Families as They Really Are

The Defining Consent Online Symposium (.pdf) was convened for the Council on Contemporary Families by Stephanie Coontz and Paula England, who prepared this overview of the seven-part series. Their takeaway: Let’s reject simplistic answers and deal with the complicated realities of sex on campus.

The articles in the CCF Defining Consent online symposium address two complex and emotionally-charged issues: How college communities can most effectively reduce the incidence of non-consensual sex; and how to define consent (or determine lack of consent). The contributors offer no easy solutions. Indeed, in different ways they all demonstrate that there are no easy solutions. But their research can help people reject seemingly easy answers based on flawed data or on misunderstanding of the context in which campus sexual interactions take place.

Our contributors point out that far from being over-reported, incidents of sexual assault on campus are seriously under-reported. There is no evidence that false accusations are a significant problem, but our researchers explain the gender myths and sexual fallacies that lead some perpetrators of sexual harm — and even some victims — to rationalize, or fail to recognize, the extent of the wrong-doing that has occurred. That is why all the reports emphasize the importance of defining consent and educating students about what symposium contributors Hirsch and Kahn term “sexual citizenship.”

The #MeToo movement revealed that rates of nonconsensual sex of nonconsensual sex—whether or not they meet a legal definition or rape and sexual assault—are much higher across all sectors of American society than many people realized. Some observers claim they have reached epidemic proportions. But “epidemic” implies an intensifying and growing problem. Sexual coercion may be endemic in America, but most evidence suggests it was far more common — and generally far more tolerated — in the past than it is today.

Rape and nonconsensual sex have a long history

For 300 years, the rape or sexual coercion of enslaved people, servants, working-class women, poor women, Native Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics, and children was largely ignored. Until the late 19th century, the legal age of consent for girls was only 10 to 12 in most states. In 1871 Delaware lowered its age of consent to just seven years.

As University of Delaware historian Rebecca Davis explains in her essay, 19th-century cultural arbiters promoted a new ideology of (white middle-class) female sexual purity. Although repressive in many ways, this ideal offered some protection to women who were able to signal by their clothes, manners, and abstention from work or unchaperoned social interactions beyond the home that they were asexual “ladies.” Once married, no group of women had protection against sexual assault by their husbands: Until the 1970s, the legal definition of rape was forcible sex by a man with a woman who was not his wife. This not only closed off legal recognition of the possibility that a man could be raped but meant that a husband could not be charged with raping his wife, no matter how “lady-like” she was. Still, during the years before marriage, middle-class men were encouraged to direct their sexual overtures to women who could not or would not live up to the tenets of “true womanhood.”

All this changed in the 20th century, with increasing acceptance of practices such as men and women going out on dates, meeting up to dance and drink together, and even kissing or “petting.” But as Davis shows, the new acceptance of eroticized courting did not eliminate the gendered double standard. It gave men new permission to be pushy about sex while intensifying the pressure on women to “contain” erotic interactions and set boundaries. Davis challenges the myth that middle-class Americans of the past had better sexual mores. It’s not that there are newly bad sexual behaviors and values, but that we have newly recognized many long-tolerated behaviors and mores as bad. In fact, forcible rapes and sexual assault, as well as sexual violence within marriage, have all declined significantly since the 1970s, when feminist activists began a concerted campaign against these crimes.

Counting — and discounting — rape

Still, as prior research shows, rape remains seriously under-reported. One study of the U.S. Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey found that only 45 percent of those who told survey takers they had been raped, 39 percent of those who described attempted rape, and 30 percent of those who had experienced other sexual assaults in 2004 or 2005 had reported the assault to the police.

Even anonymous surveys such as the NCVS undercount assault cases. Tolerance for male sexual aggression and notions about women’s responsibility for “leading men on” are so widespread that many women do not even recognize when an unwanted sexual experience constitutes what would meet a legal definition of rape in many states. An analysis of 28 studies, covering a total 5,917 women who at some point in their lives had submitted to a sexual experience as a result of force or the threat of force, or who were subjected to sex while incapacitated, found that 60 percent of these women didn’t describe this as rape. They used terms such as a “serious miscommunication” or a “bad experience.”

Campus rape and assault patterns differ in some ways from those in the larger population, but non-consensual sex is clearly widespread. According to a number of estimates, 15 to 25 percent of college women have experienced rape or sexual assault on campus. In a 2015 analysis that excluded coercive grabbing or fondling, Elizabeth Armstrong and Jamie Budick estimated that between 7 and 10 percent of college women experienced forcible rape and 14 to 26 percent experienced sexual assault.

An important piece of background information for this symposium is that college women are even less likely to report sexual assault to the police than other groups of women. This may be because intoxication is a factor in a disproportionate number of cases. When drinking renders women (or men) incapacitated, they are seen in many state laws as incapable of giving consent, so someone initiating sex with an incapacitated partner may be legally guilty of rape or sexual assault. However, the informal culture often views women as responsible for sex if they were drunk and men who were drunk as not responsible. This may be why rates of reporting assault are especially low among college women. Campus victims, men as well as women, are also more likely to experience assault by someone they know, sometimes a member of a mutual friendship network, or at least someone they cannot easily avoid encountering afterwards in shared classes, living spaces, or eating areas; this may also discourage reporting. These factors put extra pressure on college administrators to deal with issues of nonconsensual sex outside the criminal justice system.

Complications of consent in law and everyday campus life

Our second contribution, by Stanford legal scholar Deborah Rhode, discusses how hard it has been to come up with a definition of consent that is fair both to survivors of assault and to people unjustly accused of sexual assault. She points out that any policy to reduce nonconsensual sex needs to take into account the university context, where one or both parties are highly intoxicated in many casual sexual encounters. Rhode argues that it may not be drinking itself that increases the likelihood of rape but drinking in party subcultures where sexual aggression is normalized.

Other studies show that for some men, alcohol tends to activate implicit rape-supportive attitudes that otherwise lie dormant, leading them when they are drunk to misperceive a woman’s willingness to have sex in ways they do not when sober. A further complication is that, because the new freedom to act on one’s sexual urges is still colored by old notions that sex is shameful or dirty, students often use alcohol to lower their inhibitions or assuage anxieties about not having had the amount of sexual experience they think everyone else has.

Some universities have responded to the association between drinking and sexual assault by outlawing drinking on campus, but this may just drive it off campus to even more dangerous locations. It can also mean that a person who brings a rape charge after having consumed alcohol on campus may be subject to discipline just for reporting the circumstances of the rape.

Rhode is skeptical of many rape prevention and reduction initiatives, which have not been shown to be especially effective. She does, however, see promise in emphasizing the need for consent while developing risk-reduction/self-defense and bystander intervention programs. Several studies of bystander interventions have shown participants to subsequently have significant increases in intent to intervene, compared to people who had not taken the training, and in one study of two college campuses, participants’ increased intent to intervene and confidence about doing so remained significantly higher than the control group’s a year later.

Myths and realities about university consent policies

University of Michigan sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong and her colleagues address widespread misconceptions about the content of university consent policies. In 1992 Antioch College issued an elaborate formula for establishing consent to sex.

  • “The person who initiates sexual conduct is responsible for verbally asking for the affirmative consent of individual(s) involved.”
  • “The person with whom sexual conduct is initiated must verbally express affirmative consent or lack of consent.”
  • “Each new level of sexual activity requires affirmative consent.” [i.e. Things like touching a more intimate part of the body; taking off a new piece of clothing, etc.]

To many, this blueprint seemed so out of touch with how sexual encounters usually proceed as to practically invite unfounded charges of rape. It probably did little to reassure such critics to read that “Use of agreed upon forms of communication such as gestures or safe words is acceptable but must be discussed and verbally agreed to by all parties before sexual activity occurs.”

Skeptics about the seriousness of sexual assault issues on campuses often point to the Antioch policy as evidence that colleges are demanding unrealistic behaviors and punishing people unfairly for not following them. But Antioch’s policy is an outlier. After studying the policies in place as of 2016 at 381 campuses, Armstrong’s research team found that most policies are far less demanding. Indeed, they found that only three percent of the schools required verbal consent for sex. While some policies use the term “affirmative consent,” it is almost never clearly defined. Many policies make numerous statements about what consent is not (for example, that consent to sex with a person on one night does not imply consent to sex with that person on future nights). Armstrong and her colleagues conclude that the main problem is not that the regulations are unreasonably stringent, but that they are often ambiguous or even incoherent in defining what constitutes consent or what constitutes incapacitation. Such ambiguity, they say, is fair to neither the accuser nor the accused.

Other scholars agree. For example, University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Bagenstos likewise rejects the idea that the Obama-era consent guidelines on which most campus policies are based are unfair. The few but widely-publicized miscarriages of due process that have occurred, he points out, have not been due to overly stringent definitions of consent but to bureaucratic fiats that ignored or went well beyond any existing consent standards.

The articles by Rhode and Armstrong et al. describe the culture that administrators are trying to regulate and what the existing policies are. The rest of the symposium essays demonstrate that an important part of that culture turns out to be a lack of clarity about the norms and protocols of youthful sex in a world where most college students will not marry until several years after they graduate. These students no longer live in a culture where premarital sex is widely stigmatized; they have many opportunities to engage in erotic encounters. But they do not yet live in a culture where the sexual “rules of engagement” – and disengagement — are clear, or where there is a common understanding of the obligations, rights, and social niceties that sexual interactions, even casual ones, entail.

“Consensualish”: Why some students engage in unwanted sex in the absence of coercion

Columbia University research scientist Jessie Ford’s interviews uncovered a range of sexual experiences described as unwanted, but none involving physical force and only a minority involving the fear of such force. Often the individuals didn’t express their disinclination aloud, and later did not label the sex as an assault. It was sex they didn’t want but went along with. Why did they go along? Mundane concerns about feeling awkward or embarrassed were prominent in the stories told by the students she interviewed. Perhaps surprisingly, one of the main factors that discourages saying a clear no is that people don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings. Unfortunately, this usually commendable social impulse interacts with persistent gender norms, such as the idea that men “need” sex and cannot stop themselves after a certain point and that women are responsible for “making nice” and smoothing over people’s feelings, to produce unhappy experiences. Women reported worrying about being seen as a “bitch” if they said no. Others reasoned that if they might be seen to have “led” a man to expect sex — by going into his room, for example — it wouldn’t be right to decline.

Some heterosexual men also reported having had unwanted sex with women. In some cases, as with women, they did it in order not to hurt feelings. But they also reported thinking that they’d be ridiculed, or seen as gay, if they said no to an opportunity for sex—so the belief that all men want sex all the time was a problem for them as well.

“Sexual citizenship”: A public health approach

The articles by David Karp (University of San Diego) and by Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Kahn (Columbia University) caution against assuming that all cases of non-consensual sex are driven by sexual predators. While there are indeed serial rapists, Karp suggests that some portion of men honestly don’t realize when they have crossed a line and caused hurt, in part because cultural norms about gender and sexuality allow them to rationalize their behaviors. Some assault victims do not want the perpetrator punished, but simply to acknowledge what he did and how it harmed them. A segment of anti-rape activists has therefore advocated establishment of an opt-in restorative justice track for survivors who wish to avoid the Title IX process. Karp describes how this might work in his essay and in a Q and A with us.

Restorative justice is just one part of a much larger initiative advocated by Hirsch and Kahn. Working from their ethnographic research at Columbia University and Barnard College, they argue that we should approach sexual assault on campus as a public health problem, employing an ecological model that explores the broader context in which these problem behaviors occur. They analyze how the physical spaces, social groupings, drinking patterns, and power dynamics on campus create specific patterns of sexual interaction and risks of nonconsensual sex. They recommend particular changes in the overall environment in which college students negotiate their social and sexual relationships. But they also remind us that the solution must begin years before college. On average, young Americans have sex for the first time at about age 17. A recent analysis of the 2011-2017 National Survey of Family Growth, administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that of more than 13,000 women interviewed, 6.5 percent, or one in 16, reported that their first experience of vaginal intercourse was nonconsensual. No wonder Hirsch and Kahn advocate for a comprehensive public health campaign that fosters “sexual citizenship” among youth, teaching them to recognize their “own right to sexual self-determination” while acknowledging and respecting “the equivalent right in others.”

Stephanie Coontz is Director of Research and Public Education, Council on Contemporary Families; Professor Emerita, The Evergreen State College. Contact her at coontzs@msn.com.  Paula England is Silver Professor of Sociology, New York University. Contact her at pengland@nyu.edu

 

Reposted from CalMatters

The recent shooting death of Miles Hall, a 23-year-old African-American man in Walnut Creek who struggled with mental illness, reminded me of why I didn’t call an ambulance during my sister, Erica’s, psychotic break.

Mr. Hall’s family called 911 for help, as he ran around with a pointed metal object. The family described it as a garden tool and police called it an iron bar. The day before, his mother,

Taun Hall, notified the police department about their son’s worsening schizoaffective disorder, which can cause delusions, hallucinations, or disorganized speech. Police advised the family to call the police in an emergency.

Despite the family’s outreach, something still went horribly wrong.

Two officers trained in crisis intervention, Tasers on hand, arrived on scene first and fired bean bag rounds to get Mr. Hall to drop the object. When he ran in their direction, which the family explains as an attempt to “run past” officers and toward home, they used a gun, instead of a Taser.

The family filed a civil claim in June and a federal wrongful death lawsuit in September. Mr. Hall’s survivors and their attorney John Burris, said they want this case to serve as an example to California law enforcement of how not to respond to a mental health crisis.

“We are betrayed by a system that failed us, that we had no other option (but) to use,” Taun Hall said as quoted by KPIX in San Francisco. “What else are we supposed to do? We have no other options but to call the police.”

These dangers have dissuaded my family from feeling comfortable calling an ambulance if Erica has another psychotic break.

Eight years ago a security guard at my family’s housing complex in New York City found my sister, Erica, wandering in a daze. She rambled about witchcraft and vampires and said she was going to Alaska.

My sister had no known history of mental illness, but I knew she needed psychiatric help. I called the nearest hospital’s mobile crisis team and asked how quickly help could arrive. The dispatcher said someone would arrive within 48 hours. What kind of crisis intervention can wait two days for a response?

I asked about an ambulance. She warned me that if I called 911, the police would attend.

“Something to keep in mind,” she said.

Erica had never shown aggression before, but that morning, overcome by fear and her delusions, she hit my father and threw objects at me.

She wanted to leave the apartment, and my father and I tried to prevent her from going outside again in her confused state. I pictured a struggle with police, given her uncooperativeness and desire to flee.

She angrily told me there was nothing wrong with her.

At 304 pounds, her size coupled with her agitation made her especially imposing that day. Instead of calling 911, I spent hours cajoling Erica to seek medical help before we finally managed to get into a cab to the hospital.

We’re lucky no police showed up that morning, since Erica’s out-of-character behavior the next day suggests she might have presented in a way that would have caused a police officer to use force in subduing her.

She fought with hospital staff when people there to help tried to prevent her from leaving the ER. They tied her down in restraints and drugged her so heavily that she slept through the weekend.

“I don’t remember anything,” Erica says, of the events from that morning and the days afterward.

Erica spent three months involuntarily committed in a psychiatric unit, followed by years of treatment. Eventually she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder.

Thankfully her medication has controlled the psychotic symptoms. Her own efforts and family and program support has helped Erica avoid inpatient psychiatric re-hospitalization.

She attends a psychosocial clubhouse in New York City, which provides volunteer, work, and educational opportunities and social activities, along with low-cost nutritious meals and caseworkers. Fountain House has given Erica continued support to weather the bumps.

Charleena Lyles, a pregnant African-American mother of four in Seattle, wasn’t so lucky. Neither was Deborah Danner, a 66-year-old black woman in New York. Both women had a history of mental illness and died in officer-inflicted shootings within minutes of police arrival.

Last year, officers armed with Tasers killed three unarmed people with a diagnosed mental illness in a 10-month period in San Mateo County. These represent just a handful of deaths of people with mental illness or disability by police within the last few years.

Attributing these tragedies, whether gun or Taser-inflicted, to human error ignores systemic problems with how we address mental illness in the community. We’ve failed as a society when police are the primary responders to mental health crises.

This shift in care for citizens with a mental illness, with the criminal justice system taking over mental health services, dates to the failures of the 1970s and 80s when people were moved from confinement in large public hospitals and released without adequate healthcare, social services and supportive housing.

Today, jails and prisons provide much of the inpatient psychiatric care in the United States.

Absent a major overhaul in psychiatric services, police will continue to play a frontline role in mental health emergencies. Police departments need to ensure officers can recognize a mental health crisis, receive adequate training in de-escalation techniques, and assess behavior that seems threatening with informed evaluation and not fear.

Urban police departments have begun increased training for handling interactions with emotionally disturbed people, modeled on the nationally recognized crisis intervention training—CIT—program used by nearly 3,000 law enforcement agencies.

But the efforts are uneven and inadequate. While increasing, only about half of the San Francisco Police Department’s 1,869 full duty officers have completed the program.

All Los Angeles police officers receive 15 hours of mental health training, which is a good start but far fewer hours than a full CIT course.

Given the vast needs of diverse urban populations across the state, every officer needs CIT. But the programs remain underfunded and understaffed, as a recent Los Angeles County Sheriff Department report outlined.

And even that may not be enough, as the presence of CIT-certified officers has not prevented some of these recent shootings.

In the case of officer-involved deaths, the question of whether officers should have used Tasers instead of guns isn’t the main discussion we should be having. Weapons shouldn’t be the first method of addressing a health crisis. And Tasers kill, too. They can cause cardiac arrest and death even when used “properly.”

With Taser-related deaths on the rise, communities across the United States have begun to reconsider their usage.

Given the unpredictability of interactions with someone in a psychotic state, police departments need to implement better safeguards to avoid heat-of-the-moment breaking of police procedure. Emergency 911 calls with any hint of emotionally disturbed behavior should require the presence of medical personnel from the beginning, with emergency service units arriving first and patrol officers as back-up.

Calls from households with a record of prior police contact for emotionally disturbed behavior should be rigorously tracked and flagged, with CIT-trained officers required to respond.

Officers need to focus on slowing down the interaction and buying time to ensure everyone’s safety, the hallmark of CIT training for encounters with emotionally disturbed people.

Developing listening skills and empathy will lower the odds of violent outcomes to mental health emergencies and benefit all communities when emphasis shifts from aggression to de-escalation.

The bigger challenge is helping officers not to presume people with mental illness are a threat or problem. Stigma is powerful, and psychosis is frightening for everyone involved.

Continued anti-bias efforts, coupled with crisis intervention training, is crucial, considering that many of these deaths involved members of racial and ethnic minority groups. Until we have a more humane, medically-informed system of police response, we will do whatever we can to avoid calling 911 for Erica in a crisis.

Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology at UC San Francisco, Stacy.Torres@ucsf.edu. Her sister, Erica Torres, contributed to this commentary. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

Image by Denise Husted from Pixabay

The question of how having children affects parents’ wellbeing has been debated by social scientists and the public for decades. While research studies on this topic have found varied results—in part depending on who is being studied and how wellbeing is defined—some areas of consensus have emerged. First, when people are asked to reflect on their overall happiness or general satisfaction with life, parents tend to report lower life satisfaction than non-parents. This is especially true in the U.S. Second, and somewhat at odds with the findings on life satisfaction, when reporting their experience of positive and negative emotions during regular daily activities, parents tend to report more positive emotions than non-parents. Third, the impact of parenting on wellbeing is gendered: fathers experience a greater increase in positive emotional experiences during daily activities than mothers do.

So why might the day-to-day experience of parenting be more favorable for fathers than for mothers? Researchers have proposed various explanations, including that mothers suffer from insufficient sleep and leisure time, that mothers multi-task more and find multi-tasking more stressful, and that fathers enjoy parenting more because they are more playful in their interactions with children. In our recent study, we focused on how, when, and where parents undertake childcare as a potential explanation for gender differences in parents’ reported emotions. Caring for children involves many different types of activities undertaken in many different circumstances including, for example, taking a family trip to the playground, bringing children to and from school, and changing an infant’s diaper in the middle of the night. There is a substantial body of research on gender and parenting that shows that not only do mothers continue to do more daily childcare than fathers, but that mothers and fathers differ in terms of what activities they do for children and the circumstances in which those activities take place. Our study sought to bridge research on the emotional experience of parenting with research on gender differences in caregiving. In other words, we wanted to know if the context surrounding caregiving activities contributed to gender differences in the emotional rewards of parenting.

First we looked at parents’ reported emotions during childcare. We examined how happy, stressed, and tired parents were when caring for their children as well as how meaningful they found the activity. Consistent with other research, we found that parents generally experience childcare as happy and meaningful but that fathers are happier, less stressed and less tired than mothers when caring for children. Next, we developed the concept of the ‘care context’ as a way to measure how one childcare activity can be different from another. To develop the care context, we considered not only the type of activity parents were doing, but also when and where the activity took place, who else was present, and how much care was involved. We found substantial differences in the care context by parent gender. For example, fathers’ activities were more likely to be recreational (e.g. play) and to take place on the weekends. Meanwhile, mothers’ activities were more likely to be ‘solo’ parenting—parenting without a partner present—and to involve an infant. We also found evidence of mothers’ time fragmentation: although mothers’ childcare activities were typically shorter than fathers’ activities, mothers tended to have spent more cumulative time in childcare each day. We discovered multiple links between the care context and parents’ emotions while caring for their children. Indeed, all aspects of the care context—the type of activity, when and where it took place, who was present and how much care was involved—were related to parents’ reported emotions, often in complex ways. For example, parents reported more happiness and meaning when caring for an infant, but also higher levels of tiredness.

Finally, we tested whether gender differences in the care context helped to explain why fathers are happier, less tired and less stressed than mothers during childcare. We found that once we accounted for the care context, the gender difference in happiness disappeared and the difference in stress was reduced. However, the gap in tiredness was not reduced. So, overall, we concluded that differences in parents’ emotions during childcare result partly from general differences between mothers and fathers (i.e. that mothers are generally more tired and more stressed than fathers) and partly because, on average, fathers’ childcare activities are different than mothers’ childcare activities. Using the data that we have on reported emotions during specific activities, we can’t say why parents’ engagement with their children is gendered in a way that produces more emotional rewards for fathers. What’s clear from our analysis, though, is that gender differences in parents’ wellbeing are partly due to differences in how, when, and where mothers and fathers care for their children.

Cadhla McDonnell is a CAROLINE Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Trinity College, Dublin. Reach her at mcdonc11@tcd.ie. Nancy Luke is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Demography at The Pennsylvania State University. Reach her at nkl10@psu.edu. Susan E. Short is a Professor of Sociology and Director of the Population Studies and Training Center at Brown University. Reach her at susan_short@brown.edu.

Reposted with permission from This Chair Rocks.

What affliction do Americans fear most? Alzheimer’s disease. I’m one of them, unless so many bones give out that I have to be carried around in a shovel. But facts comfort me. Abundant new data shows that our fears are way out of proportion to the threat—and that those fears themselves put us at risk.

Fact #1: Dementia rates are falling.  As I reported last April, the likelihood of you or me developing dementia has dropped—significantly—and people are getting diagnosed at later ages. That’s despite a surge in diabetes among older Americans, which significantly increases the risk. Numbers remain high—an estimated four million to five million Americans currently have dementia—but that number pales in comparison all the people who are worried about getting it, and about aging in general. Why is that important?

Fact #2: Worrying about dementia—and about getting older—is itself a health risk. We’ve known for some time that attitudes towards aging affect how the mind and body function at the cellular level. New research published on February 7th in the prestigious Public Library of Science journal confirms that finding, reporting that people who associate old age with becoming useless or incompetent are more likely to develop dementia than people with a more positive outlook.

Scientists consider a gene called ApoE to be the primary genetic risk factor in late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, yet many who carry it never develop dementia. How come? Could environmental—and therefore modifiable—factors play a role?  The new study, led by Yale’s Becca Levy, worked with a group of 4,765 people over age 60 who were dementia-free at the start, more than a quarter of whom carried the gene. Levy and her team interviewed them regularly over the course of four years, asking them to rank their feelings to prompts such as, “The older I get the more useful I feel.” They found that people with more negative attitudes were twice as likely to develop dementia. In other words, positive age beliefs confer protection against cognitive decline—even among people who are genetically predisposed to the disease.

Both experimental and longitudinal research show that stress, which links to dementia, may be the mechanism. Levy’s team found that positive attitudes about aging can reduce stress and help us cope with ageist messages that bombard us from the media and popular culture. People assimilate cultural beliefs from early childhood on, and as these stereotypes become more relevant over time, we tend to act as though they were accurate, creating self-fulfilling prophecies. (More here about Levy’s theory of stereotype embodiment.) Positive beliefs (e.g. late life is inherently valuable, old age is a time of growth and development, olders contribute to society) help keep us healthy by buffering stress and prejudice: the effects of ageism. Negative beliefs (e.g. it’s sad to be old, old people are ugly, aging means becoming a burden) make us vulnerable to disease and decline.

It’s time for an anti-ageism public health campaign.

We’re stuck with our genes, but not with our behaviors or attitudes. Interventions work. Last year New York Times science reporter Gina Kolata described the decline in dementia rates as “what seems to be a long-term trend, despite researchers’ failure to find any effective way for individuals to protect themselves from Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia.” That is no longer the case.

Reputable researches are careful not to overstate their findings, but the scientists behind this new study note that that their findings have far-reaching social implications. In personalized medicine, for example, education could bolster positive attitudes in people at higher risk of developing dementia. On a broader scale, as Levy points out, the research “lays a foundation for creating a public health campaign to beat back against ageism and negative beliefs about aging.” I’ve been making this case for years.

No matter how you feel about the longevity boom, or just about hitting that next big birthday, everyone wants olders to stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible. Imagine the benefits to health and human potential of replacing negative stereotypes about age and aging with more nuanced, positive, and accurate portrayals. The 65+ population of the US is expected to double by the year 2030. Let’s get cracking!

Author and activist Ashton Applewhite has been recognized by the New York Times, the New Yorker, National Public Radio, and the American Society on Aging as an expert on ageism. She blogs at This Chair Rocks, speaks widely at venues that have ranged from the United Nations to the TED mainstage, has written for Harper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times, and is the voice of Yo, Is This Ageist?  The author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, Ashton is a leading spokesperson for a movement to mobilize against discrimination on the basis of age.

Author Photo: Pluto Janning on the Puget Sound, August 2019

We are nearing the end of summer, which means vacation season for families is ending. But for sociologists like me who study vacations and tourism in terms of second homes, the fun keeps going on and on.

The family vacation is changing, and companies in the business of housing families who are on vacation are noticing and revising their platforms to suit (and likely impact) the changes. Case in point: VRBO’s new platform allows extended families who are geographically separated – a big portion of their client base – to collaborate via an online shared platform about potential homes for an upcoming vacation stay where they can all be together. Companies that broker private home spaces in a virtual commercial space spend lots of time and money trying to figure out what kind of data may be useful to better meet client needs and to boost profits, and this business is not slowing down anytime soon.

VRBO studied user-interface data to uncover how spread-apart families select homes to share when they’re on vacation together. I collect data about vacation homes, too, but as a social scientist interested in the social construction of the meaning of home, family, and community, I study how the families who own the homes that are sometimes rented out to other families talk about these spaces. I have conducted semi-structured interviews of several dozen vacation homeowners from across the U.S. who represent a fairly wide range of affluence, from those who have a run-down cabin in the woods that is only used in mild weather and doesn’t have modern plumbing, to those who have a multi-million dollar property on a shoreline or in a mountain resort. Some of these property owners use the properties for vacation, some for investment to rent out only to people they do not know, and many are in between these formal categories. I have also conducted a content analysis of lifestyle television shows featuring families searching for vacation homes (and sometimes rental incomes), and field research of burgeoning tourist town meetings filled with heated debates about short-term vacation home rental regulations. In other words, I study the qualitative dimensions of how the meaning of vacation homes varies among homeowners when the properties are used by family members or friends, or by strangers, and I embed the meanings in broader neighborhood and community contexts.

Rather than solely looking at data on reported vacation home values and demographic shifts in the U.S. vacation home market, which are crucial if you want to understand the national picture of reported property statuses or taxes, I ask questions about what people actually do (regardless of what they report) and how they define what their vacation homes mean to them. As a family sociologist who studies material culture and the social construction of spaces and places, I capture meaning by asking about how spaces are defined, how home objects may matter, and how the home is defined in light of the larger community’s classification as a tourist destination or not. After all, formal classifications of second homeowner as fixed categories that require certain taxation rates and time limits for homeowners to reside there are limited in their capacity to capture the reality and dynamism of ownership across time, geographic space, and use.

Most importantly, I assess whether the meaning of vacation homes changes depending on which visitors count as “family.” I came up with this project, by the way, when I visited a relative’s condo that was sometimes used (for a small fee) by relatives of friends and friends of relatives, and I wondered if the homeowners took down the picture of my son before they let others stay there.

My research reveals that the simple classification of second homes into governmental classifications that are based on taxes and time spent there does not show what people actually do with, and believe about, their vacation homes. How the homes are used and framed by homeowners (and the companies they use to advertise) shapes the ebbs and flows of the sharing economy. As my interview responses reveal, sometimes people call a property their primary residence but do not actually live there and instead rent it out for others’ vacations. Sometimes people define a space six hours away as their family vacation home more than someone who has an accessory dwelling unit on their primary residence property that is rented out to tourists (which is, per governmental classifications, not considered a second home). Why? Because in the first instance, the home is never used by strangers, and in the second instance, the home is never used by family members. In both instances, they are defined as family vacation spaces. Maybe the definition of a second or vacation home is more based on who occupies it than where it is, whether it is part of a primary residence, or what its formal governmental classification is.

In addition to complicating formal classifications of properties and homeowners, my preliminary analysis reveals that vacation homeowners downplay the impersonal, selfish, and inauthentic in economic exchange that may occur with vacation homes, such as when a friends of a family member use it and a cleaning fee is required but mentioned only casually and handled informally. At the same time, homeowners emphasize the significance of social connections over economic gain when they talk about the vacation home, regardless of whether they use it or rent it out to other families in a formal exchange. They do this by focusing on cherished objects or spaces as significant for family connectedness in a time when geographic mobility and generational divides are viewed as increasing and the preservation of family “stories” and “values” are framed as threatened. Especially for those who keep the home for use within the family and close friends, this leads not only to nostalgia about past family vacation memories, but what I label as “imagined future nostalgia” for the next generations, who may or may not be interested in keeping or sharing the property with extended family members. For the older homeowners I interviewed in these situations, this is clearly framed as a geographically-situated genealogy project, not as a financial investment. For some of the people in my interview study, however, the desire to keep the family vacation home in the family for generations to come was a desire not shared by their children and grandchildren, who sometimes turned toward the idea of short-term vacation rental as a way to afford to keep the home while still being occasionally available for family that would have less time to spend together as their busy lives and geographic mobility seemed to increase with each generation. In this sense, the sharing economy is framed as an option for those who are not quite ready to get rid of the family vacation home, but can’t quite afford to keep it if it sits empty as their siblings, cousins, and other family members find it harder or less desirable to meet up during the few vacation days they may have each year.

In terms of lifestyle television depictions of families seeking vacation homes, I found both similarities and differences between homeowners who talked about their prospective vacation homes as family-only versus those who talked about them as simultaneous family vacation homes and investment properties. Those who wanted to use the vacation homes for investment purposes and not just as family-only spaces tended to focus on spaces and objects that would yield more guests and higher fees, whereas those who wanted to use the homes for their own families and nobody else tended to focus their comments on whether they could imagine family and friends enjoying themselves in the spaces. Those who mentioned investment opportunity included more frequent and explicit reference to money, whereas vacation-only families more frequently mentioned personal emotional connections to the spaces.  Finally, proximity to amenities and the owners’ primary residences mattered: for those using it only for family vacations, it was important to have access to the property be easy (in other words, not too far away from their primary residence). For those treating the vacation property as primarily an investment, proximity to amenities was highlighted as mattering more than proximity to the owner’s primary residence. After all, travel is becoming increasingly about experiences rather than just places.

Of course, regardless of homeowner type, the television representation of all vacation home searches had a lot in common: similar predictable plot formulas, a focus on renovation potential, and a desire for escape and leisure and increased closeness for whichever family occupied the space. And, despite the vacation home rental industry being available only to those families affluent enough to afford the fees, the produced message of these shows was to suggest that people from varying demographic backgrounds can access these homes (hence, the title Beachfront Bargain Hunt). Finally, with few exceptions, there was a striking absence of reference to the role of insiders and outsiders in terms of who counts as a local, as well as any community-level impacts such as housing affordability, tourism labor, and environmental degradation. In this sense, despite the visual and rhetorical focus on neighborhood and community, the aim of the shows is to emphasize these as sites for amenities and experiences, and to individualize family space use as private decisions that are removed from any responsibility for the communities in which the families may reside.

Today, private home spaces are increasingly public parts of the sharing economy. Of course, affluent members of society renting out vacation homes is not new in U.S. society (just watch season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel for a pop culture reference to this phenomenon; or just watch Dirty Dancing). Renting out parts of properties in order to make ends meet has also been part of the history of those who are less affluent. What I study is whether the new norms of families meeting up for vacations in rented-out private spaces that belong to private homeowners (as opposed to a set of cabins in the Catskills or a boarding house in Chicago), and the increase in entrepreneurialism via the sharing economy, have shaped the meaning of vacation homes differently than decades ago.

My research, which is ongoing, touches on important fields of study, including how homes are defined as “priceless” places despite their presence in capitalist exchanges, how success in the sharing economy may be a new marker of privilege based on meritocratic efforts in entrepreneurialism, race and class inequalities and the “politics of exclusion” in housing affordability  and gentrification in tourist and other areas, and the social psychological and cultural impacts of the “vacation self” as we social scientists witness and study the changes in travel and mobility patterns across generations.

I wrote this post during the last weekend of summer, perched on the deck of my in-laws’ vacation home overlooking a calm piece of the Puget Sound, where it’s difficult to tell by looking at the water whether the tide is coming in or going out.  My family schedules a getaway a week or two before school starts if we can, because it allows us to elongate the summer, at least as we define it. Otherwise, when August 1st rolls around, I will start thinking summer is over and start fine-tuning my syllabi, and all of us will transition into school and work mode and forget that we also like to play games and splash in some water.

Four doors down from our extended family’s vacation home is a property that is listed on a short-term rental site. Nobody here has really talked about what that may mean, or whether they find this to be interesting, helpful, or troubling – except for the occasional murmur of “those people do not understand how to be on a beach filled with clams, tiny crabs, and oysters.” When neighbors have family members visit, everyone is excited to meet them. The couple next door, for example, knows my name (and, as of this trip, now knows my dog’s name). People make an effort to get to know each other along the shore, except at the place that is rented out to strangers. Those people are met with a friendly yet distant vibe. They are not locals, even as people like my in-laws who are only there part-time are not quite locals either.

I continue to ponder all of these preliminary findings and ongoing questions, and I wonder: when are these family members planning to display a picture of my son for all of the family-only visitors to admire? And what will happen to the picture if they decide to rent out the vacation home someday to people we don’t know?

Michelle Janning is the Raymond and Elsie Gipson DeBurgh Chair of Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Her research focuses on the intersection of spaces, material culture, and interpersonal roles and relationships. She is expanding her focus to include the constructed meaning of neighborhood and community, especially as it relates to any dwelling homeowners consider to be a “second home.” Her work is featured at www.michellejanning.com.

Is cohabitation the new conventional model of family?

Marriage rates today are at an historic low, as couples tie the knot less frequently (and at older ages) than in the past. Other trends portend a “liberalizing” of the American family as well. There are currently high rates of births outside of marriage, support for decoupling parenthood from marriage is at an all-time high among millennials, and divorce is up among those in mid-life. Couples who have children without being married, get divorced, or delay or forego the institution or marriage are not living lives of solitude, however. They are living together outside of marriage. In fact, as of 2016, 18 million people lived together in cohabiting unions.

At one point in time, cohabitation was considered to be the union choice either for those too poor to marry or the avant garde who eschewed marriage. Now, however, the majority of recent marriages were preceded by cohabitation.  With so many couples cohabiting (or having cohabited), it is  quite likely that the views cohabitors hold, on a range of issues – from maternal employment to how couples should divide housework – are quite similar to those of married couples. So, are cohabitors the new traditionalists?

In fact, in our research with Daniel Carlson, we find that around 40% of the cohabiting couples we studied did have quite conventional work orientation more similar to Leave it to Beaver than not. That is, they had fairly traditional ways of thinking about their both their own careers and their jobs in relationship to those of their partners’. For these couples, most intend for both partners to work, but view the man’s job as more central – he is the one whose career gets top billing in the family, whose job determines where couples will live (or if they will move), and who receives more privileges (such as being able to do less housework), as a result of his job.  For these couples, this “King of the Castle” view holds whether or not his job is actually more prestigious, better paying, or requires more hours per week.  Many of these couples planned for the female partner to become the primary parent in the future, working part time or leaving the workforce for a period of time to be with children. Based on this, yes, cohabitation is the new conservative model of family. Such views (as well as behaviors) are not randomly dispersed throughout the sample, though.  Adherence to these more conventional arrangements are more often held by middle class, college-educated couples (who generally do not yet have children) than by their less educated peers who work in service sector jobs.

Lest we think that women with college degrees are the new Stepford Wives, however, it’s important to note that roughly 20% of the couples we studied are following a far more egalitarian pathway- or even reversing convention entirely. Again, more common among the college educated, a number of couples are those who equally privilege one another’s careers, taking turns advancing up the ladder, for example, or, in rare instances, even see the female partner’s more specialized job and greater earnings potential as the one which should receive the most focus.

So what of their service class peers- couples in which both partners tend to have a high school diploma or some college education? They have much more variation in their work orientations. These couples often consist of partners for whom work is a low priority or those in which at least one partner few plans for advancement but is a stable worker. This makes sense given that the types of jobs that service-class individuals tend to be in. After all, financially and practically it is difficult for those working in fields like retail and telemarketing to move up through the ranks- or ultimately be able to afford to have one partner stay home part time with children.

How are couples to navigate this Brave New World of family formation and negotiation of work and family roles?  Couples who have clearer social scripts to follow (whether that be “traditional breadwinner/homemaker” or “egalitarian power couple”) tend to experience greater relationship stability than those who do not, in larger part because they have societal expectations to fall back on and are not trying to constantly renegotiate gendered norms anew. Whether they are moving toward a marriage like the Cleavers’ or more like the executive and physician couple, The Johnsons of TV’s “Blackish” it is not surprising, then, that the college educated are moving into marriage at higher rates than their peers. As we argued in our most recent work, “unless there is a change in the nature of jobs available for those without college educations, the divergence in marriage rates- and relationship satisfaction- between service-class and middle-class cohabitors is likely to continue.” Rather than focusing on marriage as the panacea for all that ails today’s families, a more productive approach would be to make it easier to be partners, workers, and parents – by providing paid parental sick leave, easier pathways to educational attainment and off-routes that are not laden with crushing debt, and affordable childcare.  What today’s alternative families need, after all, are not all that different from what their more traditional counterparts – married couples – also seek.

Amanda Jayne Miller is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Indianapolis. Most of her scholarship focuses on the intersections of gender, social class, and families including research on change and gendered beliefs and behaviors across cohorts, couples’ household divisions of labor, contraceptive and fertility practices and plans, and relationship progression. Her award-winning book, Cohabitation Nation: Gender, Class, and the Remaking of Relationships , written with Sharon Sassler, looks at how these issues play out among couples who are living together unmarried.

Sharon Sassler received her Ph.D. in Sociology from Brown University in 1995, and joined the Cornell faculty in 2005, where she is a professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management.  Trained as a social demographer, Sassler’s research examines factors shaping the activities of young adults and their life course transitions into school and work, relationships and parenthood, and how these transitions very by gender, race/ethnicity, and social class. Her 2017 book, Cohabitation Nation: Gender, Class, and the Remaking of Relationships, examines how new family forms are contributing to growing levels of family inequality in the United States; it won the American Sociological Association Family Sections’ Goode Book Award in 2018.

Image by Mike Gattorna from Pixabay

This post originally appeared on the blog of Humanities Washington, a nonprofit based in Washington State.

What can a show about cleaning your house tell us about the state of society? A lot.

This winter, millions of viewers in nearly 200 countries watched the Netflix series “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” Kondo, a Japanese organizing expert, guides people in home makeover projects that require families to declutter and remove objects that do not, in her words, “spark joy.” As Kondo’s website states, the method is not just about doing the work of tidying up—it is about mindfulness and introspection. In other words, tidying up is not just a home project; it is a project of the self.

Kondo is on to something: the objects in our home each tell a personal story, one with a unique set of characters, plot twists, and emotional undertones. They might be saved love letters or childhood baseball gloves. They might be threadbare linens from a grandparent who immigrated with only one suitcase. They might be antique silverware that has been saved for a son or daughter, but involve a fear that the child may not want them. These objects feed into our sense of self, which can in turn tell us important things about society as a whole.

As a sociologist, I gather these stories and notice larger patterns, collecting and curating what are called home object stories in order to tell the story of our larger society. People are more united than they might think in their seemingly lonely quests for figuring out what to do with home possessions, and “Tidying Up” provides a surprisingly detailed window into our shared concerns about clutter.

So what do the possessions of ten American families say about contemporary families and society?

First, we are witnessing a large shift in what is considered a healthy lifestyle, particularly when it comes to consumption and self-control. In the middle of the 20th century, material goods were seen as a crucial part of fulfilling the American Dream for those families who could afford it, from TV trays to new cars parked in the driveways of new suburbs. But later decades brought recessions, recognition of environmental degradation, and a fear that we were all buying too much stuff and ending up miserable anyway. Now, to deal with all our stuff, we are encouraged to boost our self-control (or perhaps the illusion of it). If, by changing how we manage our personal struggles, we can become healthier, it’s no accident that the improvement of self includes managing our home objects. The recurring theme is that our individual happiness is intimately tied to our acquisition and management of possessions. In the past century, we’ve swung from “buying brings happiness” to “curating and purging certain bought items brings happiness.”

Throughout “Tidying Up,” viewers are guided through households with voiceovers and confessional moments that highlight the very thin line between what happens to objects and what happens to people. People thank their T-shirts before tossing them in the donation pile; they thank their family members for their willingness to work on their own stuff. People confess that they want to change their stuff because they want to change themselves. Not unusual were references to “taking control of one’s things” as an integral part of the project of “taking control of one’s life.” If a pair of shoes “sparks joy,” keep them and maybe joy will be sparked in your intimate family relationships, too.

In the past century, we’ve swung from “buying brings happiness” to “curating and purging certain bought items brings happiness.”

Second, the social group you identify with impacts the likelihood you’ll participate in the decluttering movement. Our home spaces and stuff, and televised renditions of decluttering practices, are not just about dividing those whose personalities lead them to minimalism and those whose personalities lead them to hoarding. Projects surrounding home stuff are also about group differences and inequalities. For example, there are real and troubling racial and socioeconomic inequalities between those who can afford to own a home in a desirable neighborhood (and maybe a storage unit to house extra stuff) and those who cannot. Within homes, we still see a division of household labor such that women disproportionately bear the burden of household tidiness and management of the entire tidying project. We know that what objects matter in a family depend on that family’s geographic location, racial-ethnic identity, immigrant status, and social class.

In the show, Kondo assists a family that moves to Los Angeles and downsizes into a small apartment. The mother in the family experiences the emotional toll of being held responsible for the organization and tidying of all family members’ objects. By the end of the episode, not only have family members taken a larger role in their own tidying, but the narrative explicitly notes the likelihood of this burden falling too much on women, who perform a “second shift” of unpaid domestic labor even if they still work outside the home. In my research on love letters and photo albums, I found that women were more likely than men to feel responsible for organizing, storing, and saving kinship mementos. And they were more likely than men to curate these items in decorated boxes and in places where they would be kept safe. In other words, the project of “tidying up” is still a gendered project, whether it’s about laundry or love letters.

Finally, family life is changing in the U.S., both in terms of what families look like and in terms of what families do. The definition of “family” is increasingly diverse: gay marriage is legal, couples are having children later, aging populations are staying healthier longer, and the proportion of American families headed by a married couple has declined to less than 50%. In other words, it is safe to say there is no longer a “typical” American family. As all of these shifts happen, the role of home objects necessarily shifts, too.

While the show was criticized for showing relatively affluent families from a similar geographic area, and for espousing ideals of minimalism that are more likely to be held by those who can afford to get rid of stuff, “Tidying Up” does portray a more diverse set of family forms than televised families from even a decade ago did. One cohabiting couple, for example, seeks the help of Kondo to tidy up in order to show one partner’s parents that they have more concretely moved into an “adult” stage. The pair aligns the “adultification” of their home décor and organization with their goal of displaying their relationship as more permanent and committed. This matters in particular for this couple because, as gay men, they feel the need to demonstrate relationship seriousness in the absence of marriage, and in a social context where the legitimacy of gay relationships may still be questioned. Having a tidy linen closet, then, not only contains a blending of the partners’ mismatched towel collection as a symbol of their commitment to each other, it also signifies to parents that they are no longer children.

If you’ve ever felt like you’re the only person who’s had a hard time figuring out what to do with your stuff, and that if you were only able to get rid of more things you’d feel so much happier, you are not alone. We have come to culturally define home curation as an individual project. But the project does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs amidst a set of cultural shifts that include: changing family diversity (who counts as “family” when we decide who gets Grandma’s table?), geographic mobility (how do we transport Grandma’s table across five states?), family roles (who is in charge of the labor of figuring out what to do with the table?), changing ideals about the role of consumption in our lives (Grandma’s table does not fit with my minimalist aesthetic), and even a reinforcement of the value that we are supposed to tackle this stuff on our own (I need to figure out what to do with Grandma’s table on my own).

Our individual stories matter, but we are richer for understanding how these personal stories are part of a larger story. So, the next time you winnow a shoe collection or sift through a deceased relative’s power tools, remember that shoes and tools bear the stories of their individual possessors, but they also bear the stories of the social world in which they were bought, worn, used, stored, lost, held dear, and thrown away. It is that social world, in fact, that shapes how we come to view shoes and tools as desirable, cherishable, or disposable in the first place.

Michelle Janning is a professor of sociology at Whitman College and author of The Stuff of Family Life: How Our Homes Reflect Our Lives. She is currently presenting her free Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau talk, “What Your Home Says About the World,” around the state. Find an event here.

One of the most robust findings in industrialized societies is that children no longer confer an advantage in life satisfaction or happiness to their parents relative to those who do not have children. While the extent of the gap varies by country, life stage, and other characteristics of parents, there does not seem to be a time or place where parenthood positively affects well-being after industrialization strips children of their direct economic value to parents (and creates long periods of dependency and educational spending instead).

In a 2016 study, authors Chris Herbst and John Ifcher show a different trend, however.  Using U.S. data over the past 30 years and comparing parents actively parenting children under 18 in their household to those without children in their household, they show this happiness gap slowly closing and disappearing completely after 1997. They discussed these findings in a 2017 blog post for the Institute for Family Studies, believing that the gap has closed because non-parents have become increasingly vulnerable to loneliness, social distrust, and economic insecurity.

Looking carefully at their analysis, however, it seems like a different story could also be told. First, Herbst and Ifcher exclude two important categories of parents whose prevalence and distress have presumably grown over time: non-custodial parents and parents of children over 17. These groups are instead considered “non-parents” in the Herbst and Ifcher trend analysis. Non-custodial parents as a percentage of all biological parents have increased since 1986, and research shows this group of parents to be particularly distressed (see Simon and Caputo), since separation or divorce decrease daily contact with their children and increase expenses for non-custodial parents. While single parents are more distressed than married parents, non-custodial parents are more distressed than both groups.

Parents of children over 18 have also both grown as a proportion of all parents since 1986 and seen both their financial and care obligations for their adult children increase over this period. Indeed, developmental scientists now speak about “emerging adulthood” to describe this post-18 to late twenties period of time in which young people are still partially dependent upon their parents for support and guidance. Paying for college has become a major burden for many parents of emerging adults, while the proportion still living with their parents or moving in and out of their parents’ household has grown to post-war highs. The number of young adults with developmental disorders (autism spectrum or ADHD diagnoses) has also increased over time. As the ACA has acknowledged this dependency by allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26, so too must data analysts wanting to understand contemporary parenting and its financial and social stressors. While most analyses find that so-called “empty-nest” parents are happier than parents actively parenting younger children, fewer and fewer parents of children over 18 actually have an empty nest!

When these two groups are combined with respondents who have never had children, they easily swamp the truly child-free in analyses of parental happiness. After all, about 80% of people in the U.S. still eventually have children, and those children will eventually turn 18. So comparing parents of children 17 and younger to everyone else really confounds parenthood with life stage and marital status. Rather than seeing the parental happiness gap converging and disappearing post 1997, what may really be going on is a shift in the responsibilities of parenting both spilling out across non-married households and extending into young adulthood, pulling down the happiness of those mistakenly categorized as “child-free.”

Second, the Herbst and Ifcher analysis does not explicitly consider the fall in fertility and increasing selectivity of parenting. While still high in comparative perspective, teen and unplanned pregnancies have been declining in the U.S. since 1997, and overall fertility rates have declined in all racial and ethnic groups. Some of that decline has been involuntary —  some adults may feel “freer” to not become parents because they cannot find suitable partners, have inadequate or unstable incomes, or jobs that demand too many hours to consider adding children to their lives. These are not exogenous forces affecting fertility– they are in themselves endogenous to social forces that have made the stressors of parenting increase over time to the point that many young adults sadly forego parenthood.

Herbst and Ifcher’s trend analysis is consistent with this explanation. First, they do not find that parental happiness is actually increasing over time. Rather parental happiness has been constant over time while those they characterize as non-parents have become less happy over time.  If parenthood is becoming more selective yet happiness is not increasing, this in itself demonstrates that contemporary parenting of minor children has become increasingly stressful over time. And if “non-parents” increasingly consist of non-custodial parents financially supporting minor children, older parents still supporting adult children, and involuntarily childless people unable to find the partners or jobs that would accommodate their desires for parenthood, it’s not surprising that non-parents’ unhappiness has grown over time.

However, none of their findings comport with the belief that children protect parents against loneliness, social isolation, or financial distress. If anything, the trend over time suggests that the forces that reduce happiness among parents of minor children now extend beyond that group to non-custodial parents, “empty-nest” parents, and involuntarily child-free adults.  Herbst concludes, correctly, that his results are probably affected by these factors: “…we cannot discount the possibility that compositional shifts among parents and non-parents have driven the change in parental happiness.”

What seems clear across studies is that contemporary industrialized societies are struggling to avoid below replacement fertility, and understand how to integrate production and reproduction in a way that respects the sacrifices that parents are routinely expected to undertake to raise healthy educated citizens. When the costs of children are privatized but the benefits are socialized, we see a parental happiness penalty that persists across a wide variety of contexts and circumstances, as well as increasing selectivity in who becomes parents. The challenge is to create public support systems that encourage responsible parenthood among those who want to become parents without coercing those who do not. Ending the extraordinary financial and opportunity costs of parenthood is certainly a good place to start.

Jennifer Glass is Centennial Commission Professor in the Department of Sociology and Population Research Center of the University of Texas, Austin. Her most recent projects explore whether governmental work-family policies improve parents’ and children’s health and well-being, whether women’s jobs really have better work-family amenities than men’s, why women’s retention in STEM occupations remains so low, and how the economic costs of motherhood have changed over time.

Image by succo from Pixabay

Familial conflict is a profoundly intimate and emotional experience. Historically, courts have taken a hands-off approach when dealing with familial conflict, but recent years have seen an increased use of the judicial system to resolve domestic issues.

Ample research notes damaging effects of traditional court models. In fact, the adversarial proceedings associated with traditional court settings can escalate family conflict through revictimization and threats or use of violence. A separate line of research long-ago established that family conflict negatively influences psychological and relational well-being of the adults and children involved in the conflict.

The collective conclusions of these studies prompted scholars and practitioners to advocate for alternative processes that deal with familial conflict in ways that minimize harm and maximize healing. One such alternative has been the development of specialty family courts.

The goals and mission of family courts reflect notions of therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ). TJ is a framework that encourages integration of judicial and treatment services. Proponents of this perspective argue that agents of law have therapeutic potential. Judges, attorneys, and other legal personnel are encouraged to work collaboratively with psychologists, social workers, and other social scientists to focus on fundamental causes of conflict and possible resolutions. TJ encounters are commonly said to share 3 primary components:

(1) Respectful interaction between legal actors and litigants,

(2) Allowing Parties to Express and Explain Their Standpoint, and

(3) Transparent Judicial Decision Making.

Research examining whether and how TJ is practiced in family court settings is scarce. This is important from an evaluative point of view, especially since there is reason to suspect disjuncture between intended and actual practice. Indeed, some of my prior research in other forms of specialty courts suggest that courts fall short of idealized principles and stated missions. In a study recently published by Criminal Justice Policy Review, I report on observations of over 100 hearings, including 8 trials presided over by 5 judges to investigate the presence of therapeutic jurisprudence in a family court setting.

I found that therapeutically just interactions were not uncommon in the court. Court personnel regularly treated the parties with dignity and respect. For example, judges directly communicated with the litigants even when the parties have legal representation. In addition, judges commonly used the litigants’ first and last name rather than the impersonal “plaintiff” and “defendant.” In fact, judges relied heavily on “natural” language and gesturing throughout court proceedings, forgoing legal jargon and the formalities often used in traditional court settings.

My observations further indicate that judges encouraged parties to express and explain their standpoint. One judge, who presided over the majority of the cases, always asked litigants if they wanted to speak even if they had hired attorneys to represent their interests. This same judge consistently reiterated the presented evidence in the case before providing her ruling, citing that she did so to keep “a clean record.” As a part of the judge’s reiteration, she commented on the case content and the litigants’ emotional responses to the content.

Despite the common use of TJ, I also observed some anti-therapeutic encounters. These interactions often included one litigant revealing distressing information about the “opposing” litigant and their relationship. For example, in some rare case parties were prompted – usually by their own counsel – to recount instances of rape, neglect, and other forms of maltreatment. Even when the litigant demonstrated extreme discomfort giving such testimony (i.e., keeping the gaze low and unblinking, answering questions with silence, answering questions by shaking their head side-to-side or stating “I don’t want to say”), attorneys would persistently probe the litigant for details.

In other cases, litigants were confrontationally questioned at length about matters seemingly unrelated to the case facts. For instance, one litigant, who was a non-native English speaker, was questioned at length about his citizenship, work status, and legal certification to drive a motor vehicle. Although these issues were not raised as part of the case complaint, the litigant was questioned about them for over 3 hours. Like traditional court, family court takes place in a public forum, so it was not uncommon for persons unrelated to the case at hand to be present at trials and hearings. As such, these interactions seemed antitherapeutic in that attorneys were seemingly relentless in their queries and/or were antagonistic in their questioning about highly personal and potentially traumatic events in a space that was open to public scrutiny.

Although I am unable to generalize these findings to other courts and jurisdictions, the study highlights the potential to confront conflict with therapeutic means. Although our traditional legal system traditionally encourages adversarial, fact-finding processes as normative, alternative practices are conceivable. Still, the antitherapeutic encounters remind us that practicing therapeutic jurisprudence can be challenging in a broader legal context that is largely built on principles that divide rather than reconcile and seek to find fault rather than heal.

Compelling critiques of the “justice” system are numerous, and a growing body of literature indicates that problem-solving courts do not eradicate inequities. Perhaps it is time for specialty courts to distance their practices from traditional court models. Or better yet, perhaps therapeutic encounters should become more engrained in our routine, everyday life. What if we were to encourage respectful interaction, empowerment to express one’s standpoint, and honest discussions about our decision making across all of our social encounters? Naysayers may dismiss the prospect as utopian or, at least, unrealistic, but being willing to imagine such possibilities could arguably spark a commitment to therapeutic living that we would all benefit from – in and out of the courtroom.

Cindy Brooks Dollar is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her research focuses on inequalities, nonconformity, and social control.  

Although many older Americans have had long marriages, the proportions of Americans over age 50 who have been divorced and remarried have increased substantively over the past 25 years. In fact, individuals in the early ‘baby boomer’ cohort (born between 1946 and 1955) have divorced and remarried more often than any other age cohorts. It is not surprising, therefore, that many multi-generational American families include stepgrandparent-stepgrandchild relationships. This is relevant to multi-generational relationships and perhaps to the future care of these stepgrandparents.

In our studies, we have identified four distinct pathways to becoming a stepgrandparent, and we have conducted a series of investigations designed to uncover how these different pathways affect the formation of stepgrandparent-stepgrandchild relationships. In a recent study we interviewed 48 young adult stepgrandchildren, comparing their perceptions of 44 long-term stepgrandparents who joined the stepfamily before these stepgrandchildren were born, with their perceptions of 28 later-life stepgrandparents who joined their stepfamilies when the stepgrandchildren were late adolescents or young adults). A number of these adult stepgrandchildren had more than one stepgrandparent, and we asked about all of them.

The differences between each pathway have been theorized to result in relationship differences. Long-term stepgrandparents’ are in relationships with stepgrandchildren because they became stepparents when their stepchildren were young – years before those stepchildren reproduced and made them a stepgrandparent. In this figure, Jay is a stepgrandfather to Meg. Jay married Laura in 1994, and Colin became his 8-year-old stepson. As an adult, Colin married Kayla in 2014, and Kayla gave birth to Meg two years later. Jay is a long-term stepgrandfather. As Meg grows up, she will always have had Ian, Laura, and Jay as grandparents on her father’s side of the family (for simplicity, we ignore Kayla’s family tree in this illustration). Jay was a member of Meg’s family long before she was born.

 

 

Comparatively, later-life stepgrandparents acquire adult stepchildren and stepgrandchildren following their remarriage to a grandparent; the new stepchildren are often middle-aged parents, and stepgrandchildren are often adolescents or older. The figure is an example of a later-life stepfamily. Cal married Sue in 2016. Sue has a daughter, Denise, who was 48 when her mom remarried. Denise had three children, ranging in age from 17 to 32 when Sue remarried. Those children are now Cal’s stepgrandchildren. Therefore, Cal is a later-life stepgrandfather to Jannie, Alex, and Fred.

 

The structural factors matter in how multi-generational stepfamilies interact and may affect the quality of stepfamily relationships. We discovered from our interviews that long-term stepgrandparents (like Jay) much more closely resemble biological grandparents in their relationships with stepgrandchildren than do later-life stepgrandparents, and they generally are called by family names (e.g., Grandpa, Nana). In large part this is because of conditions associated with the timing of remarriages and the subsequent personal histories that stepgrandchildren have with biological and stepgrandparents. Although the middle-generation influences how the stepgrandparents and stepgrandchildren bond in both long-term and later-life stepfamilies, parents in long-term stepfamilies control the amount of interactions between the older and younger generations more. Both later life stepgrandchildren and the middle generation adults, because they experience the remarriage of grandparents at the same time, concurrently are grieving the past (i.e., after the death of a grandparent) and trying to make sense of the family transitions. Perhaps not surprisingly, In long-term stepfamilies, relationships and kin connections usually have been defined long ago when the middle generation parents were quite young. The stepgrandchildren did not enter the family until long after remarriage transitions. These long-term stepgrandparent-stepgrandchild relationships and their multigenerational families generally functioned like grandparent-grandchild relationships in first-marriage multigenerational families; later-life families and relationships did not.

The stepgrandchildren did not remember a time when their stepgrandparent had not been a part of the family. Similar to findings from previous research, our results suggest that contextual factors, namely the timing of life events and transitions, duration of key family relationships, and opportunities for intergenerational interaction (e.g., co-residence, affinity-building), matter tremendously for if, how, and to what extent, intergenerational steprelationships are developed, maintained, and associated with caregiving and support exchanges, particularly in later-life.

Results from our study suggest that later-life stepgrandparents may be especially at risk for diminished social support, particularly from adult stepchildren and stepgrandchildren. These relationships often did not have enough time to develop before the older stepgrandparent needed care or other help. The later-life stepgrandparent had not had time to do things that bond people together – hanging out, giving gifts and sharing resources, having fun together. As a result, younger generations did not feel a sense of obligation or a need to reciprocate past gifts of the later-life stepgrandparent. The stepgrandchildren and their parents often referred to the later-life stepgrandparent as “grandma’s new husband” or “grandpa’s new wife.” Although stepgrandchildren’s thoughts and feelings about long-term and later-life stepgrandparents are worth exploring and shed light on complex family processes, we are unable to draw conclusions about the experiences of middle-generation parents or stepgrandparents. Because individuals experience family transitions differently, and these transitions, in turn, inform kinship ideologies and family interactions, more research is needed to glean the perspectives of family members from multiple family roles. Analyses of qualitative data garnered from multiple perspectives (e.g., biological grandparents, biological parents, stepgrandparents) would offer additional insights about family transitions and relationship trajectories. Data from more diverse multigenerational stepfamilies would also add to our knowledge base, as most of our respondents self-identified as White and ‘middle-class.’ Moreover, some stepgrandchildren were reporting on relationships with deceased stepgrandparents. Although the degree to which the death of stepgrandparents influenced stepgrandchildren’s narratives about their family relationships remains an empirical question, it is possible that interviews about dead relatives may differ in important ways from interviews about living relatives. Finally, family relationships and dynamics, including roles/rules, symbols, and language, are likely to vary across cultures, yet we are unable to speak to the influence of culture on intergenerational steprelationships given the cultural homogeneity of our sample.

This study has moved beyond describing stepgrandparenthood pathways to exploring underlying processes in intergenerational relationship building. Relationship quality among stepgrandparents and stepgrandchildren may vary widely, regardless of pathway. We have illuminated here the dynamics by which these distinct types of intergenerational stepfamilies diverge. Researchers and practitioners who work with older stepfamilies can utilize this knowledge to better think about, work with, and support stepgrandparents in later life. For researchers, knowing about pathways to stepfamily status (i.e., “How did they get here?”) provides hypotheses or assumptions to explore. In future studies of stepgrandparents, we encourage researchers to consider and attend to structural pathways, as the variability of stepgrandparent “types” is often an overlooked, yet important, distinction. For practitioners, understanding if, how, and to what extent stepgrandchildren’s relationships with stepgrandparents impact both upward and downward exchanges of social support, particularly as stepgrandparents age, can be useful in working with families to create care plans for older adults in later-life. Issues of who will care for frail stepgrandparents can only be addressed effectively by an understanding of the diversity of multigenerational stepkin relationships. Moreover, understanding pathway implications to stepgrandparenthood can enhance science and practice with older step-couples. Our findings illuminate expectations about new partner involvement in family life following transitions such as death, divorce, and remarriage.

 

 

 

 

Lawrence Ganong is a Chancellor’s Professor of Human Development and Family Science and Emeritus Professor of Nursing at the University of Missouri. Marilyn Coleman is a Distinguished Curator’s Professor Emerita of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Missouri. They have studied post-divorce family relationships and stepfamily relationships for over four decades. They may be reached at ganongl@missouri.edu and colemanma@missouri.edu