent major study directly addressing the question Rosenfeld and Roesler examine.

2. Scott wrote about the Kuperberg study at that time, taking far more issue with the media stories about it than the actual study, suggesting there are many ways people could misconstrue to whom those, and other findings of differential risk, applied. Those articles are here and here.

3. This omission does not seem as striking to us as the omission of Manning and Cohen’s paper, since their paper is already complex and they are intent on addressing one moderator of the cohabitation effect: how long after marriage the effect is measured. They do not address at all the growing literature on moderators of the cohabitation effect. Still, inertia is one of the major theories of increased risk, and only selection itself has more publications addressing it.

4. An accessible, word document version of the major theory paper can be found here. A full run-down of our theoretical and empirical work in this line is available here. That includes citations and links, mostly to accessible versions of the articles in the literature.

5. We have found evidence for inertia whether or not someone has cohabited only with their mate, and in numerous samples of people marrying after 2000 and later.

6. As an interesting side point on the subject of the inertia hypothesis, the commitment to marriage/timing effect exists in the NSFG. It was mentioned in passing in a working paper leading up to the 2010 publication by Reinhold, and it is mentioned prominently in the abstract (and paper) in Manning and Cohen’s 2012 publication.

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Wed, 17 Oct 2018 07:30:00 -0400
How Moving In Together Makes It Harder to Know If He’s the One https://ifstudies.org/blog/how-moving-in-together-makes-it-harder-to-know-if-hes-the-one https://ifstudies.org/blog/how-moving-in-together-makes-it-harder-to-know-if-hes-the-one by Galena Rhoades

Editor’s NoteThis article has been reprinted with permission from Verily magazine. 

Today, most couples live together before marriage—more than 75 percent. Many people will live with different partners during their 20s and 30s, too. While it’s common, it doesn’t mean the trend is good. In fact, those who live together before they have decided and planned on marriage report less happy marriages later on and are more likely to divorce. It’s true that there may be some benefits of living together. You may discover some of the faults your partner has or learn ways that you are incompatible. But the risk for many is that you may stay with this person due to inertia even if he or she doesn’t ultimately pass your test. My colleagues at the University of Denver and I call this phenomenon “sliding versus deciding.”

Here are four reasons why living together may make it harder to know if you’ve found “the one,” plus some tips on ways to decide for yourself rather than sliding into something that’s not right for you in the long-run.

1. Living Together Makes it Harder to Break Up.

This fact sounds obvious, but we don’t think about it when we sign a new lease together. I’ve been studying relationships, particularly cohabitation, for the past 18 years. My research with more than 1,200 people in their 20s and 30s shows that moving in together increases your chances of staying together, but it doesn’t increase how committed or interested you feel. It increases the number of constraints in a relationship—things that may make you stuck or make it hard to disentangle—like pooling finances, adopting a pet, co-mingling kitchenware, or buying furniture together. But there isn’t a corresponding increase in how much you want to marry your partner.

If you or your partner aren’t sure that you want to commit to this relationship, don’t take on constraints that make a break up harder (and therefore less likely) and messier. It will be hard to know if he or she is the one in the context of all of these constraints. You don’t want your decision to be based on whether breaking up is just too much work.

2. For Most Couples, Living Together Increases Discord.

Research shows that living together is associated with more conflict than either dating or being married. The reason for this is that while living together, couples deal with the same issues dating couples commonly face (time spent together, friends, jealousy, commitment) as well as issues common to married couples (household contributions, money, in-laws, raising children). These married-couple issues are easier to deal with when there is already a long-term commitment to the future—like there is in marriage. Living together defies the typical evolution of couple issues and may make it seem like there is more conflict in a relationship than there would be otherwise.

Living together might also make a couple conflict-averse to the larger issues that matter for marriage, which can lead to greater conflict down the road. As one woman shared at Verily in the past about her cohabiting relationship:

One evening, for example, it became apparent that he and I did not share the same values regarding working motherhood. I was completely aghast at the things he said to me that night; I felt like I had gotten the wind knocked out of me. Who was this man that I was living with and how could this be his expectations for our—my—future? But I didn’t say anything. I had class the next day, dinner to clean up, homework to do, and I just could not face such a serious conversation with no place to retreat to in case it went poorly. In a non-cohabitating situation, I probably would have broken up with him right then—it was that bad—or at least taken time to seriously reevaluate our relationship. But I did neither of those things. I told myself that I could maybe change his mind sometime in the future and left it there. We went to sleep that night as usual. This situation played itself out over and over again. These silences grew into unacknowledged mutual grudges that lived ominously under the surface until a disruption in our lives brought them to the surface.

This woman’s experience demonstrates how living with a romantic partner can affect your ability to respond to large relationship issues the way you would if you were discerning the relationship from different living quarters.

3. Living Together May Instill a Break-up Mentality that Can Hurt Later Marriage.

Oftentimes, partners move in together with ideas about how they will split up furniture, books, finances, and pets in the event of a breakup. This mentality can make it harder to fully commit later on because it becomes habit to think about what the end of the relationship will be like. Early research in this field has shown that living together made marriage seems less attractive. Making a decision to marry and spend a lifetime with someone means giving up these plans for “what if.”

If “what if” is engrained from the beginning of living together, it may be more difficult to change that thinking, even after marrying. Surviving the inevitable stress in marriage takes both partners being firmly committed to making it work. Thriving in those times takes a commitment to learning from experiences together. But by living together already, both parties have likely developed a thought pattern of "what if this doesn't work out," thinking you could just move out and move on, which can undermine that sense of commitment that is essential to a thriving marriage, and that most women seeking marriage want.

4. Living Together Can Hurt Your Chance of Determining If You’re Truly Compatible.

Living together isn’t a very proactive approach to testing out your compatibility. More telling would be to plan activities with your partner in different settings and with different people. What is your partner like with his or her family? With your friends vs. his/her friends? How does he/she act at work?

Consider planning low-cost, low-commitment projects together. If you’re considering marrying a person, you’d be wise to learn what it will be like to work together. You’ll essentially be running a small corporation together when you’re married. You’ll manage your income together, run a household, do renovations, call plumbers, garden, have babies, raise children, support one another through health problems—many, many tasks. Before you take on these job responsibilities together, it’s wise to get a window on what it will be like to face challenges together.

Some small projects you could consider are:

  • Plan and take a short day trip. Doing so involves several of these areas but doesn’t have to mean a long-term commitment.
  • Learn about relationships together. Read a book, take a class, attend a retreat. Put effort into your relationship to see how you both react.
  • Try a new sport or hobby together. Do you have similar interests? How do you do together under the stress doing something new?
  • Babysit together. What is it like to parent together? What topics come up for discussion when you spend time with children?
  • Ask for feedback from friends or family you trust. What do others who know you well see? Ask them to ask you the hard questions—and be open to their feedback.

If your goal is to decide if you’ve found “the one,” and not to slide into a long-term, ill-fitted relationship, try these tips. It might not be as common as cohabiting, but research shows that consciously deciding—rather than sliding—is more likely to lead to a happier ever after.

Galena Rhoades, Ph.D., is a Research Associate Professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Denver.

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Tue, 16 Oct 2018 07:30:00 -0400