Flashback Friday.

Stiff competition for entrance to private preschools and kindergartens in Manhattan has created a test prep market for children under 5. The New York Times profiled Bright Kids NYC. The owner confesses that “the parents of the 120 children her staff tutored [in 2010] spent an average of $1,000 on test prep for their 4-year-olds.”  This, of course, makes admission to schools for the gifted a matter of class privilege as well as intelligence.

The article also tells the story of a woman without the resources to get her child, Chase, professional tutoring:

Ms. Stewart, a single mom working two jobs, didn’t think the process was fair. She had heard widespread reports of wealthy families preparing their children for the kindergarten gifted test with $90 workbooks, $145-an-hour tutoring and weekend “boot camps.”

Ms. Stewart used a booklet the city provided and reviewed the 16 sample questions with Chase. “I was online trying to find sample tests,” she said. “But everything was $50 or more. I couldn’t afford that.”

Ms. Stewart can’t afford tutoring for Chase; other parents can. It’s unfair that entrance into kindergarten level programs is being gamed by people with resources, disadvantaging the most disadvantaged kids from the get go. I think many people will agree.

But the more insidious value, the one that almost no one would identify as problematic, is the idea that all parents should do everything they can to give their child advantages. Even Ms. Stewart thinks so. “They want to help their kids,” she said. “If I could buy it, I would, too.”

Somehow, in the attachment to the idea that we should all help our kids get every advantage, the fact that advantaging your child disadvantages other people’s children gets lost.  If it advantages your child, it must be advantaging him over someone else; otherwise it’s not an advantage, you see?

I felt like this belief (that you should give your child every advantage) and it’s invisible partner (that doing so is hurting other people’s children) was rife in the FAQs on the Bright Kids NYC website.

Isn’t my child too young to be tutored?

These programs are very competitive, the answers say, and you need to make sure your kid does better than other children.  It’s never too soon to gain an advantage.

My child is already bright, why does he or she need to be prepared?

Because being bright isn’t enough.  If you get your kid tutoring, she’ll be able to show she’s bright in exactly the right way. All those other bright kids that can’t get tutoring won’t get in because, after all, being bright isn’t enough.

Is it fair to “prep” for the standardized testing?

Of course it’s fair, the website claims!  It’s not only fair, it’s “rational”!  What parent wouldn’t give their child an advantage!?  They avoid actually answering the question. Instead, they make kids who don’t get tutoring invisible and then suggest that you’d be crazy not to enroll your child in the program.

My friend says that her child got a very high ERB [score] without prepping.  My kid should be able to do the same.

Don’t be foolish, the website responds. This isn’t about being bright, remember. Besides, your friend is lying. They’re spending $700,000 dollars on their kid’s schooling (aren’t we all!?) and we can’t disclose our clients but, trust us, they either forked over a grand to Bright Kids NYC or test administrators.

Test prep for kindergartners seems like a pretty blatant example of class privilege. But, of course, the argument that advantaging your own kid necessarily involves disadvantaging someone else’s applies to all sorts of things, from tutoring, to a leisurely summer with which to study for the SAT, to financial support during their unpaid internships, to helping them buy a house and, thus, keeping home prices high.

I think it’s worth re-evaluating. Is giving your kid every advantage the moral thing to do?

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

I work with one of the most heartbroken groups of people in the world: fathers whose adult children want nothing to do with them. While every day has its challenges, Father’s Day—with its parade of families and feel-good ads—makes it especially difficult for these Dads to avoid the feelings of shame, guilt and regret always lurking just beyond the reach of that well-practiced compartmentalization. Like birthdays, and other holidays, Father’s Day creates the wish, hope, or prayer that maybe today, please today, let me hear something, anything from my kid.

Many of these men are not only fathers but grandfathers who were once an intimate part of their grandchildren’s lives. Or, more tragically, they discovered they were grandfathers through a Facebook page, if they hadn’t yet been blocked. Or, they learn from an unwitting relative bearing excited congratulations, now surprised by the look of grief and shock that greets the newly announced grandfather. Hmm, what did I do with those cigars I put aside for this occasion?

And it’s not just being involved as a grandfather that gets denied. The estrangement may foreclose the opportunity to celebrate other developmental milestones he always assumed he’d attend, such as college graduations, engagement parties, or weddings. Maybe he was invited to the wedding but told he wouldn’t get to walk his daughter down the aisle because that privilege was being reserved for her father-in-law whom she’s decided is a much better father than he ever was.

Most people assume that a Dad would have to do something pretty terrible to make an adult child not want to have contact. My clinical experience working with estranged parents doesn’t bear this out. While those cases clearly exist, many parents get cut out as a result of the child needing to feel more independent and less enmeshed with the parent or parents. A not insignificant number of estrangements are influenced by a troubled or compelling son-in-law or daughter-in-law. Sometimes a parent’s divorce creates the opportunity for one parent to negatively influence the child against the other parent, or introduce people who compete for the parent’s love, attention or resources. In a highly individualistic culture such as ours, divorce may cause the child to view a parent more as an individual with relative strengths and weaknesses rather than a family unit of which they’re a part.

Little binds adult children to their parents today beyond whether or not the adult child wants that relationship. And a not insignificant number decide that they don’t.

While my clinical work hasn’t shown fathers to be more vulnerable to estrangement than mothers, they do seem to be more at risk of a lower level of investment from their adult children. A recent Pew survey found that women more commonly say their grown children turn to them for emotional support while men more commonly say this “hardly ever” or “never” occurs. This same study reported that half of adults say they are closer with their mothers, while only 15 percent say they are closer with their fathers.

So, yes, let’s take a moment to celebrate fathers everywhere. And another to feel empathy for those Dads who won’t have any contact with their child on Father’s Day.

Or any other day.

Josh Coleman is Co-Chair, Council on Contemporary Families, and author most recently of When Parents Hurt. Originally posted at Families as They Really Are.

Originally posted at Family Inequality.

It looks like the phrase “start a family” started to mean “have children” (after marriage) sometime in the 1930s and didn’t catch on till the 1940s or 1950s, which happens to be the most pro-natal period in U.S. history. Here’s the Google ngrams trend for the phrase as percentage of all three-word phrases in American English:

startfamngram

Searching the New York Times, I found the earliest uses applied to fish (1931) and plants (1936).

Twitter reader Daniel Parmer relayed a use from the Boston Globe on 8/9/1937, in which actress Merle Oberon said, “I hope to be married within the next two years and start a family. If not, I shall adopt a baby.”

Next appearance in the NYT was 11/22/1942, in a book review in which a man marries a woman and “brings her home to start a family.” After that it was 1948, in this 5/6/1948 description of those who would become baby boom families, describing a speech by Ewan Clague, the Commissioner of Labor Statistics, who is remembered for introducing statistics on women and families into Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. From NYT:

claguenyt

That NYT reference is interesting because it came shortly after the first use of “start a family” in the JSTOR database that unambiguously refers to having children, in a report published by Clague’s BLS:

Trends of Employment and Labor Turn-Over: Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 63, No. 2 (AUGUST 1946): …Of the 584,000 decline in the number of full-time Federal employees between June 1, 1945 and June 1, 1946, almost 75 percent has been in the women’s group. On June 1, 1946, there were only 60 percent as many women employed full time as on June 1, 1945. Men now constitute 70 percent of the total number of full-time workers, as compared with 61 percent a year previously. Although voluntary quits among women for personal reasons, such as to join a veteran husband or to start a family, have been numerous, information on the relative importance of these reasons as compared with involuntary lay-offs is not available…

It’s interesting that, although this appears to be a pro-natal shift, insisting on children before the definition of family is met, it also may have had a work-and-family implication of leaving the labor force. Maybe it reinforced the naturalness of women dropping out of paid work when they had children, something that was soon to emerge as a key battle ground in the gender revolution.

Philip N. Cohen, PhD is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes the blog Family Inequality and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Note: Rose Malinowski Weingartner, a student in Cohen’s graduate seminar last year, wrote a paper about this concept, which helped him think about this.

Originally posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design.

One of my favorite sociologists is Bill Watterson. He’s not read in most sociology classrooms, but he has a sociological eye and a great talent for laying bare the structure of the world around us and the ways that we as individuals must navigate that structure—some with fewer obstacles than others. Unlike most sociologists, Watterson does this without inventing new jargon (or much new jargon), or relying on overly dense theoretical claims. He doesn’t call our attention to demographic trends (often) or seek to find and explain low p values.

Rather, Watterson presents the world from the perspective of a young boy who is both tremendously influenced by–and desires to have a tremendous influence on–the world around him. The boy’s name is Calvin, and I put a picture of him (often in the company of his stuffed tiger, Hobbes) on almost every syllabus I write. Watterson is the artist behind the iconic comic strip, “Calvin and Hobbes,” and he firmly believed in his art form. I’m convinced that if you can’t find a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon to put on your syllabus for a sociology course, there’s a good chance you’re not teaching sociology.

The questions and perspectives of children are significant to sociologists because children offer us an amazing presentation of how much is learned, and how we come to take what we’ve learned for granted. In many ways, this is at the heart of the ethnographic project: to uncover both what is taken for granted and why this might matter. Using the charm and wit of a megalomaniacal young boy, Watterson challenges us on issues of gender inequality, sexual socialization, religious identity and ideology, racism, classism, ageism, deviance, the logic of capitalism, globalization, education, academic inquiry, philosophy, postmodernism, family forms and functions, the social construction of childhood, environmentalism, and more.

Watterson depicts the world from Calvin’s perspective. He manages to illustrate both how odd this perspective appears to others around him (his parents, teachers, peers, even Hobbes) as well as the tenacity with which Calvin clings to his unique view of the world despite the fact that it often fails to accord with reality. Indeed, Calvin ritualistically comes into conflict with his social obligations as a child (school, chores, social etiquette, and norms of deference and respect, etc.) and the diverse roles he plays as a social actor (both real and imaginary). Calvin is a wonderful example of the human capacity to play with social “roles” and within the social institutions that frame and structure our lives.

Quite simply, Calvin often simply refuses to play the social roles assigned to him, or, somewhat more mildly, he refuses to play those roles in precisely the way they were designed to be played. And in that way, Calvin helps to illustrate just how social our behavior is.  Social behavior is based on a series of structured negotiations with the world around us. This doesn’t have to mean that we can act however we please—Calvin is continually bumping into social sanctions for his antics. But neither does it mean that we only act in ways that were structurally predetermined. The world around us is a collective project, one in which we have a stake. We play a role in both social reproduction and change.

Understanding the ways in which our experiences, identities, opportunities, and more are structured by the world around us is a central feature of sociological learning. Calvin is one way I ask students to consider these ideas. Kai Erikson put it this way in an essay on sociological writing:

Most sociologists think of their discipline as an approach as well as a subject matter, a perspective as well as a body of knowledge. What distinguishes us from other observers of the human scene is the manner in which we look out at the world—the way our eyes are focused, the way our minds are tuned, the way our intellectual reflexes are set. Sociologists peer out at the same landscapes as historians or poets or philosophers, but we select different details out of those scenes to attend closely, and we sort those details in different ways. So it is not only what sociologists see but the way they look that gives the field its special distinction. (here)

Calvin is a great example of the significance of “breaching” social norms. Breaches tell us something important about what we take for granted, and if your sociological imagination is well-oiled, you can often learn something about the “how” and the “why” as well. A great deal of the social organization goes into the production of our experiences, identities, and opportunities is subtly disguised by these “whys” (or what are sometimes called “accounts”). Calvin’s incessant questioning of authority and social norms illuminates the social forces that guide our accounts surrounding a great deal of social life–subtly, but unmistakably, asking us to consider what we taken for granted, how we manage to do so, as well as why. This is a feature of some of the best sociological work—a feature that is dramatized in childhood.

In Erikson’s treatise on sociological writing, he concludes with a wonderful description of an interaction between Mark Twain and a “wily old riverboat pilot.” Researching life on the Mississippi, Twain noticed that the riverboat pilot deftly swerves and changes course down the river, dodging unseen objects below the water’s surface in an attempt to move smoothly down the river. Twain asks the pilot what he’s noticing on the water’s surface to make these decisions and adjustments. The riverboat pilot is unable to explain, offering a sort of “I know it when I see it” explanation (interviewers know this explanation well). The pilot’s eyes had become so skilled in this navigation that he didn’t need to concern himself with how he knew what he knew. But both he and Twain were confident that he knew it. Over the course of their interactions, Twain gradually comes to learn more about what exactly the riverboat pilot is able to see and how he uses it to move through the water unhindered. This, explains Erikson, is the project of good sociology—“to combine the eyes of a river pilot with the voice of Mark Twain.”

Through Calvin, Watterson accomplishes just this. Calvin offers us a glimpse of wonderful array of sociological ideas and perspectives in an accessible way. Watterson has a way of seamlessly calling our attention to the taken for granted throughout social life and his images and ideas are a great introduction to sociological thinking. I like to think that Calvin’s life, perspectives, antics, and waywardness help students call the systems of social inequality and the world around them into question, learning to see sociologically. Calvin is a great tool to help students recognize that they can question the unquestionable, to learn to problematize issues that might lack the formal status of “problems” in the first place. Watterson used Calvin to help all of us learn to see the ordinary as extraordinary–a worthy task for any sociology course.

Tristan Bridges, PhD is a professor at The College at Brockport, SUNY. He is the co-editor of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Inequality, and Change with C.J. Pascoe and studies gender and sexual identity and inequality. You can follow him on Twitter here. Tristan also blogs regularly at Inequality by (Interior) Design.

Flashback Friday.

Add to the list of new books to read Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, by Cordelia Fine. Feeding my interest in the issue of sexual dimorphism in humans — which we work so hard to teach to children — the book is described like this:

Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience and psychology, Cordelia Fine debunks the myth of hardwired differences between men’s and women’s brains, unraveling the evidence behind such claims as men’s brains aren’t wired for empathy and women’s brains aren’t made to fix cars.

Good reviews here and here report that Fine tackles an often-cited study of newborn infants’ sex difference in preferences for staring at things, by Jennifer Connellan and colleagues in 2000. They reported:

…we have demonstrated that at 1 day old, human neonates demonstrate sexual dimorphism in both social and mechanical perception. Male infants show a stronger interest in mechanical objects, while female infants show a stronger interest in the face.

And this led to the conclusion: “The results of this research clearly demonstrate that sex differences are in part biological in origin.” They reached this conclusion by alternately placing Connellan herself or a dangling mobile in front of tiny babies, and timing how long they stared. There is a very nice summary of problems with the study here, which seriously undermine its conclusion.

However, even if the methods were good, this is a powerful example of how a tendency toward difference between males and females is turned into a categorical opposition between the sexes — as in, the “real differences between boys and girls.”

To illustrate this, here’s a graphic look at the results in the article, which were reported in this table:

They didn’t report the whole distribution of boys’ and girls’ gaze-times, but it’s obvious that there is a huge overlap in the distributions, despite a difference in the means. In the mobile-gaze-time, for example, the difference in averages is 9.7 seconds, while the standard deviations are more than 20 seconds. If I turn to my handy normal curve spreadsheet template, and fit it with these numbers, you can see what the pattern might look like (I truncate these at 0 seconds and 70 seconds, as they did in the study):

Source: My simulation assuming normal distributions from the data in the table above.

All I’m trying to say is that the sexes aren’t opposites, even if they have some differences that precede socialization.

If you could show me that the 1-day-olds who stare at the mobiles for 52 seconds are more likely to be engineers when they grow up than the ones who stare at them for 41 seconds (regardless of their gender) then I would be impressed. But absent that, if you just want to use such amorphous differences at birth to explain actual segregation among real adults, then I would not be impressed.

Originally posted in September, 2010.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes the blog Family Inequality and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

1To Post Secret, a project that collects personal secrets written artistically onto postcards, someone recently sent in the following bombshell: “Ever since we started getting married and buying houses,” she writes, “my girlfriends and I don’t laugh much anymore.”

4

Her personal secret is, in fact, a national one.  It’s part of what has been called the “paradox of declining female happiness.” Women have more rights and opportunities than they have had in decades and yet they are less happy than ever in both absolute terms and relative to men.

Marriage is part of why. Heterosexual marriage is an unequal institution. Women on average do more of the unpaid and undervalued work of households, they work more each day, and they are more aware of this inequality than their husbands. They are more likely to sacrifice their individual leisure and career goals for marriage. Marriage is a moment of subordination and women, more so than men, subordinate themselves and their careers to their relationship, their children, and the careers of their husbands.

Compared to being single, marriage is a bum deal for many woman. Accordingly, married women are less happy than single women and less happy than their husbands, they are less eager than men to marry, they’re more likely to file for divorce and, when they do, they are happier as divorcees than they were when married (the opposite is true for men) and they are more likely than men to prefer never to remarry.

The only reason this is surprising is because of the torrent of propaganda we get that tells us otherwise. We are told by books, sitcoms, reality shows, and romantic comedies that single women are wetting their pants to get hitched. Men are metaphorically or literally drug to the altar in television commercials and wedding comedies, an idea invented by Hugh Hefner in the 1950s (before the “playboy,” men who resisted marriage were suspected of being gay). Not to mention the wedding-themed toys aimed at girls and the ubiquitous wedding magazines aimed solely at women. Why, it’s almost as if they were trying very hard to convince us of something that isn’t true.

But if women didn’t get married to men, what would happen? Marriage reduces men’s violence and conflict in a society by giving men something to lose. It increases men’s efforts at work, which is good for capitalists and the economy. It often leads to children, which exacerbate cycles of earning and spending, makes workers more reliable and dependent on employers, reduces mobility, and creates a next generation of workers and social security investors. Marriage inserts us into the machine. And if it benefits women substantially less than men, then it’s no surprise that so many of our marriage promotion messages are aimed squarely at them.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Eden H. sent in an exploratory study about kids’ stereotypes of scientists. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermilab asked 7th graders to draw and describe a “scientist” before and after visiting the lab on a class trip. They first read about the Fermilab, then came to the lab and meet with some of the scientists and talk about their work. From the Fermilab website:

What we changed for this field trip was the before and after descriptions and small group sessions for each student to meet with two of three physicists rather than one large group session. We deliberately chose a typical white male, a young female and an African American physicist. We let the students and physicist take their discussion where they wanted.

Here are some of the before-and-after pictures and descriptions (all 31 are available here):

In general, the students seemed to come away with an idea of scientists as being more like “normal” people, not just stereotypical geeks in lab coats. But some of the other changes are interesting, too. The author of a post about the study at Restructure! analyzed the before-and-after images (as best as she could identify the sex of the drawings):

  • Among girls (14 in total), 36% portrayed a female scientist in the “before” drawing, and 57% portrayed a female scientist in the “after” drawing.
  • Among boys (17 in total), 100% portrayed a male scientist in the “before” drawing, and 100% portrayed a male scientist in the “after” drawing.

I looked through all of them and only saw one instance (posted above) where the child changed the scientists to be clearly non-White.

Of course this is a small sample, but the results seem to reproduce what other studies have found regarding the importance of role models and gender stereotyping, in particular, that girls are more likely to imagine themselves  in careers when they see women doing them. For instance, the relative lack of female professors in male-dominated departments such as engineering may play a role in discouraging women from choosing to major in such fields (as well as other factors such as steering, concerns about family/work conflicts, etc.).

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp, PhD is a professor of sociology and the Associate Dean of liberal arts and sciences at Nevada State College. 

Flashback Friday.

In the U.S. men’s and women’s bikes are built differently, with women’s bikes lacking the bar that goes from the handlebar to just below the seat. The bar is a matter of tradition.  According to Andrea at Bike City Recyclery, when women began riding bikes in the 1800s, they were required to wear heavy skirts.  The low bar allowed them to mount the bikes “modestly” and was a space for their skirts to go.  Back then, bikes also had “clothes-guards” that would keep women’s skirts from being caught up in the mechanics of the bike.  This picture is from the 1890s:

Today most women riding a bike do not wear heavy skirts and clothes-guards are rare, but the low bar persists.  This ad from 1971 assures parents that  “girl bikes” can be converted to “boy bikes” and vice versa. The upper bar is purely “decorative,” but boys apparently must have it.

Selected text:

A popular 16-inch beginner’s bike. Top bar removes easily to convert it from a boy’s to a girl’s bike in minutes… The perfect first bike that’s built to last from child to child.

This goes to show how strongly we invest in purely symbolic gender differentiation.  There is no need for a high bar and there is no need to differentiate bikes by gender in this way. We could do away with the bar distinction in the same way that we did away with the clothes-guard. But the bar is a highly visible signal that we are committed to a gender binary (men and women are “opposite” sexes). It is some men and the defenders of masculinity who are most opposed to this because collapsing the gender differentiation means collapsing a devalued category into a valued category. For individuals who embrace the valued category, this is a disaster. A male-coded bike frame is just one small way to preserve both the distinction and the hierarchy.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.