Families as They Really Are

graphic by Perry Threlfall
Graphic by Perry Threlfall.

So you or your child wants to go to college? Terrific. Investing in education is a wise use of time, helping to ensure that communities are full of well-rounded, engaged people who actively participate in the world.

But the challenge remains: which college to choose?

It’s never been so hard to answer that question. There are thousands of colleges and universities all over the country, and college can cost a lot of money. Everyone wants to find the “right” college, but what that means varies from person to person.

There are college counselors and magazines, websites, and friends who offer information; the government wants to help too.

A few weeks ago U.S. Department of Education released a mountain of data about colleges and universities as part of a revamped “College Scorecard.” This tool, partly of ED’s College Affordability and Transparency Center, aims to help people assess a school’s affordability and value so that they can pick an appropriate institution. Some even claim that the Scorecard will change how students choose colleges.

But it shouldn’t.

Yes, it’s possible to use the new tool to look up a college you think you want to attend and find out that it’s too expensive, or that most students who go there end up in debt they have trouble paying off. You might even be surprised to learn that while the college charges a lot of money, most of the students don’t earn a lot of money after college. That’s good to know, but you can be easily misled.

Consider that the school that seems most affordable and open to students who have little money or are the first in their family to attend college is…Harvard. That’s because the Scorecard focuses on price and graduation rates and earnings after college, and neglects to mention a really important factor: admissions. For that information, you have to cruise over to College Navigator, where you’ll learn that Harvard receives more than 34,000 applications a year and admits just 6% of those people. It doesn’t help much if the most affordable college with the highest graduation rate is impossible to get into, yet according to the Scorecard Harvard is tops, along with MIT and Stanford.

It’s also a problem that the Scorecard implies that what a given college’s students earn, or how they do at paying off their debt, has nothing to do with who attends that college or what they did in college. We should expect colleges that mainly enroll wealthy students to have high graduation rates, low debt, and high post-college earnings. These students would have these advantages almost no matter where they went to college. But the wealth of a college’s students cannot be observed using the Scorecard.

Even so, you’ll be tempted to ask—why does College A look like this and College B look like that? And that precisely what the Scorecard really isn’t good for answering. Comparing colleges requires a lot more work and information than the Scorecard or any comparable simple tool provides. Taking the graduation rate or the earnings of a college that admits 80% of applicants and enrolls loads of students from low-income families and comparing those outcomes to those of a college that cherry-picks the wealthy students it admits is irresponsible. You shouldn’t conclude that New York University is “better” because its graduates earn more than the City University of New York’s graduates. They serve very different students.

So here’s what the Scorecard is good for:

  1. Looking up information to get to know a college better. Test your assumptions. Did you think College X admitted a lot of low-income students or had a high overall graduation rate? Maybe you’re wrong. Good to know. You can see who pays what and where. That’s helpful.
  2. Using the information when discussing college with people advising on the decision. The Scorecard can help identify topics to discuss and guide the conversation. The person you work with should be able to tackle questions you have about the Scorecard, and if they don’t, you need to keep asking until you get answers.

But please, don’t act as if the Scorecard actually gives a college a score. It doesn’t.

Families shouldn’t rule out a college or decide on one using this information. If students want to reach for college, they need to talk to knowledgeable people who can help.

Start there.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also Senior Scholar at the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education and an affiliate of the Center for Financial Security, Institute for Research on Poverty, and the Consortium for Chicago School Research. In 2014, she founded the Wisconsin Harvesting Opportunities for Postsecondary Education (HOPE) Lab.

U.S. fathers are eager to be more involved in the care of their infants and young children—per much research and

Something at work can make choices related to this hard. Image from Pixabay.
How do universities make choices related to care work hard? Image from Pixabay.

many people’s personal accounts. The New York Times recently reported on men who have pursued legal action against their employers as a challenge to discriminatory policies and practices that prevent or limit the time they have available to utilize parental leave. Additionally, a recent survey of American fathers found an overwhelming majority, 89 percent, rated paid parental leave provided by an employer as an important workplace benefit. But consider this: there is also significant evidence that men are not likely to use parental leave, even when it is paid.

Because the leave mandated by the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act is unpaid (and simply unavailable to many Americans), many fathers can’t use it due to financial constraints. If paternity leave was paid, and resulted in no lost income, would men be more likely to take it? In our current economic climate, the answer is not so clear. My recent research on men in academia reveals that many fathers are uninterested, hesitant, or fearful that if they step away from their workplaces for most or all of the 15 weeks their employer offers in parental leave, their careers will suffer.

Some people think that academic institutions are paragons of research, discovery, and innovation that would, of course, be on the leading edge of progressive policies that would allow employees to balance the needs of work and family. This, however, is not the case. Few colleges and universities offer paid leave for mothers that doesn’t require the use of sick or vacation time to cover lost wages, and many schools actually violate federal law with their parental leave policies. Fewer still extend parental leave benefits to fathers. Furthermore, the tenure process puts pressure on young faculty, those who might be looking simultaneously at the tenure clock and their biological clocks. And the vulnerability of some staff positions or the demands on administrators means they are also not likely to take any extended leaves for the birth or adoption of a child.

Originally impressed by the decade long policy of gender neutral parental leave at the institution I recently studied, I ultimately found that policy and practices were seldom in alignment. Through interviews with men, both faculty and staff, employed in higher education within an institution with a generous parental leave policy, I learned that the opinions of colleagues and the needs of co-workers often took precedence over the wishes of a spouse and the needs of a new baby. In general, the men I interviewed still defined a significant part of their family role as that of provider, regardless of their partner’s employment status. Even though a policy of parental leave existed, and even though many of the women with whom they worked had utilized the leave, many fathers worried about the future consequences for their careers if they took any significant time out for parenting. Would co-workers resent them for taking the time off and possibly burdening colleagues with additional responsibilities? Would supervisors question their commitment to their careers or the institution? Would they lose future opportunities or rewards in their workplace if they took parental leave?

Without a doubt, we need more realistic and generous policies that allow workers, men and women, to meet the needs of their families and their workplaces. But people also need to use the policies that are available. The fact that this workplace offered a policy, but few men felt they could use it without suffering consequences, demonstrates the power of the workplace culture and the resistance many employees feel to rocking the boat, especially following a period of economic tumult. Moreover, when it is largely women who utilize parental leave, we reinforce gendered patterns of care work and continue to disadvantage women in the workplace.

These and other issues related to the individual and institutional factors that influence combining paid work and care work in academia are examined more closely in a collection I recently co-edited with Catherine Richards Solomon, Family Friendly Policies and Practices in Academe.

Erin K. Anderson is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Washington College. Her research focuses on the experiences of gender at individual, interactional, and institutional levels. Her most recent work appears in Family Friendly Policies and Practices in Academe.

aug-sept15artSixty-seven million women in the U.S. are employed today, which represents nearly half of the entire labor force. According to a new policy brief from the Center for American Progress, 40 percent of American households have mothers who are sole or primary breadwinners and another 25 percent are co-breadwinners. Sixty-four percent of women with children under six are working, but when considering the staggering cost of child care, it is difficult to understand how they are coping.

Rising Cost of Child Care: The Status of Women in the States: 2015, released earlier this year by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, indicates that after correcting for inflation, the weekly out-of-pocket expenditures on child care for families with an employed mother almost doubled between 1985 and 2011, by which time 30 percent of the income of families below the poverty level was being spent on child care. In 2014, the cost of center-based infant care averaged over 40 percent of the state median income for single mothers and rivaled other budgetary items such as housing and transportation, according to a 2014 report by Child Care Aware. In every state, the cost of center-based care for two children exceeds the median cost of rent, and in at least 31 states and the District of Columbia, the price tag for a year of child care exceeds the cost of two semester’s tuition at a public university (Child Care Aware).

To cope, many families devise strategies that include multiple care arrangements and reliance on family members to care for young children. This trend was documented by sociologist Madonna Harrington Meyer (Grandmothers at Work, Juggling Families and Jobs 2014) who argued that in the wake of changing family structures, reduced support from the state, and increasingly limited access to affordable and flexible child care, today’s grandmothers are doing more care work with their grandchildren than their own mothers had done when they were raising families. It is not surprising, then, that a recent Pew Research survey revealed 72 percent of grandparents report they provide child care occasionally, and 22 percent report they do so regularly.

Government Support for Child Care: Reliable and affordable child care is an important factor in enabling mothers in low-wage jobs to maintain stable employment, and for low-income parents to sustain livable conditions for their children. Additionally, inadequate access to child care hampers economic growth because it prohibits the ability of parents to fully participate in the workforce. However, there is little remedy emerging from the government, and according to the CAP proposal:

“Many of the current work-family policies stem from a time period when families had a full-time, stay-at-home caregiver, typically the mother.”

The cost of full-time annual center-based care for infants varies from state to state. This is partially due to considerable variability in state regulatory policies and partially the result of distribution variability of the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). The grant provides $5.3 billion to subsidize states’ costs in ensuring high-quality standards for child care and offsetting the cost of child care with vouchers to low-income families, which the states must partially match with their own funds. Each state is required to provide this assistance to families with incomes below 85 percent of state median income, yet they have considerable flexibility in determining extended eligibility. In 2013, the grant was extended to the lowest number of families in 15 years and the average subsidy – at $4,900 annually – covered only half the average cost of quality child care, leaving families with limited options. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, only 17 percent of potentially eligible families (under the federal CCDBG parameters) received any assistance, and the recent Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) report, Policy Solutions that Work for Low-Income People, reveals that in 2013, the total combined federal spending on child care fell to the lowest level since 2002.

The other government sponsored child care relief program is the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC), which provides an income adjustable portion (20-35 percent) of up to $3000 in child care expenses for up to two children ($6000 max). According to recently released data from the Department of Treasury, families with incomes over $100,000 benefit the most from the program, which provides benefits retroactively when families file their taxes in the spring – a delay low income families cannot wait for when managing tight month-to-month expenses. In addition, because the credit is non-refundable, the deduction cannot exceed the amount of taxes owed. This means families with incomes slightly above the poverty level or lower, whose other exemptions may zero out their income tax burden, are left unable to take advantage or the credit.

Proposed New Child Care Tax Deduction: Neither the Child Care and Development Block Grant or the Child or Dependent Care Tax Credit is enough to close the gap on assisting families with the unmanageable cost of child care. Therefore, Carmel Martin, CAP’s Vice-President of Policy, argues:

“It’s time for a pathway that will significantly expand access to high-quality child care for those who need it most. When we talk about an inclusive economy, we need to make sure that all parents—men and women—can participate in the workforce.”

The proposed policy (High-Quality Child Care Tax Credit) would make provisions for families earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level and provide up to $14,000 per child under age three. Families would contribute up to 12 percent of their income toward child care fees on a sliding scale. The size of the tax credit reflects the cost of high-quality child care, builds in higher wages for providers, and would be paid directly to high-quality providers selected by parents. Parents with unpredictable work schedules could use providers that met health and safety standards if a high-quality child care provider were not available during a needed time. The proposed policy would make high-quality and affordable child care a reality to millions of American families for the first time and increase economic growth through increased labor force participation. Furthermore, the added benefit of early education available from high-quality child care providers could ensure the long term security of a strong future workforce.

Download the Center for American Progress policy brief here.

Perry Threlfall is a recent graduate of the doctoral program in sociology at George Mason University. She studies gender, race, and structural mobility through the lens of policy and practice, particularly for single mother families. You can read her occasional blog at the Single Mother Sociologist.

Click for a new window to watch #HowWeFamily.

The commercialization of everyday life usually gives me a headache, but I guess I can always take a Tylenol. After all, as Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who directed Tylenol’s recent #HowWeFamily advertising spots, put it, the “family brand” is “helping to dispel the fears around difference,” to “get people to understand diversity” by introducing them to a wide range of families in videos that show that “at the end of the day, no matter the gender of the parents, the color of the family’s skin, the religion that they come from, the background that they come from, all of these families have the same concerns. They want what’s best for their kid, they want to care for each other and create a home that’s safe and happy.” And sometimes, of course, they need a decent painkiller.

The Tylenol spots—of immigrant families, of mixed-race families, adoptive families, gay-parent families, military families, step-families, stay-at-home dad/working-mom families, and so on—are charming, well produced, and surprisingly rich and moving. The parents, some of whom are also celebrities, are appealing and articulate, the kids are cute, and the politics are unapologetically liberal. The introductory video takes direct aim at old notions of what and who makes a family, offering the company’s “modern take on the Norman Rockwell family.” It’s an easy target, but still.

“When were you first considered a family? When you fell in love? When you got married? When you had kids?” a kind woman’s voice asks over soft music and images of straight couples holding hands, getting married, holding kids. Then, over similar images of same-sex couples and mixed-race families: “When did you first fight to be considered a family? When you fell in love? When you got married? When you had kids? Family isn’t defined by who you love, but how.” (Pause, then: “Tylenol.”) Many of the participants challenge the idea of a “normal” family, while also asserting that, as one of them puts it, “We are, at heart, all the same.”

That people have families in a wide variety of ways, throughout history and across cultures, is well established if also still widely ignored. These Tylenol images, along with TV shows like Modern Family, are part of an ongoing demotion of the ideology of One True Family (married, heterosexual man and woman with kids), and an emerging celebration of family diversity, in popular culture —even as the legal system lags behind. That’s great, and certainly better than the stigma, discrimination, and sanctimony which nontraditional families still routinely face.

Still, it strikes me as significant that the Tylenol campaign, like the similar family representations that have been popping up, downplays the ways these families move differently through the world, glosses over the origins of the new kinds of families, like my own, that they celebrate, and focuses on only particular forms of non-traditional family. One might wonder, for instance, about the experiences of the white parent of kids of color in the face of racism, immigrant families in the midst of Trump-driven nativism, same-sex parents whose children participate in a fiercely heterosexist culture. One might wonder, too, why we don’t get sunny videos about women who chose to be, or have found themselves as, single mothers, or about multi-parent-by-design families, or #HowWeFamilyWithoutMoney. One might wonder about the birth families, egg and sperm donors, surrogates, and ex-spouses whose lives, labor, and emotions were part of the family creation process but who are invisible in #HowWeFamily. One might wonder about those marginalized members of our broader family—in the communal membership sense of “family” long used by queer people—who can’t, don’t, or don’t want to benefit from the respectability garnered by participation in conventional marriage and family institutions. One might wonder, that is, whether the demolition of the idea that there is a single “normal” family requires the erasure of the ways social inequality shapes family creation and family life.

We really shouldn’t expect advertising to show that to us, of course. That’s not Tylenol’s job. Sometimes corporate actions contribute to progressive social change—in this case, when their branding interests are served by presenting non-traditional families as symbols of liberal tolerance—and oftentimes not. But we should wonder, and we should talk, about the less comfortable, less pretty inequities that are an inherent part of family-making old and new. That family diversity has become a corporate marketing tool can be flattering to some of us. But buyer beware.

Joshua Gamson (@joshgamson) is Professor of Sociology at the University of San Francisco and a Fellow at the Stanford Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences. His most recent book is Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship.

policy round up july aug

I recently stole time away from a research conference in Chicago to visit the Hull House Museum. After looking through all of the exhibits, I made my way to the tiny museum shop and was mesmerized by a wall of posters containing the lyrics of songs sung by Hull House residents. These were the songs residents sang at rallies and protests while fighting for the many social reformations advocated by Jane Addams and her colleagues. Although we take many of the accomplishments of these brave crusaders for granted today, the lyrics to the song “Eight Hours” seemed especially apposite to contemporary society – so I snapped a picture and posted it to the Facebook pages of friends who are active in the labor justice movement.

“Eight hours for work. Eight hours for rest. Eight hours for what we will.”

The eight hour day movement lasted over 100 years and incited violent clashes between workers and police, finally ending with the passage of the Fair Standards Labor Act of 1938. Like the Hull House residents and union activists of the industrial era, millions of workers today are fighting to improve labor conditions by demanding a raise in the current federal minimum wage threshold of $7.25 per hour. Politicians and the public are at odds in their agreement over the economic and social outcomes a national increase would incur, but the implications for working families should not be ignored. It is impossible for a family to survive on the current minimum wage, even if there are two parents working full time.

The feasibility of financial security with a minimum wage job is even slimmer for single parent families. I used the National Center on Children in Poverty’s Basic Needs Budget Calculator to determine the hourly wage a single mother with a 5 and 9 year old in Sioux City would require to maintain a basic household budget at 215% of the poverty level, and it turns out she would need to make $18 per hour at 40 hours per week (or an eight hour day) to meet the most basic budgetary needs. The same mother in Chicago would need $24 per hour to meet a basic needs budget at 278% of the poverty level.

“The beasts that graze the hillside, and the birds that wander free, in the life that God has meted, have a better life than we.”

Since it is impossible to survive on a full time minimum wage income and employers are unwilling to pay the time and a half overtime rate for work exceeding 40 hours (as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act), many parents report working two, and even three, jobs – putting in 60 and 70 hour weeks at multiple locations. So, what happens when an employer offers a single mother $455 a week as salary (or what amounts to $11.38 per hour for a 40-hour week), an important sounding title, and the time and cost saving benefit of commuting to just one job? It seems like a dream opportunity that will reduce the psychological and physical toll of working multiple jobs, right? Not exactly…

Overtime restrictions. A full time salary of $455 (or more) a week designates a worker as exempt, meaning they are not entitled to the same federally mandated overtime pay as hourly wage workers, as outlined in a recent fact sheet from the Economic Policy Institute. Therefore, the single mother in Sioux City or Chicago working a 60 hours between two minimum wage jobs would become a “supervisor” and bring in only $20 per week more than she did with two minimum wage jobs. She will still not be able to meet her family’s basic needs budget, and she will no longer have the option of taking a second job to help make ends meet. Taking this all too common scenario into account, it’s clear that a raise in the minimum wage will not lift the boat for all low-paid workers.

“Oh hands and hearts are weary, and homes are heavy with
dole; If our life’s to be filled with drudgery, what need of a human soul?”

The Fair Labor Standards Act also regulates the parameters of what defines an overtime exemption, and those standards have not been updated since 2004. In order to remedy this and bring the regulations current, the Department of Labor recently released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that would increase the weekly salary requirement for exempt status to $970, which equals $50,440 annually.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research released an August report that found 2.7 million of the total 3.2 million estimated workers who would be affected by the approval of this proposal are women. Single mothers in particular will gain greater financial security – with 44 percent of the currently overtime pay-exempt single mothers in line to earn premium pay for long work hours. What this means is that the single mother in Sioux City or Chicago with the $455 a week managerial position will be paid overtime for working more than 40 hours per week – or she will put in an eight hour day and have discretionary time to work another job or spend more time caring for her children.

“Should he, to whom the Maker, his glorious image gave, the meanest of his creatures crouch, a bread and butter slave?”

The press has been covering the slow death of the 40-hour week for over a year, and the eight hour day movement continues. While my attendance the research conference motivated me to get busy with my research, my visit to the Hull House inspired me to dig deeper. I needed to let the voices of the past remind me that the songs of justice never fade; they simply change their tune. I owe it to those who went before me to sing with the same commitment.

“Let the shout ring down the valleys, and echo from every hill.

Eight hours for work. Eight hours for rest. Eight hours for what we will.”

Public comment. Friday, September 4th is the end of the required 60 day public comment period on the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM). If you would like to contribute to the song, your comments can be submitted here.

//Read a fact sheet about the proposed changes from the Economic Policy Institute here.//

//Learn about the proposed changes to the regulation defining the exemptions for “white collar” employees here.//

Perry Threlfall completed her PhD in Sociology at George Mason University in May 2015. Her research focuses on the institutional and structural forces that influence inequality and mobility in single mother families. You can read her occasional blog at the Single Mother Sociologist found at smsresearch.net.  

Photo credit: Niels Linneberg / Creativecommons.org/
Photo credit: Niels Linneberg / Creativecommons.org/

Part 3 of the Overparenting Series

My previous posts offered an introduction to metaphors used in three different national contexts in order to lay a foundation for my claim that both the concept of overparenting and the words used to describe it are culturally constructed. I also introduced the historical and disciplinary origins of the metaphors. The next paragraphs identify important sociological threads that tie together the obsession with American helicopter parents, Danish curling parents, and British lawnmower parents.

Anxiety, Social Class, and Overprotection. Despite the differences between the metaphors, all of them are about parents who have the means to enact them. In most of the sources referenced here, authors are quick to point out that it is primarily affluent parents who are transforming into helicopters, sweepers, and lawnmowers. The effort put forth for the sake of protecting children and preparing them for the world is recognizable as a form of cultural capital that only the select few have the resources to enact (and the resources to read and talk about), something that sociologist Annette Lareau has discussed in her work on middle class parents’ efforts to intentionally cultivate skills in their children. But even as affluent parents make the efforts to protect their children, the ideals associated with being a “good parent” spread to all parents regardless of class.

In addition to the class-based popularity of overprotective parenting, the metaphors connote anxiety in a sea of saturation of bad, good, and in-between information. As sociologist Margaret Nelson has written in her book Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times, today’s parents, especially ones with means, are overwhelmed with metaphors, messages, and scary clip art about effective parenting. The metaphors lead to a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t world. Parents feel inadequate in their seemingly excessive (class-based) efforts to try to curtail the perceived dangers that lurk around the corner for their children. And feel anxious about whether their impulse to protect is messed up, too.

If we think about the metaphors used, they are meant to convey protection, but they can create unforeseen problems. Indeed, these layers of action that the images suggest is why metaphors are particularly compelling, and why the types of parents they represent can be deemed as both good and bad. The helicopter can rescue, but it can also blow away the prized scarf. The sweeper can smooth a path, but also carve too shallow a spot in the ice that leads the stone to the edge. The lawnmower can clear the blades, but also propel itself into the flowerbed where the spiders live. The metaphors evoke the infinity of “what if” moments that could make anyone have butterflies in the stomach, in terms of both success and failure of the image. Maybe that scarf is ugly. Maybe the stone needs to find the edge before it gets back on track. Maybe spiders are interesting creatures to spend time getting to know. In other words, the collateral damage may be harmless, or it may even simply be not harmful at all to begin with.

Admittedly, creating the best designed fuselage, studying the science of ice brushing, and inventing a stop button on a self-propelled lawnmower are reasonable pursuits to enhance actual helicopter flying, curling, and lawnmowing. But these pursuits done in the name of preventing imaginary things or things inaccurately defined as negative, or done so that parents can have yet more scary imagery in their anxiety arsenal, doesn’t seem to be a good use of time and resources.

MY VIEW: We spend time thinking about the quality of other people’s parenting because other people’s children may affect our child; because thinking about others’ parenting affects how we assess our own parenting; and because it matters beyond our families to locations as large as the nation-state. After all, it’s not hard to find opinion pieces on how a particular country is faring, given the characteristics of the youngest generation. Or on how some parents who are trying to instill the asset of autonomy in their children are reported as UNDERdoing it, thus offering commentary on the role of the state, the neighborhood, and the voyeuristic role of other parents. In other words, the act of assessing the quality of other people’s parenting is contextualized by important sociological factors. What I hope to add is that the words used to describe all of this also need context, too.

Art Gallery of Advice. At the risk of subjecting myself to my own critique about both parenting advice and social class inequality, I offer here another metaphor. But this time, the parent and the child are not metaphors. The parenting advice is. What if each parenting advice column and conversation was an art piece hanging on a wall? What if the world in which parents try to operate is the art gallery? There’s a reason art galleries allow a lot of space between pieces. The space allows the viewer to absorb the art with little distraction and enough time, so that she can uncover the art piece’s story and context, and can decide whether it’s worth looking at longer, ignoring, or obsessing over until she buys a copy for her own home.

Why not take a step back and look into the entire gallery, in order to recognize that we often find ourselves in front of a cluttered wall of parenting advice? Wall clutter that contains different artists competing for the most clever use of metaphorical imagery or best use of genre or media, and different nations competing over who has submitted the best art. Why not take a step back and look at the gallery-goers, recognizing that their artistic preferences are all influenced heavily by their cultural context? Heck, why not recognize that art galleries are classed, and not everyone has time to visit one or care whether it exists?

Imagine a gallery where there was no white space, and the space between crowded pieces was filled with mirrors etched with superimposed scary images. Like viewers in an art gallery who are well-served with calm space between art pieces, parents can benefit from less, not more. Let’s stop making so much clutter, or at least help viewers realize that they can ignore it and just focus on the art that brings them joy and just the right amount of challenge. I encourage people to remember that actual children and parents are not metaphors. What I would like us to realize is that our preoccupation with turning them into metaphors is very real, and could use a careful calm stroll through the gallery of information so that we can best choose what art makes us feel the best about our amazing (and yet, totally mundane) role as parents.

Michelle Janning is Professor of Sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, and serves as Co-Chair of the Council on Contemporary Families. She has taught and served as a pedagogical consultant for the Sociology and Child Development and Diversity programs at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad. She also let her son ride public transportation in Copenhagen by himself when he was eight years old. More about her can be found at www.michellejanning.com.

Part 2 of the Overparenting Series.

Helicopters, curlers, and lawnmowers defined and differentiated. Previously, I discussed the proliferation of metaphors that refer to Parentus Overprotectus – when parents overparent, overindulge, overprotect, and that these are concepts that are not exclusive to the U.S. In this installment, I consider the helicopter parent (in the U.S.), the curling parent (in Denmark), and the lawnmower parent (in England). These metaphors have different origins, disciplinary expertise of the originators, and meanings. They are inseparable from the cultural context in which they originated.

Credit: DVIDSHUB on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).
“I hear helicopters hovering.” Credit: DVIDSHUB on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

A chronology of overprotective parenting metaphors reveals a picture that starts with Israeli psychologist Haim Ginott in his 1969 book Between Parent and Teenager. The oft-cited quote, “Mother hovers over me like a helicopter and I’m fed up with her noise and hot air.… I’m entitled to sneeze without explanation” shows the use of helicopter as simile, not metaphor, for a certain type of parenting.

Jump forward to the early 1990s, when education consultant Jim Fay and medical doctor Foster Cline introduced Parenting with Love and Logic to a largely American audience. In their parent typologies, the term “helicopter parent” is presented as one of two negative types of parents, in which parents hover over their offspring and, as is often left out of the definition, rescue them when things go badly. This metaphor has been present in their writing, workshops, and popular media ever since, and has spread internationally to the point where scholars from countries outside of the U.S. reference the term as they construct new ones.

Team USA! Curling at the Vancouver Olympics. Credit: Jon Oropeza/jon oropeza on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Team USA! Curling at the Vancouver Olympics. Credit: Jon Oropeza/jon oropeza on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Denmark is often cited as a place where hovering parents are less likely to be seen and heard. But this place is not exempt from a Parentus Overprotectus metaphor. In 2004, Danish psychologist Bent Hougaard coined the metaphor “curling parent” in his book Curling-Forældre og Service-Børn (Curling-Parents and Service-Children, translated into Norwegian and Swedish, but not English), referring to the winter sport where a “sweeper” uses a broom to smooth the ice in such a way that the polished granite stones move across the ice to a desired end. In the same way, parents smooth the icy path for their little stone children to prevent them from struggle. And the children end up feeling entitled to whatever they want to make their lives easier as they grow. Parents are, as the title suggests, at the service of their little stone children. I’m fairly certain there’s a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that could illustrate this.

Lawnmower parents have a British origin. A British pair of “behavioural research strategist” authors Kieran Flanagan and Dan Gregory coined the term in a 2014 book about business entitled Selfish, Scared, & Stupid. This is a text marketed to business people seeking advice on how to effect change, have strong leaders, make more money, and get a grip on how real people work. The authors argue that, in reality, people are selfish, fearful, and stupid, traits that have been glossed over as children are raised with parents who clear the way and tell them that they are perfect. Lawnmower parents, then, are partly to blame for (especially millennial generation) business people’s unreal expectations for themselves and others because too many paths have been cleared for children who grow up incapable of handling failure. Similar arguments are made by U.S. authors who discuss problematic characteristics of the millennial generation that stem from parenting practices, using the helicopter metaphor.

"Backyard Haircut." Credit: Sean Hobson/seantoyer on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).
“Backyard Haircut.” Credit: Sean Hobson/seantoyer on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Helicopter, curler and lawnmower parents have been compared to one another in popular and academic venues inconsistently. Sometimes they are presented as the same, sometimes as versions of the same thing, and sometimes they are presented as part of an evolving sequence. Specifically, one scholar has said that curling and helicopter parents are “equivalent metaphor(s).” Another articulates that curling is “much like lawnmower parenting,” or that these latter two “correspond to” each other. And finally, in a twist that suggests etymological evolution, one writer offers that helicopter parenting has evolved into lawnmower parenting, as if the latter is a more aggressive and potent version of the former. I can’t help it: do they mean that this could be a hard-to-kill immune-from-gunfire new kind of genetically modified dinosaur killing machine type of parent? You laugh, but I assure you I am taking these metaphors seriously. I mean, just for the fun of it.

Cultural context. What I like most about sociology is the ability to examine cultural context. To see the forest amidst the trees. Overprotective parenting metaphors come not just from different places, but also from different disciplines – from psychology, education, medicine, and business. These are disciplinary contexts that, like nations, have their own cultures. Parentus Overprotectus, then, becomes about individual well-being, learning abilities, bodies, and the bottom line. What all of this does is construct parenting and childhoods as individualized projects that require measurable outcomes and a dose of imagery-induced anxiety at a cultural level.

Hovering helicopters, curlers brushing away obstacles on the ice, and lawnmowers clearing a path in the grass have important differences as they represent overprotective parenting, yet it is easy to conflate their definitions. The choice of imagery matters in the cultural context. Lumping them into one category of overprotective parents (most often as “helicopter parents”) may misrepresent important yet subtle qualities that the image seeks to convey. What this review reveals is that each of the terms has stemmed from a different country, a different disciplinary lens, and a different time period. Helicopter parenting is about hovering and rescuing, curling parenting is about carefully smoothing ice for an idealized version of childhood, and lawnmower parenting is about mowing over all obstacles so that children have a visibly clear and easy path, with no harmful sticks or tall grass blades standing in their way. The latter two are about prevention, the first one about fixing things after the fact.

For fun, I like to think about the use of a large metal machine used in military exercises as particularly American, the image of a parent who already knows the rules of most winter sports on account of the fact that it’s cold in Scandinavia as particularly Danish, and the clearing of a smooth row of mowed green like Wimbledon and paths in the symmetrical gardens at the Queen’s residence as particularly British. Or maybe that’s a stretch. Over the next couple days, you can do the same for Parentus Overprotectus metaphors beyond these three countries, in preparation for my next installment.

In the next post, I discuss how these metaphors, despite their varying cultural context, disciplinary history, and etymology, have a very important common theme: social class matters. And I offer a metaphor of my own to add to the mix.

Michelle Janning is Professor of Sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, and serves as Co-Chair of the Council on Contemporary Families. She has taught and served as a pedagogical consultant for the Sociology and Child Development and Diversity programs at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad. She also let her son ride public transportation in Copenhagen by himself when he was eight years old. More about her can be found at www.michellejanning.com.

This is part one of a three-part series.

via Pixabay
via Pixabay. Parent = Helicopter?

As parents of school-age children transition out of summer and into fall, we add to our daily list of things to think about. Making friends. Having the right outfit. Knowing the latest terminology for inappropriate recess conversations. I don’t know about you, but I think this list of concerns goes for my kid, too.


via Pixabay
via Pixabay. Parent = Lawnmower?

But is there such a thing as too much when it comes to parenting, especially as we ponder our kids heading back to school? More importantly, why do we spend time assessing parenting as if it were a lesson in prepositions? As in, OVERparenting. OVERprotective. OVERdoing it. It’s easy to find pieces written that contain judgment towards parents who hover, micromanage, or insert themselves loudly and proudly into children’s spaces. There are also entire organizations and websites devoted to asking parents to self-assess and read articles by experts. We live in a world where we scrutinize our decisions as parents, and we have no trouble finding resources that can help us with what I like to call The Parenting Scrutiny Project. This goes for parents who are judged to do too little, and those who are judged to do too much.

via Pixabay
via Pixabay. Parent = Curler? (See Scandinavian sports for meaning.)

I must admit that there is good that can come from this. After all, I descend from a certified parent educator whose ideas are brilliant and whose love for all children and their parents is immeasurable, and I would never advocate neglecting children and their needs. To avoid self-awareness and love as a parent doesn’t feel right. I’m probably a better parent if I think about whether listening to my son is a better choice than ignoring him when he comes home from a science class that made him squeamish because they showed a real sheep brain. But as a sociologist, I would assert that even labeling ignoring a child as bad, as well as the best way to demonstrate self-awareness and love, are themselves socially constructed.

This scrutiny would occur in our own heads naturally, I suppose, but the proliferation of news stories, typologies, and listicles about parenting sure does make this more likely. The scrutiny occurs both inwardly and outwardly, perpetuating a simultaneously individualistic and other-centered ethos. This can be deemed good (let’s help each other build a sharing community of parents and incorporate those ideals into our own families), or bad (the world revolves around me and my stressful neoliberal parenting project, and others are terrible at it). I recognize that it’s a risky road to traverse by offering yet another writing about parenting. But the twist here is that I am offering some words about why we keep seeing so much about parenting, what metaphors we use to describe it, and why our national context may matter for both.

Overprotective Parenting Metaphors: Helicopters, Curlers, and Lawnmowers

There is no shortage of metaphors in international academic and popular venues for overprotective parenting, which I like to refer to as Parentus Overprotectus. Images of tigers, snow plows, blackhawk helicopters, curling brooms, and lawnmowers are introduced, debated, compared, and replaced, seemingly continuously. Objects and animals and inclement weather are anthropomorphized into anxious caretakers of little ones with varying scary traits, as if naming a style of parenting just right might help to prevent the next generation from hitting their heads or using their heads without any help from a grown-up.

But the proliferation of overprotective parenting metaphors itself may fuel the parental anxiety that persists.

Search online and you will easily encounter columns about the pitfalls of overprotective parenting, occasionally with a new term introduced to give parents a broader vocabulary to refer to their own anxiety. Just as easy to come across are stories about how parents from other countries are happier because they do not overparent or overprotect; rather, they value children’s independence and exposure to adult themes and emotions so that their children will be better off. We see reports about the lessened physical activity of children because their parents are afraid to let them play outside, which ultimately leads to a “protection paradox” – where the protection of kids from harm diminishes children’s skills to combat future harm. We also see news stories about parents who are criticized for not hovering enough because they allow their children to play alone on playgrounds. I’m fascinated by the endless stream of research and commentary on this phenomenon and the metaphors that are introduced within it.

Protection of children by adults is culturally constructed. When I return to the U.S. from research trips to Scandinavia I tell stories of babies sleeping in baby carriages outside in the cold winter air to colleagues whose jaws drop just as they remember that they should probably not drop their jaws in polite conversation. “How can that be safe? They are not protected from the elements! Let alone strangers walking by!” they argue. To this, I respond with my usual discussion of how the Scandinavian good childhood is defined by early childhood education scholar Judith Wagner as one where children can be independent, where there is a lot of social trust, where democracy is ensured when children are allowed to be on their own, and where brisk air on cheeks is seen as good for the skin and the soul, starting at birth. The variations in how parents parent across cultures, and in what is defined as good and bad, and over and under, is what I mean by cultural construction. But even scholars and friends who already accept this variation sometimes find themselves with dropped jaws.

Overprotective parenting metaphors exist in different forms in different geographic locations. And the metaphors seem to be multiplying. In one U.S. source that has a chapter discussing “Hyper-Parenting,” I counted no fewer than twelve (twelve!) types of parents who are overprotective, overinvolved, excessive. This leads me to two questions, which are the subject of the next two posts: first, does the process of constructing a metaphor for overprotective parenting tell us about the culture, time period, and discipline in which it was created? And second, why are we seeing a proliferation of metaphors used to describe overprotective parenting across cultures?

Stay tuned to the next installment, where I consider the overprotective parenting metaphors from three places where I have spent lots of time living, researching, teaching, and parenting: helicopter parent (in the U.S.), curling parent (in Denmark), and lawnmower parent (in England).

Michelle Janning is Professor of Sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, and serves as Co-Chair of the Council on Contemporary Families. She has taught and served as a pedagogical consultant for the Sociology and Child Development and Diversity programs at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad. She also let her son ride public transportation in Copenhagen by himself when he was eight years old. More about her can be found at www.michellejanning.com.


Image credit: Perry Threlfall
Image credit: Perry Threlfall

As a new semester begins and college professors polish their syllabi, I would like to take this opportunity to ask you to also consider the climate of their courses – that is, do the syllabus requirements and course activities take into account that some of your young protégés will likely have more pressing life commitments than football games and Greek Rush? The answer is likely complicated, but well worth considering.

In a 2012 report to Congress, The Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance presented evidence that single mothers are the fastest growing student demographic, and a more recent report from the U.S. Department of Education projects that women’s enrollment in college will increase 15 percent by 2024. Based on my own analysis of data drawn from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, it appears likely that much of this growth will be driven by single mothers enrolling for the first time. The same data indicate that about 20 percent of undergraduate women students are single mothers, so if you are teaching college courses this fall, the chances are high you will have single mother students in your classroom.

Since many of you are parents, too, much of this won’t surprise you. But I ask you to consider what it would be like if you were sitting in those seats while also caring for your families, and it will be likely that much of the following will not surprise you.

Sociologist Amanda Freeman penned a piece in the Atlantic yesterday and reviewed the many ways that single moms face a “higher education dilemma.” She discusses the barriers that single mother students face in simply getting enrolled in school, and impossibilities of finding child care, housing, time, and even support from their professors.

Likewise, I interviewed 30 single mother students and asked them to share their motivations for pursuing a post-secondary education. Their reasons were as diverse as the women themselves, but a common theme is they believe a college degree will bring added value to the lives of their children by improving their financial security and uplifting their status in society. In other words, they view going to college within the framework of their role as mothers. They convey an uneasy relation to the single mother label, because this label has historically been posited against the ideologies of individualism and personal responsibility – which leaves them feeling economically vulnerable and socially marginalized. They view a college degree as a way to earn social legitimacy and reverse the patterns of discrimination their families contend with.

I pursued this line of research because I was a single mother while I was in school, and I designed my project to give voice other single mother students. I asked my informants to talk about their experiences on campus, and many shared stories of inflexible deadlines, conflicted commitments, and what Duquaine-Watson (2007) called a “chilly climate” in the classroom. Although single mother students have a significantly higher risk of dropping out, none of them believe their professors have nefarious intentions or intend to push them out. However, they suggest that it would be more feasible for them to persist in school successfully if their professors changed a few things up – and these are small things that do not compromise the integrity of the course or violate the boundaries of fairness.

Drawing on the talk of the women in my study, I present the following list of five things a professor can do to help me stay in school (from the perspective of a single mother student):

  1. Acknowledge I exist in your syllabus. I am making enormous efforts and sacrifices to be in your course – if I am running late or miss a homework deadline because my child was ill or needed to have a green bean extracted from his ear, I’ll find a way to make it up to you. Please put it in writing that you will make provisions for this possibility by stating explicitly that students with family responsibilities should contact you by email regarding missed or late work.
  2. Rethink your phone rules. When you make the rule that cell phones must be turned off in class, consider that I need to be available if my child is running a fever or gets trampled by a herd of elephants while I am listening to your lecture, and that will take precedence over your wisdom. I’ll put it on vibrate, but its got to stay on.
  1. Help me to network with others like me. When assigning group projects, devise a way for students with children to work together. If I have to meet with these strangers for periods of time outside of the classroom, I will be much more engaged and able to learn if my colleagues are willing to put Powerpoints together at Chuck E. Cheese’s instead of the library.
  1. Consider that I’m financially strapped. I understand we need to have books in order to learn, but please don’t force me to make a choice between giving my daughter a new My Little Pony for her birthday or an expensive supplemental style guide. She is going to win. Every time. I’ll look the style guide up online or borrow it from another student.
  1. Reach out to me and find out who I am. I know you have hundreds of students and it’s impossible to connect personally with each and every one of us. Even so, it’s likely that I’ll never tell you I’m a single mom, because I’m afraid you will think I am less committed to my studies. I’m not – most of us are more committed than other students. The women who have gone before me are more likely to have persisted if they had personal connections with their professors, and your recognition of me as a student facing overwhelming obstacles to be in your classroom means I will likely stay around longer –and eventually graduate.

Happy Fall Semester!

Perry Threlfall completed her PhD in Sociology at George Mason University in May 2015. Her research focuses on the institutional and structural forces that influence inequality and mobility in single mother families. You can read her occasional blog at the Single Mother Sociologist found at smsresearch.net.  


Duquaine-Watson, Jillian M. 2007. “Pretty Darned Cold”: Single Mother Students and the Community College Climate in Post-Welfare Reform America.” Equity and Excellence in Education, 40: 229–240.

When assigning blame for our nation’s persistent poverty problem, many policymakers tend to focus on underlying demographics or behavior of the poor—factors like racial background or the prevalence of single parent households— instead of the stark economic reality with which poorest Americans have had to contend. But, the fact

women, people of color, and single mothers do experience disproportionately higher levels of poverty - but that isn't the cause. Via Economic Policy Institute.
women, people of color, and single mothers do experience disproportionately higher levels of poverty – but that isn’t the cause. Via Economic Policy Institute.

is, growing inequality is the primary reason the poverty rate has remained elevated over the last several decades.

It is true that women, people of color, and single mothers do experience disproportionately higher levels of poverty, as shown in the table below, which compares the share of the population in poverty by age, gender, race, and family composition with those groups’ share of the total population.

At first glance, it would seem that family structure and racial identity are significant determinants of changes in poverty, as these groups account for a disproportionately high number of people in poverty. However, over the last three-and-a-half decades, it was not growth in the population of single mothers or of certain racial groups that drove poverty. When these demographic factors are compared with the effect of income inequality on poverty levels since 1979, inequality dwarfs them all.

This is illustrated in the figure below, which examines a set of factors commonly associated with changes in poverty over the past three-and-a-half decades: changes in the U.S. population’s racial composition, education levels, and family structure, as well as overall income growth and income inequality. The figure shows how much (in percentage points) each factor contributed to the change in the poverty rate from 1979 to 2013.

Inequality 4 x more influential over growing poverty than other sources. From Economic Policy Institute
Inequality 4 x more influential over growing poverty than other sources. From Economic Policy Institute

Since 1979, increasing inequality has been the largest poverty-boosting factor, outweighing racial identity and family structure and completely eclipsing the positive effects of overall economic growth and educational attainment in driving down the poverty rate. Despite our growing economy and the fact that poor workers are now more educated than ever, rising inequality has worked to keep low-income people in poverty. This increase in inequality was driven by stagnating wages for low- and middle-income households (for example, 10th percentile real wages were actually lower in 2013 than they were in 1979).

Our research looks at how this lack of wage growth for low- and middle-income families fuels poverty. We explore what could have happened to poverty if wages had actually grown over the last several decades and if the poor and the middle class had shared more widely in the gains made by a growing economy. We find that adopting policies to promote full employment and significant wage growth could bring down poverty as much as 4.2 percentage points—bringing 11.2 million people out of poverty.

It’s not fair to say the poor aren’t holding up their end of the social contract when almost two-thirds of employable poor people work and over 40 percent work full time, and their incomes have become more dependent upon wages over time. The truth is that the economy the poor are working in –an economy that has grown more unequal over the last several decades because of intentional policy choices—has made it harder and harder for them to get by.

Instead of focusing on the characteristics of the poor when assigning blame for poverty, we should examine the intentional policy choices we have made that led to such an unequal economy. We should promote new policy choices that help reduce inequality and alleviate poverty. Although the safety net has made significant progress in decreasing poverty, it needs to be complemented by a better labor market for low-wage workers. Without hourly wage gains, the tax-and-transfer system needs to work harder simply to keep poverty rates from increasing. Going forward, we should strengthen the safety net and focus on policy solutions that will spur wage growth—such as raising the minimum wage, targeting full employment, strengthening worker’s bargaining power, and updating labor standards—in order to make our economy work for all.

Elise Gould is a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. Her research areas include wages, poverty, economic mobility, and health care. She is a co-author of The State of Working America, 12th Edition. Twitter: @eliselgould

 Alyssa Davis joined EPI in 2013 as the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Fellow. She assists EPI’s researchers in their ongoing analysis of the labor force, labor standards, and other aspects of the economy. She holds a B.A. in Plan II and Sociology from the University of Texas at Austin. Twitter: @alyssalynn7