Families as They Really Are

Re-posted from The Washington Post.

photo credit: David Mark via pixabay
photo credit: David Mark via pixabay

SheaMoisture hair products launched the second phase of its national #BreakTheWalls campaign recently with 60-second commercials challenging what it sees as the beauty industry’s outmoded labeling practices. The spots feature a dazzling array of women of all shades, with every imaginable hair texture, color and style asking the singular question, “What is normal?” Or en Español: “Soy normal?”  The implication is that in today’s multiracial United States, kinky, curly, wavy and nappy hair textures — rather than straight ones — are the new “normal.”

The spots follow the campaign’s debut in April, which featured a brown-skinned woman staring with trepidation at gleaming rows of products in a drugstore aisle. “There is a section called ethnic. And there is an aisle called beauty,” one of several narrators says. “Do I feel like I’m beautiful? Is ‘ethnic’ not beautiful? … How can I break down those walls?”

Fans responding to the first ad on YouTube described it as “powerful,” “beautiful” and “groundbreaking.” Many expressed their gratitude to Shea simply for acknowledging black female consumers, and for affirming their natural hair-care needs with their chemical-free products. But others took issue with the premise, viewing it as a cynical play for white dollars.

This “has nothing to do with empowering women of color,” MsBgood83 wrote. “They simply used black women to make their company pop and now they are moving on to ‘others.’ ” “This is them saying they dont want to be the “black hair care company,” DAsiaW wrote. “Stop drinking the kool-aid guys.”

What the ads — and the reaction to them — speak to, though, is bigger than just hair care. The campaign is forcing Shea and its customers to think carefully about black ownership and expansion. What belongs to whom and who gets to take it away? It’s understandable that black and brown people are quick to call foul whenever their latest dance move, musical innovation, slang — or in this case, hair product — is suddenly seen as being for “everyone.” “Can’t we just have this one thing?” we seem to plead. (As the enraged reaction to Marc Jacobs’s recent multicolored, dreadlocked, mostly white female models on the catwalk demonstrates.)

And Shea’s push to broaden its reach has had other awkward moments.

In February 2015, the company posted several Twitter ads featuring white and Asian babies and children — a move that prompted black-oriented blogs such as MadameNoire to take them to task for a marketing shift they called “jarring.”

Last September, the company again faced backlash after announcing its new “strategic partnership” with Bain Capital Private Equity, a firm founded by former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Sundial’s reassurances that it would remain “majority family-owned and operated” weren’t enough to escape accusations of “selling out” and abandoning black consumers.

Again and again, black consumers reference the fate of other black-owned hair-care companies such as Soft Sheen, founded in 1964 by Edward and Bettiann Gardner, who sold homemade products from their basement on the South Side of Chicago. Soft Sheen was purchased by L’Oreal in 1998, which two years later merged it with the Savannah, Ga.-based Carson family company, a white-owned leader in black hair products, to form SoftSheen-Carson.

The average Shea consumer is no doubt also keenly aware of the 2014 L’Oreal purchase of Carol’s Daughter, a black-owned company with early investments from rapper Jay Z that markets itself as Brooklyn #BornAndMade. It, too, has been viewed with suspicion by readers of MadameNoire both when it attempted to diversify its advertising with “racially ambiguous models” rather than darker-skinned black women (a lesson Kanye West might have heeded before issuing his recent inflammatory casting call for “multiracial models” only), and after the announcement of the sale.

But this time the complaints feel just a bit off-base.

The skepticism among some black consumers is complicated by the fact that Sundial Brands, the company behind SheaMoisture, is actually owned by Africans, with products manufactured in Ghana. Can it really be white appropriation when it’s black people defining the terms of the giveaway? And it’s not at all clear that white women are the primary target of their expansion.

Instead, it seems to me that the #BreakTheWalls strategy is far more complicated, in a good way; in a way that other forward-thinking companies might emulate.

Sundial chief executive Richelau Dennis talks often of growth and expansion into a “general market.” If black businesses don’t grow, he told MadameNoire, “they die on the vine.” But what he means by the “general market” isn’t necessarily what the word used to mean: It’s no longer code for “white.”

Instead, the campaign is tapping into a submarket that, until recent years, has received little focused attention: multiracials, a population growing at a rate three times faster than the general population. #BreakTheWalls is actually a small stroke of genius in that sense. It’s no accident that both ads feature strategically placed white women, as well as light-skinned Latinas, some of them mothers with brown-skinned children.

When I asked Dennis about the biracial children in the new ads, he explained that for him, they are the new “general” market. “My mother is biracial. My grandfather was white, in a village in Sierra Leone in the 1940s,” he said. “Just because you see someone physically doesn’t necessarily mean you know who they are. That’s not where the world is headed.”

The company’s target audience — young, and increasingly assertive about their complex racial and ethnic heritages — is part of a powerful new contingent of natural hair-care bloggers and vloggers (“naturalistas”) who’ve made it their mission to offer styling tips, advice and encouragement to women both celebrating, and at times wrestling with, their decision not to chemically straighten their hair. As Dennis put it to me, the naturalistas of today are “younger, larger, louder, more educated, and more affluent” than customers of a generation ago.

And now, he’s got their attention.


Liberian-born Dennis and Nyema Tubman, Sundial’s co-founders, came to this country in 1987 to attend Babson College, a private business school in Wellesley, Mass. Prevented from returning home after the outbreak of Liberia’s second civil war in 1999, the roommates partnered with Dennis’s mother, Mary Dennis, to create their company using recipes passed down from Richelau Dennis’s grandmother Sofi Tucker, a natural healer who first sold soaps and salves in the village market of Bonthe, Sierra Leone, in 1912.

The partners mixed and packaged their products in a two-bedroom apartment on 168th Street in Jamaica, Queens, a space they shared with 10 other people, and peddled their shampoos and styling products on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. After incorporating in 1992, Sundial moved to a manufacturing and distribution warehouse in Amityville, N.Y., where it remains today.

The company employs several thousand workers in its northern and southern cooperatives in Ghana, Dennis told me, where he said the highest quality of shea butter is found. Dennis said the firm reinvests 10 percent of all revenue back into those local businesses — funding piping for water so that young girls can go to school, and constructing warehouses so that workers can sell at full price, year-round.

He’s painfully aware of the “selling out” question. When I asked him about that criticism, he acknowledged the trepidation among some consumers and said he understood it. They’re saying, “‘We’ve seen that happen before, and we don’t want it to happen again,’” he said. “So our job is to reassure. To stand up a little more and speak to those who are concerned.”

“What is normal? Soy normal?” Shea asks.

Despite the ad’s sunny optimism as it envisions a multi-textured, rainbow world, the answer to that question remains highly contested in the here and now. It’s just hair, some might say. But in fact, natural black and brown hair is never that simple. Despite Shea’s best efforts to challenge “normal,” its tenacious roots remain thickly locked. In the drugstore aisle, and beyond.

Kristal Brent Zook is a Council on Contemporary Families board member, an award-winning journalist, author of “Black Women’s Lives: Stories of Power and Pain,” and a professor at Hofstra University.

photo credit: StockSnap via pixabay
photo credit: StockSnap via pixabay

In recent months 2016 presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have discussed their childcare policy proposals. The mere fact that childcare found its way into the limelight gives me hope for families going to work while raising children today. Several pieces from the Council on Contemporary Families help to sketch where childcare policy has been and where it might go.

Will Obama’s Vision of Child Care Overcome Nixon’s Legacy?

For a great timeline of when and in what context childcare policy has been a central issue, take a look at sociologist Carole Joffe’s article, “Will Obama’s Vision of Child Care Overcome Nixon’s Legacy?”. Joffe summarizes the events of Nixon’s refusal to allow the Comprehensive Child Development Act to pass and the social implications that accompanied that refusal.  She also notes that President Obama’s message of support for quality and affordable childcare has made the issue visible again.

The Nixon record is more complicated than many think. In “Is TANF Working for Struggling Millennial Parents?”—on the 20th anniversary of Welfare Reform–Shawn Fremstad recently noted that in his first administration Nixon called for equal benefits for all children no matter where they were from because, “no child is worth more in one State than in another State.”

America’s Fragmented Child Care and Early Education System

In “America’s Fragmented Child Care and Early Education System,” Sara Gable (University of Missouri), reviews the conditions of childcare in 2015. Gable makes it clear that our current childcare policies are not adequately addressing family struggles. Part-time childcare programs do not align with the needs of working families who are at it full time. High costs mean low-income families must spend significant portions of their income on childcare. When children get to childcare, Gable also notes, their experiences aren’t uniform. Teacher qualification policies across different states and childcare programs are inconsistent, ranging from only needing your high school diploma or GED to requiring a BA in education. Taking these shortcomings into account, Gable suggests raising professional standards for teachers and investing in childcare services the way that Sweden and Finland have.

The State of Affordable Child Care

In “The State of Affordable Child Care” sociologist Perry Threlfall shows how current childcare policies influence financial stability and economic growth for families. Threlfall notes that without affordable and quality childcare programs, working families are not able to fully participate in the workforce. She also brings light to the flaws in both the Child Care and Development Block Grant and the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit programs the U.S. government currently offers. Lastly, Threlfall discusses Center for American Progress Vice-President of Policy Carmel Martin’s proposal to provide a refundable tax credit that would allow low-income families to access quality childcare.

Schools didn’t start it. Achievement gaps start earlier.

In “Schools didn’t start it. Achievement gaps start earlier” Economic Policy Institute’s Elaine Weiss aims to correct the notion that schools are where achievement gaps begin and are responsible for closing them. Instead, she argues that the same system that created our staggering income inequality has also been a force behind the achievement gap. In other words, it comes down to money. Weiss explains that without an influx of educational resources low-income students will continue to enter school at a disadvantage and the schools will not be able to do much to help them. Weiss proposes fixes, including national investments in early education, higher wages for education professionals, and a further push on our current presidential candidates to concentrate on the matter of childcare and the achievement gap.

Megan Peterson is a Council on Contemporary Families Public Affairs Intern and a senior sociology major at Framingham State University in Massachusetts.

Graffiti/Paris/July 2012. Credit: John Schmitt
Graffiti/Paris/July 2012. Credit: John Schmitt

A briefing paper released by the Council on Contemporary Families last year analyzes recent data on parenting practices compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau. Sandra Hofferth, Professor, Family Science, at University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, notes that although the Census Report found some differences by family type, most American parents — married, divorced, or single — read to their children, monitor their children’s media youth, and engage their children in extra-curricular activities.

Overall, reports Hofferth, more than 90 percent of American children were read to during the week. Married parents reported reading to children aged 3-5 an average of 6.8 times a week, compared to 6 times a week for single parents of children the same age. “About half of all 6-17 year olds ate breakfast with their family at least 5 days per week. Nine out of 10 parents of children under 12 had rules about television viewing. And one-fifth to two-fifths of all children participated in sports as an extracurricular activity.”

In general, differences between family types were significant but small. Almost 13 percent of 6-11 year-old children of married parents were enrolled in gifted classes, compared with almost 11 percent of children living with a single parent. Slightly more teenaged children living with a single parent ate dinner with a parent at least 5 days a week than did children living with two married parents. However, only 34 percent of teenagers in single-parent homes, vs. 44 percent of teens from married couple families, participated in sports activities. Children of cohabiting couples had the lowest rates of shared family dinners and extracurricular activities.

Hofferth explains that many of these differences are more closely related to income than to family structure. 42.5 percent of teenagers in families with incomes 200 percent or more of the poverty level participated in sports, compared to only 22.5 percent of teens in poor families. This is a difference of 20 percentage points, compared to only a 10-point difference by family structure.

Such income differences are especially worrisome, Hofferth writes, because more than one-fifth of children of all ages, and more than a quarter of children under age six, live in families with incomes below the poverty line. Another recent report finds that more than half of students in U.S. public schools now come from low-income families.

The negative impact of poverty on parents’ involvement in extracurricular activities may be especially strong in the United States, which has higher levels of extreme poverty than other developed nations, suggests Virginia Rutter, a sociologist at Framingham State University and a Senior Scholar with the Council on Contemporary Families. A recent study of the United Kingdom found that poor parents were equally engaged with their children as middle class parents, despite fewer material resources. The lower level of support systems for low-income families with children in the U.S. may help account for such differences, notes Rutter.

Read Hofferth’s complete commentary here at CCF@ The Society Pages.

lips for fatraThis is a reprint from Girl w/ Pen – Nice Work.

There is a lot to learn from hooking up—including when you talk to people who don’t do it in any kind of stereotypical way. Some of the clichés that seem to get replayed are that “everyone” at college is doing it (70 percent of college seniors have some experience of hookups). And by “doing it” the perception is doing “it” – even though 40 percent of students who hook up reported doing so in their most recent hook up. Another stereotype is that the hookup scene is typically centered around (straight) men’s desires, even if girls-kissing-girls is part of the action sometimes. Two new hooking up studies take on these views of hooking up.

Is it everyone? What about commuters? University of Illinois-Chicago sociologists Rachel Allison and Barbara Risman reported this week on their study (“‘It Goes Hand in Hand with the Parties’: Race, Class, and Residence in College Student Negotiations of Hooking Up,” forthcoming in Sociological Perspectives). They analyzed 87 in-depth interviews with commuter and residential undergraduates at UIC: turns out commuter students do not typically participate in the hook up culture—but they still believe it is a key feature of authentic college experience.

But is hooking up the “real” college experience? According to Allison and Risman: “Students from a range of class and ethnic backgrounds told us the ‘real’ college experience involves parties and hooking up, but white middle-class students believed they actually live the ‘real’ college experience.” One student (a Middle-Eastern woman) in the study explained about hooking up: “It goes hand in hand with the parties.”

Commuters and minority students talked wistfully about missing what they believe is the “real” college experience–often based on what they see in movies or television of campus life. The researchers explained, “They feel they are getting a second rate experience. It’s not that the commuting students don’t tell us they sometimes have casual sex—they do. But they do not participate in the hooking up culture that most students see as part of college life.”

And girls kissing girls? Is it always about the guys? A study in the April 2014 issue of Gender & Society, reports that for some women the super-straight environment of college hookups is also a setting “to explore and later verify bisexual, lesbian, or queer sexual identities.” Turns out public kissing and threesomes play an important role. Not all of that sex play is about performing for men’s pleasure, and surveys show significant sexual fluidity.

In the Gender & Society study, “Queer Women in the Hookup Scene: Beyond the Closet?” Leila Rupp and Verta Taylor (University of California-Santa Barbara), Shiri Regev-Messalem (Bar Ilan University, Israel), Alison Fogarty (Stanford University), and Paula England (New York University) used the Online College and Social Life Survey (OCSLS) of over 24,000 college students from 21 four-year colleges and universities that was designed to study how college students approach hooking up, dating, and relationships. To this large data set, the researchers added 55 in-depth interviews with women students at Stanford University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, who had had some romantic or sexual experience with other women, to learn more about same-sex activity occurring in hookup settings that are mainly understood to be heterosexual.

Study co-author Paula England—who developed the OCSLS study—explained, “‘Hooking up’ was defined in our survey as ‘whatever definition of a hookup you and your friends use,’ but we know from talking to students that what they usually mean by a hookup is some sexual activity—ranging from kissing to intercourse—outside of a committed relationship.”

Hooking up, women with women, and a puzzle. The investigators reported that of the 14,128 women surveyed in the OCSLS, 94 percent identify as heterosexual. Though identifying as “straight,” these women’s behavior did not always line up with that—instead, women had more sexual fluidity. For example, forty percent of women who called themselves lesbians had had oral sex or intercourse with men; two percent of women who identify as straight report having had oral sex with a woman; compared to straight women, more women who indicated they were not sure about their sexual identities had same-sex sexual experience: 15 percent have given and 18 percent have received oral sex from a woman.

To examine sexual fluidity suggested by these women’s reports, the investigators conducted in-depth interviews. They interviewed women who identified as queer, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or some other non-heterosexual identity in order to learn more about how encounters in the hookup scene played a role in developing their current sexual identities. They learned that, since women making out with other women and threesomes between two women and a man are acceptable as a turn-on for men, this allowed women to expand and explore their sexual identities.

As study coauthor Verta Taylor points out, “Some students are embracing fluid identities and calling themselves ‘queer,’ ‘pansexual,’ ‘fluid,’ ‘bi-curious’ or simply refusing any kind of label. The old label bisexual no longer fits because even that term implies that there are only two options: lesbian/gay or straight.”

Women kissing women. In tune with the Katy Perry song, “I Kissed a Girl”, the interviews revealed that for some women, public kissing—typically seen as for the enjoyment of men onlookers—is a key opportunity for exploring same-sex attractions.

Often alcohol played a role in women’s opportunities to explore same-sex attraction, just as it plays a significant role in hookups in general. While some women who make out with other women in public had a previous same-sex attraction, others told interviewers about experimenting when they had had no previous sexual attraction to women. In sum, the authors note that “Kissing can result from or lead to emotional connections with women. It doesn’t always—but sometimes it leads to more exploration.” The interviews confirmed that public same-sex kissing in the hook up scene is one pathway into same-sex desire and behavior.

Threesomes. About 20 percent of women interviewed for this study reported participating in threesomes. “Threesomes allow same-sex pleasure without the stigma of non-heterosexual identity,” the authors explained. In some cases, women said that threesomes were a way to reduce their anxiety about approaching women on their own. One woman noted, “It’s not clear how you would initiate a relationship with a woman…I’m really inexperienced chasing women, rather more experienced at chasing men.” In other cases, women explained that threesomes were instigated by male partners, but that it led to women following up—solo—with the other woman in the encounter. The authors explain, “Although threesomes may begin with men’s desires, they introduce women to new sexual pleasures or allow them to act on same-sex or bisexual desires.”

Coauthor and historian Leila Rupp explains that this may not be so new: She points to intimate sexual relationships between co-wives in polygynous households in China and the Middle East, romantic friends in heterosexual marriages in the Euro-American world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and “girlfriends” in avant-garde cultural environments such as Greenwich Village and Weimar Berlin in the 1920s. “Bisexual behavior between women has flourished in a variety of societies where women’s same-sex desires and sexual behavior did not pose a threat to the gender order,” explains Rupp. Whether in these historical settings or in the setting of collegiate hookup culture, women’s same-sex sexuality can flourish in tight conjunction with heterosexuality. What is new in the 21st century setting, however, are the ways in which women can go on to have the opportunity to affirm new identities.

Note: This is based in part on releases I wrote for CCF and Gender & Society. See  “Not everyone is hooking up at college—Here’s why” (CCF) and “Can I watch? Sometimes women kissing women isn’t about you” (G&S) for more links and suggested references.

badmomsThe recent movie “Bad Moms” calls to mind how motherhood is often depicted in extremes and through exaggerated metaphors of hovering helicopter PTA moms.

We three work closely on the topics of parenthood, education, and family in our careers, and we also go to movies together. Sometimes it’s hard for us to find the time to do this. We’d like to say that this is because we each spend oodles of time filling our children’s lunch boxes with organic foods grown in our gardens, but this would only be accurate if our children’s lunch ingredients included slugs.

Did you catch that? How we turned something good into something bad? Or was it the other way around? Is it good to fill lunches with hand-picked organic carrots from our back yards or is it good to embrace slugs and store-bought snack packs? Which is the better “mom achievement?”

This twisting of goodness into badness and badness into goodness for moms is precisely the premise of the movie “Bad Moms,” which we recently saw together on one of those “Girls Night Out Because They Deserve a Break” evenings (okay, that’s not how we think of our time together, but we know lots of people for whom this label hits pretty close to home, and this “self-care” framing matters, as discussed below).

The movie’s premise is as follows: high-heel-wearing-overworked-taken-for-granted mom Amy decides to stop doing the things she (along with the hyperbolic PTA bake-sale-policing ubermoms) defines as good momhood, and that are supposed to make her (and her kids) happy. No more making healthy organic lunches. No more doing her son’s (“I’m a slow learner”) school projects. No more succumbing to the pressure her daughter was placing on herself to achieve achieve achieve. No more enabling of her husband’s juvenile ways that make the audience astounded that he can keep any children alive until the end of the day (the presentation of incompetent dads and the complexity of fatherhood could fill another blog post, by the way).

She. Was. Done.

Amy meets up with new friend Carla – a single mom who works in a service industry job – to realize that kids are probably fine even if you don’t tend to them like a delicate flower in an organic garden (though Carla’s lower SES background is stereotyped in enough ways to fill yet another blog post, where we could discuss how the three of us can drop off an Arby’s bag for our kids’ lunches, but we’ll still have more cultural capital than parents in our town who work three jobs and don’t have a car). Add a third to the mix – Kiki, a stay-at-home meek-to-her-husband’s-demands mom of four – and the audience gets to hear the wishes of moms who just want to be in a small accident so they can be rewarded with hospitalization for a week with lots of peace and quiet and no responsibility. Hospitalization as a means to happiness.

At several points in our viewing, the three of us laughed out loud. At other points we turned to each other to whisper things like “I think this is a good kind of feminism,” or “This is not a good kind of feminism.” By the end of the movie, we observed that the feel-good part with swelling music and welling eyes was all about moms needing to relax about trying to achieve perfection. Stop doting. Stop helicoptering. Stop organic carroting. And stop all of this, by the way, because our kids are swimming in either: a) anxiety pools lined with college applications that require high grades and “voluntouring” at an organic farm in the Global South; or b) quicksand that enables low motivation and necessitates that Mom fills out college applications for the child.

Let’s all just focus on being happy, the movie says. If you’re happy, you’ll win. Your kids will be happy. And if you’re happy as a mom, you’ll also get to drink wine at 9 a.m., drive fast, and become the kind of PTA president that allows some gluten in the bake sale. That’s a far better reward than hospitalization! Happiness is presented in the movie’s climax as being situated at the other end of the spectrum from achievement, for moms AND kids.

But could it be that gaining happiness is just another form of achievement that could land us right back where we started? This happiness v. achievement rhetoric is everywhere. Books that make happiness a project for moms, and books that critique the “science of happiness.”  Viral posts about teachers opting not to give any homework this year because it makes kids and parents and teachers miserable. Articles that extoll the virtues of women’s self-care, and articles that critique self-care as a form of soft-core neoliberal brain washing. Indexes of happiness referencing the happiest places where you should all live. And many parents, at some point when talking to children, saying, “What matters most to me is that you’re happy,” while mentally finishing the sentence with “…and obviously that you leave home before you turn 35.”

Earlier we asked whether it was good or bad to reference slugs when talking about our children’s lunches. But very few things in motherhood are about “or,” and comparing real experiences to extremes, even if they’re switched in a comedic way to call attention to their absurdity, may trap us into thinking we’re not doing anything right.

The moms in the movie were at their funniest and, dare we say, happiest, when expressing anger and letting go of all of their achievement demands. Plus they liked each other a lot more. As we finish up our school supply shopping and the kids head back to school, perhaps we ought to be cautious not to fall into the trap of making happiness yet another high achievement that good (bad?) moms have to add to the list.

Michelle Janning is Professor of Sociology at Whitman College, and Chair of the Council on Contemporary Families. She has a blog (www.michellejanning.com) where she wrestles with the realities of social life, which usually requires looking at them as gradations rather than extremes. She is trying to get her garden slugs under control.

Emily Tillotson is Director of the Bachelor of Social Work Program and Assistant Professor of Sociology and Social Work at Walla Walla University. She loves to consume pop culture in all forms through a decidedly feminist lens.

Meagan Anderson-Pira is a non-profit director with a Master’s Degree in Psychology who loves talking with sociologists (see above) while watching reality television and funny movies.

All three authors live in Walla Walla, Washington, where thankfully there is a 12-screen movie theater.


hamilton bookMove-in day at four-year residential colleges and universities around the U.S. marks a parenting milestone. But what happens next? Although most parents of college students do not have an embodied presence on their child’s dormitory floor, some provide so much financial, emotional, and logistical support that it seems they never left.

The media refers to these parents as “helicopters” and they are among the most reviled figures of 21st century parenting (see this recent Washington Post article for an example). They are derided as pesky interlopers in the postsecondary system, who unnecessarily intervene with university programming, test the patience of college officials, and create needy students. Because intensive parenting is a task that falls mostly on the shoulders of women, many critiques also have a mother-blaming bent.

Do involved parents burden the university? In Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College Women’s Success, I followed 41 families as their children moved through a public flagship university between the years of 2004 and 2009. I conducted a year of ethnographic observation in a women’s residence hall, interviewed both mothers and fathers, and conducted five years of annual interviews with their daughters.

The university I studied, like many other public schools, lacked the deep pockets and rich resources of elite privates. Rather than evading helicopters, the school actively cultivated a partnership with involved parents. Out-of-state parents were considered a real asset, as they were typically both affluent and well-educated. In the face of steep state budget cuts and mounting accountability pressures, the institution relied on parents to fill numerous financial, advisory, and support functions. It is not unique in adopting such a strategy.

Net tuition now rivals state and local appropriations as the primary funder of public higher education. In this equation, parents become a crucial source of funds. Four-year schools also structure their classes, activities, and living options around traditional students and expect parents to do the work of maintaining them. Many parents in the middle to top stratum of the class structure readily accept these tasks. They have come to believe that a college experience is something that “good” parents offer, no matter the cost.

The sheer diversity of academic and social options on today’s college campuses means that there are many ways for students make costly mistakes. Yet, as advisor to student ratios steadily rise, tailored advice is typically not coming from public university staff. Students are expected to seek guidance from home. Affluent, well-educated parents—typically mothers—dive headlong into the roles of academic advisor, career counselor, therapist, and life coach. They have flexible careers that allow for emergency visits, a savvy understanding of higher education, the ability to interface with university staff, and money to smooth over every hurdle.

Parents even help translate college degrees into jobs. Elite companies look for markers of status that parents cultivate in their children—for example, skill in upper-class extracurricular activities, a narrative of self-actualization, and delicately honed interactional skills. Universities rely on families to embed these traits, as the degree alone is not enough to get a good job. Internship and job placement services are also outsourced to parents, who craft resumes, tap their networks for opportunities, and enable moves to urban locations.

This arrangement takes a toll on all families. Adults extend parenting responsibilities further into their own life course, undermining their own financial security and draining emotional and psychological reserves. There is also some truth to the notion that the helicoptered children are slow to adapt to adulthood; their academic success can come at the cost of self-development in other spheres.

But families of modest means stand to lose the most ground. University outsourcing to parents increases the salience of family background for academic and career success, exacerbating existing inequities. Well-resourced parents are advantaged when parental labor is built into the very form and function of the university. They can out-fund, out-strategize, and out-network the competition. In contrast, less privileged parents are reliant on what the university offers. They are often deeply disappointed.

The helicopter parent blame game distorts the real issue: Public universities are growing dependent on private family resources for their existence. As parents become more central to the operation of higher education, the social mobility mission of the mid-20th century public university gradually slips away.

Laura T. Hamilton is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. Hamilton’s new book, Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College and Beyond, was recently released by the University of Chicago Press. In this book, Hamilton vividly captures the parenting approaches of mothers and fathers as their daughters move through Midwest U and into the workforce.


photo credit: The Guardian
photo credit: The Guardian

Originally printed on The Conversation.

Last month, Tom Porton, an award-winning, veteran Bronx high school teacher, handed in his resignation after colliding with the school’s principal. Porton had distributed HIV/AIDS education fliers listing nonsexual ways of “Making Love Without Doin’ It” (including advice to “read a book together”).

What does it say when a teacher who encourages students to discuss nonsexual ways to express love causes controversy? And how do discussions at school about sex affect teenagers? Do adults lose teenagers’ trust when they are not allowed to speak frankly about how to create healthy intimacy?

My cross-national research on adolescent sexuality shows a profound discomfort in American society not just with teenage sex, but with teenage love. And the silence among adults that results – in families, schools and the culture at large – may take a particular toll on adolescent boys.

What does love have to do with it? 

Political battles have raged for decades about whether and how public school students in the U.S. should be taught about condoms and other forms of contraception even though the majority of American youth lose their virginity during their teenage years.

The United States has seen more political strife and cultural controversy around adolescent sexuality than many other countries that went through a sexual revolution in the 1960s and ‘70’s. The Netherlands is an interesting comparative case: Like the U.S., Dutch society was culturally conservative in the 1950s. But Dutch society emerged from the sexual revolution with a more positive approach to adolescent sexuality, one that center-stages love.

American curricula tend to focus on physical acts and dangers – disease and pregnancy – often eschewing positive discussions of sexual pleasure or emotional intimacy.

Feminist scholars have critiqued American sex education for its overemphasis of danger and risk, noting the cost to teenage girls. Scholars have argued that the “missing discourse” of girls’ desire impedes their sense of power in and outside of relationships, leaving them poorly equipped to negotiate consent, safety and sexual satisfaction.

But scholars have paid less attention to the missing discourse of teenage love in American sex education, and its effects on boys, who confront a broader culture that provides scant recognition of, or support for, their emotional needs.

In comparison, sex education in the Netherlands tends to frame boys’ and girls’ sexual development in the context of their feelings for and relationships with others. Curricula include discussions of fun and exciting feelings. They also validate young people’s experience of love.

For example, the title of a widely used Dutch sex education curriculum is “Long Live Love, which is notable both for the celebration of sexual development, and for couching that development in terms of love.

Another example is of a PBS News Hour video, which shows a Dutch teacher engaging a group of 11-year olds in a conversation about what it feels like to be in love, and the proper protocol for breaking up (not via text message).

After watching the video, a male student at the University of Massachusetts spoke wistfully about what was missing from his own sex education experiences, stating, with a hint of outrage in his voice, “No one talks with us about love!”

‘Dirty little boys, get away!’ 

The differences between American and Dutch sex education curricula reflect broader cultural differences in the ways adults talk about young people and their motivations.

In interviews I conducted with Dutch and American parents of high school sophomores, the Dutch parents spoke about teenage sexuality in the context of their children falling in love.

One Dutch mother recalled that her son was “interested in girlfriends at a very early age and then he was also often intensely in love.” Her son would not have been unusual. Ninety percent of Dutch 12- to 14-year-old boys, surveyed in a national study, reported that they had been in love.

By contrast, American parents were very skeptical of love during the teenage years. They attributed adolescent sexuality to biological urges – particularly with regard to boys. I found it to be so, across the political spectrum.

Parents portrayed boys as slaves to their hormones. One self-described liberal mother said, “Most teenage boys would fuck anything that would sit still”.

A conservative father, who was anxious about his daughter’s dating, stated: “I’m a parent of a teenage cheerleader. I’m very concerned: ‘Dirty little boys! Get away! Get away!'”

What do boys want? 

I found that boys in both cultures are looking for intimacy and relationships, not only sex. But they differed in how much they believed they fit the norm.

The Dutch boys thought that their desire to combine sex with relationships was normal, whereas American boys tended to see themselves as exceptionally romantic.

Says Randy, an American boy I interviewed:

“If you ask some guys, they’ll say it’s mainly for the sex or whatever [that they get together with a girl], but with me, you have to have a relationship with the person before you have sex with her…. I’d say I’m exceptional”.

Randy is far from exceptional. In one U.S. survey, boys chose having a girlfriend and no sex over having sex and no girlfriend by two to one.

Other research too has shown American teenage boys – across racial and ethnic groups – crave intimacy, and are as emotionally invested as girls are in romantic relationships.

American boys end up paying a price for a culture that does not support their needs for intimacy. For the issue is that while boys crave closeness, they are expected to act as if they are emotionally invulnerable. Among the American boys I interviewed, I observed a conflict between their desires and the prevailing masculinity norms – if they admit to valuing romantic love, they risk being viewed as “unmasculine.”

Unrealistic and unfair expectations about boys’ lack of emotional vulnerability, in turn, make it harder for them to navigate both platonic and romantic relationships. One study found that as boys move through the teenage years, masculinity norms (beliefs that men should be tough and not behave in ways marked as “feminine”), particularly the stigma of homosexuality, make it harder to maintain close same-sex friendships, leaving boys lonely and sometimes depressed.

With less practice sustaining intimacy, boys enter romantic relationships less confident and less skilled. Ironically, many boys end up less prepared for, but more emotionally reliant on, heterosexual contacts.

Talk to us

When I asked my students to brainstorm about ideal sex education programs, based on research, they recommended focusing more on relationships. These young men suggested that having older boys mentor young boys, showing that it is normal for boys to value relationships could challenge the idea that it’s not masculine to need emotional closeness.

Certainly, such peer mentoring might go a long way to counteract the gender stereotypes and rigid masculinity norms that research has shown adversely affect boys’ sexual health.

The flyer Porton distributed invited an intergenerational conversation about emotional intimacy that is missing from most classrooms and boys’ lives. And it’s a conversation boys appear eager to have.

Amy Schalet is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

educational policyFor all of its craziness and scariness, the 2016 election campaign has hammered home for millions of Americans the degree to which massive inequities permeate our daily lives and threaten our democracy.

Unfortunately, understanding how inequalities affect us has yet to permeate the education policy world. While the transition from narrow, punitive No Child Left Behind Act to the Every Student Succeeds Act represents real progress, there is still a widespread belief that schools are the main drivers of achievement gaps and that they can, and should, be responsible for closing them. Correcting this fallacy is critical to getting the education system we need – one that is both equitable and excellent – and will help correct some of those larger inequities as well.

In reality, the same systemic forces that have sucked most of the income and wealth from the bottom half of our population in recent decades and channeled it into the top one percent have substantially widened income-based achievement gaps. Without intentional measures to direct a broad range of educational and other resources to reversing that trend, gaps will continue to grow. And because big disparities in parents’ – and society’s – investments in children begin at birth, those resources need to be channeled early.

Many of us know that students from poor families, and especially low-income students of color, are often two to three years behind by the time they begin high school. What is far less widely known is that those same students began school that far behind. In other words, our highly inequitable school system, which consigns students with the greatest deficits to the least credentialed and experienced teachers, is doing more to maintain gaps that children brought with them on their first day of kindergarten than to create them.

A study by my colleague, Emma Garcia, finds that, in fact, students in the bottom social class quintile lagged their highest-social class peers by a full standard deviation in both reading and math at kindergarten entry. Those same students were about half a standard deviation behind on such social emotional skills as persistence, self-control, and social interactions, which are equally critical to academic, and life, success. Mind you, education researchers typically translate that “standard deviation” into two or three years of schooling. Let that sink in: one in five students start kindergarten one to three years behind, whether behaviorally or academically.

When we looked across racial groups, the gaps were smaller, and could be explained substantially by social class. Given that nearly half of black five-year-olds who started school in 2010-11, and almost two thirds of English-Language Learner Hispanic children, versus just 13 percent of their white peers, are living in poverty, however, shifting the comparison groups doesn’t improve those students’ real life contexts.

Schools didn’t start these problems. And the evidence tells us that schools alone can’t fix them.

Early fixes that will work.

Luckily, there is also some very good news on this front. Unlike fixes for our bigger, broader societal inequities, strategies for closing these early childhood gaps are well understood, extensively documented, and, miraculously, have fairly wide support across the political spectrum. A paper just published by five EPI researchers lays out both the multiple societal problems created by our failure to make the needed public investments in quality early child care and education, and the broad set of benefits to be reaped from righting that wrong.

First and foremost, an ambitious national investment in early childhood care and education would help get all our children to the starting gate in much better shape. Another recent study, conducted jointly by the National Institute for Early Education Research and the Center for American Progress, suggests that universal pre-k alone would narrow math gaps by between 45 percent and 78 percent (black- white and Hispanic-white gaps, respectively) and virtually eliminate pre-kindergarten reading gaps.

But the benefits to the investments we propose extend much further. Ensuring a living wage for child care providers would not only improve their quality of life and enhance their contributions to the economy, but help stabilize the workforce and, ultimately, benefit the children they care for. Because child care is such a burden for young families – as expensive as rent or more so in many cases – making high-quality child care available would provide a benefit of about $11,000 annually for Florida families with an infant and a preschool-aged child who are earning the state median income. And removing this barrier to women’s workforce participation would help bring American women in line with their international peers, with potential gains to the gross domestic product of as much as $600 billion annually.

As the election comes closer, we must continue to push all candidates in both parties to focus on the severe problems working Americans face. Let’s make the early childhood investments we suggest front and center. By our analysis they are low hanging fruit—politically and economically.

Elaine Weiss is the National Coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, where she works with four co-chairs, a high-level Advisory Board, and multiple coalition partners to promote a comprehensive, evidence-based set of policies to allow all children to thrive in school and life.  Major publications for BBA include case studies of diverse communities across the country that employ comprehensive approaches to education. She has also authored two studies with EPI economist Emma Garcia on early achievement gaps and strategies to reduce them.

coontz book coverThe latest edition of Stephanie Coontz’s The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap is an essential read for policymakers. Coontz lays bare, in engaging, easy-to-read prose, the fact that many of Americans long-held beliefs about marriage, family structure, gender relations, caregiving, and child rearing are myths—amalgamations of narratives about families from different periods in American history that are rife with blind spots and errors. And, as Coontz makes clear, policymakers’ adherence to these false ideals has profound, often deeply negative consequences for American families.

This myth busting is part of what makes Coontz’s newest release so important. Family is so ubiquitous, so personal, that everyone fancies themselves an expert. The fact that Coontz reveals one surprise after another on this intimate and familiar terrain shows that such thinking is just that:  fanciful. Many policymakers would be astonished to learn, as Coontz informs us, that nearly three in ten American households contain just one person; that premarital cohabitation does not increase the risk of divorce; and that modern working and single mothers today spend more time with their children than stay-at-home, married mothers did 50 years ago.

A nuanced discussion of the economic and social contexts in which families form, live, and work—and the centrality of public policy in shaping these contexts—is the second reason Coontz’s book is a must read for policymakers. Coontz, a historian, carefully assembles rigorous and persuasive research to explain how income inequality, which has been driven to historic heights in recent years by decades of ill-advised policy choices, is a much stronger predictor of poverty than family structure.

Coontz’s work clearly demonstrates that there is much room for improvement in the ways policymakers understand, regulate, and try to influence families. There is a push in Washington for evidence-based policymaking. Yet all too often family policy is an area where, even when we possess the kind of coherent evidence Coontz offers, policy is rooted in those myths rather than what has been empirically observed or tested. Efforts to undermine marriage equality, reduce women’s access to reproductive health services, and teach abstinence-only sex education are all examples of policies that are purportedly designed with the best interests of children and families in mind—yet in reality these policies fly in the face of research about what families need to be strong, stable, and secure.  Such policymaking is illogical at best and harmful at worst.

Fortunately for policymakers Coontz’s book makes for an absorbing, sometimes shocking, often wryly funny read. Both comprehensive and comprehensible, it’s a veritable one-stop shop for reliable research on how public policy and culture affect families. Readers will feel as if they have been whisked away on a tour of history and academia with an expert guide imparting the most relevant and compelling facts at each stop. Policymakers would be smart to buy a ticket.

katherine gallagher robbins photoKatherine Gallagher Robbins (@kfgrobbins) is the Director of Family Policy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress (CAP). Before joining CAP, Robbins was the director of research and policy analysis at the National Women’s Law Center. Robbins holds a bachelor’s degree in government from the College of William and Mary and a doctorate in political science from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.