Photo by JD via Flickr. Click for original.
Photo by JD via Flickr. Click for original.


Parents often equate good parenting with spending as much time with their children as possible. The idea is that, in those hours, parents will cultivate particular characteristics in their children that will contribute to bright futures. But is helicopter parenting really worth it? Sociologists Melissa Milkie and Kei Nomaguchi share the findings of their recent study with the Washington Post: “I could literally show you 20 charts, and 19 of them would show no relationship between the amount of parents’ time and children’s outcomes. . . . Nada. Zippo,” says Milkie.

It’s not the number of hours, but quality of time spent together that matters. Interactive activities like reading to a child, sharing a meal, and talking one-on-one benefit kids, while just watching TV together may be detrimental, as Amy Hsin found. Still, Milkie and Nomaguchi’s study did find that teenagers who engaged with a parent for six hours per showed lower levels of delinquent behavior and drug use than peers who spent less time with their parents.

The authors dug deeper, finding that when a parent was overly-tired, stressed, cranky, or feeling guilty, spending time with their children could lead to more behavioral problems and lower math scores. Nomaguchi says, “Mothers’ stress, especially when mothers are stressed because of the juggling with work and trying to find time with kids, that may actually be affecting their kids poorly.” This particularly impacts parents from low-income households who often lack access to social resources for improving mental health, but still feel the pressure to be “good” parents by spending time with their children. In fact, Milkie and Nomaguchi found that the biggest indicators of child success were mothers’ income and education levels:

“If we’re really wanting to think about the bigger picture and ask, how would we support kids, our study suggests through social resources that help the parents in terms of supporting their mental health and socio-economic status. The sheer amount of time that we’ve been so focused on them doesn’t do much,” says Milkie.

Photo by Anita Hart via Flickr CC
Photo by Anita Hart via Flickr CC


Sociologists Jamie Seabrook and William Avison’s research shatters the myth that children from single parent homes have worse outcomes than kids living with both parents. They told Northumberland Today that other factors better predict the future than whether a child lives with one versus two parents. “Instability really is the risk factor,” said Avison. “When there is a lot of transitioning in the family environment, that kind of instability doesn’t seem good for kids’ educational development and growing up to be adults.” They found that family structure had no impact on a child’s educational achievement or income, as long as the family structure remained consistent over time. When single mothers partnered and re-partnered several times, the researchers saw negative impacts on child outcomes compared to kids whose single mothers consistently single. Another interesting finding of the study is that children who grew up in stable single parent homes are less likely to divorce or separate than children who grew up in two-parent homes.

“The overarching conclusion is we have to be very careful saying the type of family you grow up in predicts kids’ success,” Seabrook said. Even if single parent homes are economically less advantaged than two-parent households, less money does not translate to differences in child education.

Photo by Rob Tom via Flickr.
There are more married mothers among millenial women with college degrees. Photo by rob tom via Flickr.

Differences in education level lead to dramatically different views on when to become a parent, according to new research. John Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin shows that millennial women with college educations are more likely to wait until they are married before they have children than women without a college degree. In an interview with Sarah Kliff of Vox, Cherlin explains:

“We’re seeing the emergence two very different paths to adulthood. Among young adults without college educations, most of their childbearing is in their twenties and the majority of it is outside of marriage. That includes people who have gotten a two-year associate’s degree. The dividing line is the four-year degree. The vast majority of people with that college degree are having children in marriage. We didn’t see this 20 or 30 years ago. We didn’t see these sharp differences between the college graduates and non-graduates.”

This trend concerns Cherlin, as it could lead to a more unstable family life for the children of unmarried parents with a high school education. He sees a lack of middle-skill jobs as the cause of their financial instability. This leads to their higher rate of breaking up and ultimately reinforces economic inequalities between education groups. Parents who have a college education are less likely to get divorced, since they are the couples who are more likely to have two steady incomes.

When asked if we could turn this worrisome trend around, Cherlin posits:

“It depends on if you think we can turn the middle of the job market around, and if we can find productive employment for high school graduates. If that happens, then I think we have a chance of reversing the instability we’re seeing in family lives. I also think that it might be a good idea to promote a message that one should wait to have children until one is in a stable marriage.”

That said, providing an alternative vision of a future where the high-school and college-educated alike can navigate the new economy could lead to greater family stability for their kids.


Photo by Dawn Derbyshire via

At the American Sociological Association’s Annual Meeting in Denver, researchers presented their on-going research to colleagues in the field. This week, several news sources have covered sociologists’ findings about how events in the lifecourse (like getting married, divorced, or having kids) are related to health issues.

Medical News Today reports on a study by Adrianne Frech and Sarah Damaske, finding that moms who work full-time are healthier at age 40 than are other mothers. Particularly concerning is that the least healthy mothers at age 40 are those who are persistently unemployed or in and out of work, not by choice. Consistent work, these findings suggest, may be good for women’s health.

Co-author Adrianne Frech, Assistant Sociology Professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, told the press, work is good for both physical and mental health, for many reasons:

“It gives women a sense of purpose, self-efficacy, control and autonomy.”

“They have a place where they are an expert on something, and they’re paid a wage,” she added.

NBC News details research conducted by Michael McFarland, Mark Hayward, and Dustin Brown exploring how marriage is related to biological risk factors, such as high blood pressure. They found that women who were continuously married for longer periods of time had fewer cardiovascular risks, whereas women with experiences of divorce or widowhood had increased risk factors.

For women, the researchers found, the longer the marriage, the fewer cardiovascular risk factors. The effect was significant but modest, McFarland said, with every 10 years of continuous marriage associated with a 13 percent decrease in cardiovascular risk.

But when marriage is disrupted, it can be hard on the health. Women who were continuously married had a 40 percent lower count of metabolic risk factors than women who experienced two episodes or divorce or widowhood, the researchers found.

Finally, Deseret News picked up on research presented by Corinne Reczek, Tetyana Pudroyska, and Debra Umberson (also highlighted on Citings&Sightings). Their research found that being in a long-term marriage was associated with more alcohol consumption for women (compared to divorced or recently widowed women). In an interesting contrast, however, married men drink less than other men.

Our survey results show that continuously divorced and recently widowed women consume fewer drinks that continuously married women,” they wrote. “Our qualitative results suggest this occurs because men introduce and prompt women’s drinking and because divorced women lose the influence of men’s alcohol use” when the marriage fails.

As these studies indicate, it is essential to consider how social factors may be related to health outcomes, and sociologists are well positioned to contribute cutting-edge research on these issues.


Today, people are opting out of parenthood at unprecedented rates.  In 1976, 10% of U.S. women ages 40-44 had never had a child; by 2006, the percentage had doubled.  While some people desire children but are unable to have them, increasing numbers of adults are deciding to form families without children.

In a recent opinion piece, Sociologist Amy Blackstone explained that families that don’t include children still can play an important role in the life of children.

 According to the people I’ve interviewed, child-free adults serve as mentors, role models, back-up parents, playmates, fun aunties, big brothers, partners-in-crime, advisers and buddies to the children in their lives. And, as research conducted for Big Brothers Big Sisters shows, having caring adults who are not their parents involved in their lives improves kids’ confidence, grades and social skills.

Though stereotypes often portray adults without children as self-involved or baby-haters, Blackstone notes that most child-free adults enjoy children.  And, at a time when parents are busier than ever, these child-free individuals are often more available, in terms of money or resources, to take on additional responsibilities.  Apparently, it still takes a village to raise a child.

 Families have changed a lot, but children will always need love and guidance. Whether those raising children are single-parents, heterosexual couples, or gay or lesbian parents, other adults make a positive difference in a child’s life.

Family dinners are often thought of as a sort of magical hour each night, where parents and children connect, laughing and talking about their day over steaming dishes of mashed potatoes and green beans. So, where does that leave (perhaps the majority of) families for which this illusive ideal doesn’t quite become daily reality? Past research has suggested that regular family dinners do have many positive outcomes in kids’ lives, but new work by Ann Meier and Kelly Musick suggests the relationship may not simply be a straightforward case of cause and effect. Writing in The New York Times, Meier and Musick wonder:

[D]oes eating together really make for better-adjusted kids? Or is it just that families that can pull off a regular dinner also tend to have other things (perhaps more money, or more time) that themselves improve child well-being?

Our research, published last month in the peer-reviewed Journal of Marriage and Family, shows that the benefits of family dinners aren’t as strong or as lasting as previous studies suggest.

They did find that kids who had regular family dinners exhibited less depressive symptoms, drug and alcohol use, and delinquency. However, the relationship significantly weakened after accounting for factors like the quality of their family relationships, other activities they do with their parents, how their parents monitor them, or their family’s income. Additionally, Meier and Musick didn’t find lasting effects of family dinners when they analyzed data collected years later, when the kids were young adults.

What, then, should you think about dinnertime? Though we are more cautious than other researchers about the unique benefits of family dinners, we don’t dismiss the possibility that they can matter for child well-being. Given that eating is universal and routine, family meals offer a natural opportunity for parental influence: there are few other contexts in family life that provide a regular window of focused time together…

But our findings suggest that the effects of family dinners on children depend on the extent to which parents use the time to engage with their children and learn about their day-to-day lives. So if you aren’t able to make the family meal happen on a regular basis, don’t beat yourself up: just find another way to connect with your kids.


one happy family

Earlier this month, Slate published an article by Sociologist Mark Regenerus about the effects of same sex parenting on children.  As part of the New Family Structures Study, Regenerus and his colleagues screened over 15,000 Americans (ages 18-39) and asked them if their biological mother or father ever had a romantic relationship with a member of the same sex.   When comparing children who answered “yes” to children from heterosexual married families, they found children from heterosexual married families fared better in economic, educational, social, and psychological outcomes.

This study has prompted many comments and several other articles.  For example, in another article in Slate, William Saletan says that the findings shouldn’t be surprising, as Regenerus’s study is not a study of gay parents who decided to have kids.  Rather, it’s a study of people who engaged in same sex relationships (and often broke up their families) several decades ago.

 What the study shows, then, is that kids from broken homes headed by gay people develop the same problems as kids from broken homes headed by straight people. But that finding isn’t meaningless. It tells us something important: We need fewer broken homes among gays, just as we do among straights.

Sociologist Debra Umberson also shared reactions, published yesterday in the Huffington Post, to Regenerus’s study.  Specifically, she focused on methodological concerns.

His definition of children raised by lesbian mothers and gay fathers is incredibly broad — anyone whose biological or adopted mother or father had a same-sex relationship that the respondent knew about by age 18. Most of these respondents did not even live with their parent’s same-sex partner; in fact, many did not even live with their gay or lesbian parent at all! Of the 175 adult children Regnerus claims were raised by “lesbian mothers,” only 40 actually lived with their mother and her same-sex partner for at least three years.

Umberson also notes that in order to be considered a child of a heterosexual married family, respondents had to have parents who were continually married from the time of their birth to the time of the survey.  With the wide net cast for same sex relationships, the study likely captured families that had far more stress than average families of that generation, contrasted with very stable heterosexual married families.

What does this tell us?  According to both Saletan and Umberson, it’s a reminder that stress and instability harm children in any family context.

amy giving nick a violin lesson in our living room - MG 1510.custom blended fused

The Atlantic writer Laura McKenna recently reflected on parenting and came to the conclusion that she is the product of her social class.

Jonah, did you ask your French teacher about why you got that B on that assignment? At 5:00 p.m. today, you have an orthodontist appointment. We’ll pick up Thai food on the way home and then you’ll finish your English homework. Don’t forget to put a book cover on your essay. A book cover always bumps a grade up half a point….

The reader can almost envision McKenna shaking her head at herself as she notes, “Every once in a while, you step back from yourself as a parent and say, ‘Dude! Did I actually just say that? I used to be cool. Did some alien take over my brain and turn me into this Mom Machine?'”

Instead of running with the alien theory, McKenna turned to Annette Lareau’s 2003 book Unequal Childhoods, in which she studied how 88 families from different backgrounds were raising their kids.

Lareau writes that the working class and the middle class have very different methods of raising their children. Poor and working-class parents practice what Lareau calls accomplishment of natural growth parenting. Their children have long periods of unstructured time where they shoot the breeze with neighbors and cousins, roam around the neighborhood, and watch TV with their large, extended families. Parents give orders to the children, rather than soliciting their opinions. Parents believe that they should care for their children, but kids reach adulthood naturally without too much interference from adults.

In contrast, middle-class kids are driven to soccer practice and band recitals, are involved in family debates at dinner time, and are told that to ask their teacher why they received a B on a French exam. They talk, talk, talk to their kids all the time. Even discipline becomes a matter of negotiation and bargaining between the child and the adult. Lareau calls this style of parenting concerted cultivation.

McKenna worries that, while her children may learn how to navigate bureaucracy and manage their time, they may be overscheduled.  “It’s hard to step back and relax when everyone around you is speeding up. My kids can’t go out for a spontaneous game of tag when every other kid on the block is at a band concert or at soccer practice.”

Even more worrisome to her is the idea that different parenting styles may be reinforcing class divisions in the U.S., which is something that a book cover can’t fix.

Angry face

Fights between parents and their teenagers have become a symbol of growing up.  But, new research covered by National Public Radio found that stress and weariness aside, these arguments can provide lifelong benefits to children.

The research, led by Psychologist Joseph P. Allan, videotaped over 150 thirteen-year-olds describing their biggest argument with their parents.  The tapes were then shared with the parents.

 “Parents reacted in a whole variety of ways. Some of them laughed uncomfortably; some rolled their eyes; and a number of them dove right in and said, ‘OK, let’s talk about this,'” he says.  It was the parents who said [they] wanted to talk who were on the right track, says Allen. “We found that what a teen learned in handling these kinds of disagreements with their parents was exactly what they took into their peer world,” with all its pressures to conform to risky behavior like drugs and alcohol.

The teens were then interviewed at ages 15 and 16.

“The teens who learned to be calm and confident and persuasive with their parents acted the same way when they were with their peers,”…They were able to confidently disagree, saying ‘no’ when offered alcohol or drugs. In fact, they were 40 percent more likely to say ‘no’ than kids who didn’t argue with their parents.

For other kids, passivity in arguments with their parents seemed to be taken into their peer groups, where they were more likely to acquiesce when offered alcohol or drugs. So, effective arguing appears to help teens deal with negative peer pressure.

Their advice to parents?  First, listen. In their study, the kids listened to their parents when their parents listed to them.  It might be tough, but it could be helping children in the long-run.

 “We tell parents to think of those arguments not as nuisance but as a critical training ground,” he says. Such arguments, he says, are actually mini life lessons in how to disagree — a necessary skill later on in life with partners, friends and colleagues on the job.



More than half of new mothers now get paid leave from work, the U.S. Census Bureau announced last week. At face value the news might seem like cause for celebration, but some have dug deeper to expose exactly which mothers were getting paid leave.

The 22-page census report reported that a super-slim majority of women were getting paid leave: 51 percent of first-time mothers were able to take paid maternity, sick, or vacation time between 2006 and 2008. Hence the divide between which half of moms headlines highlighted:

“Majority of new moms are getting paid leave” (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

“Paid-leave benefits lagging for working moms in U.S.” (Chicago Tribune)

“Census shows half of working women don’t get paid maternity benefits; wide gaps by education” (Associated Press)

The lack of access to paid leave among women who haven’t completed college is raising concern. According to the AP article, “Lower-educated mothers are nearly four times more likely than college graduates to be denied paid maternity benefits. That’s the widest gap over the past 50 years.” (The chart above illustrates the comparison.)

New York University sociologist Kathleen Gerson, author of The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family, shared her opinion. “This isn’t good news for women at the bottom, and the irony is that the people with the most children are now the least likely to have the supports they need,” she told the Associated Press.

University of Minnesota sociologist Erin Kelly echoed Gerson’s sentiment when interviewed by the Star Tribune. “People who are already living paycheck to paycheck, if they don’t have access to paid leave they’re going to have to quit or they’re going to have to do something that is really unhealthy for themselves or their babies,” Kelly told the paper. “The lack of [federal] paid leave policy means in effect we are pushing those women to quit.”