Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The One About Mothers Who Stay Home

Another entry in the Mommy Wars. Poor Little Rich Women in this week's New York Times. This time the target is wealthy women on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who mostly don't work and thus provide little societal value save fodder for mindless entertainment on Bravo. So a tiny sub-set of stay-at-home moms. The author, a cultural anthropologist, reports she didn't expect the neighborhood to be so different when she moved her family to the the Upper East Side from The Village. She's turned her social observations into a new book, Primates of Park Avenue.

The article landed atop the Most Emailed List yesterday. More than a few friends forwarded it to me, lamenting it's still open season on mothers, granted in this case, privileged ones. So I decided to respond. Or maybe it was the comparison of SAHMs to female birds and chimps that sent me over the edge. Or maybe it was the report that the !Kung women of Africa - who clearly can choose among many fulfilling alternative lifestyle choices - still forage for roots and tubers. "If you don't bring home tubers and roots, your power is diminished in your marriage. And in the world." Such global economic forces, those hunter-gatherers. As if the !Kung women fly to Davos on their private jets.

As a social psychologist married to a finance guy, yes, it happens from time to time and yes we used to live in NYC. I too have keenly observed the phenomenon of affluent motherhood. Sometimes it provides a good laugh or a quiet get a life! at school meetings or soccer matches. I have wished at  times that some mothers would focus less on their children. I have quickly calculated how many kids could be vaccinated on the other side of world for the price of that purse or party. But I haven't been taking notes around the playground or bouncy castle, though, so don't expect a book. Here's what I have noted. A number of factors either prevent women from working outside the home or make it an undesirable or impractical option. Some do not involve padding a kid's future college application.

I've said this before, but for all the talk about "intensive" parenting and chastising women for spending too much trying to honing their children's list of achievements, there is precious little evidence and not enough discussion of this or other factors that play a role in a mother's desire to pursue paid employment, or the related obstacles. Nor is there much evidence this "intensive" or "hyper parenting" is a pervasive trend instead of one limited to more affluent, highly educated households. Where is all the evidence? Why don't we look at the complex socio-cultural factors that have given rise to this much-hyped hyper parenting style? Why is it all the fault of mothers? Why have so few actually bothered to ask mothers about their motivations? I wonder if Ms. Martin asked her Park Avenue friends and acquaintances.

In any event I'm sure the Mom Wars will continue. It's so easy to get pulled into it. It's harder to figure out how to provide meaningful career opportunities to mothers, regardless of education, income, zip code or years out of the paid work force. To say nothing of good, affordable and reliable daycare. I've paid out more in child care over the years than my meager academic/teaching/writing compensations could have ever covered. How absurd but hardly an uncommon issue. I can't imagine this is a problem for the Park Avenue set who, if The Nanny Diaries is to be believed, have legions of nannies regardless if they work or move from lunch to manicure to pilates. The bigger conversation about meaningful employment and quality child care doesn't smoothly lend itself  to dramatic op-eds or popular books. I totally agree, it's more fun reading about women who get bonuses for being well-toned, stay-at-home trophy moms.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Global Moms Challenge: Moms boosting health and happiness for families everywhere

Last week I had the honor of attending the third annual Moms + Social Good in New York City, an event co-hosted by the United Nations Foundation and Johnson & Johnson. What is this Moms + Social Good?  It’s about moms helping moms, here in the US and elsewhere. This year more than three hundred fifty mothers, experts and change-makers gathered to share ideas and inspiration for solving some of the greatest challenges facing women and children today, including poverty, access to life-saving vaccines and infant mortality. 
A remarkable line-up of people and programs took to the stage to tell how they were making a difference and more often than not why they took action. They told their personal stories, they told of their work, dreams and obstacles. Speakers included US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, Carolyn Miles of Save The Children, economist Jeffrey Sachs, Parenting Magazine Editor-in-Chief Dana Points, and Jackie Bezos, President of the Bezos Family Foundation. Celebrities included actress and UNDP Goodwill Ambassador Connie Britton (aka the beloved Tammy Taylor from Friday Night Lights fame), actress and Save The Children Ambassador Jennifer Garner and Jessica Seinfeld, cookbook author and founder of Baby Buggy.

Jennifer Garner: UN Foundation
Jennifer Garner opened up the event. In her spare time from acting and raising 3 kids, Garner works as an Artist Ambassador for Save The Children. She’s advocated for families on Capitol Hill and also visited children in their homes who participate in reading programs back in her home state of West Virginia. She’s passionate about raising families out of poverty. Her own mother, born poor in West Virginia, instilled in her daughters the value of reading and education. My own mother born and raised in a coal-mining town deep in the mountains of West Virginia, I couldn’t help but be moved by her story.

There were plenty of grim stories and statistics through out the day. Over 6 million children around the world die each year before their fifth birthday. Millions of women still go without pre-natal care. HIV/AIDS infections, thought decreasing in many populations, are now rising among adolescent and teen girls. Women, mothers in particular, lag far behind their male peers in positions of power. Of the top 160 corporate, political and educational leaders in the US, a mere 14.3% are mothers, compared to 76.2% who are fathers (see the Motherhood+PublicPower Index).

There are some bright spots. Ambassador Power, a mother of two no less, admitted it’s easy to lose sight of progress given all the violence and disease. She noted though that more girls than ever go to school, 3 million girls are now in school in Afghanistan. Before 9/11, she said, that number was zero. Personally, the Ambassador was the highlight of the event for me for the second year in a row. An affable, witty and I have to assume cool mom in the best sense, she was frank about her time away from her kids and the effect her travels and urgent work had and will continue to have on them. Her 6-year old son asked for another child to have an embargo. Not a time out. Dealing with children in devastating war-torn condition has given the Ambassador a unique perspective on parenting here in the US. Her kids will be just fine, even if on some nights their mom can only read half of the usual books at bedtime.

Protecting Our Tomorrows: Anne Geddes
Photographer Anne Geddes spoke movingly about her commitment to saving babies and children from abuse and disease. For me, she was the other true highlight. Although she’s known for photographing adorable babies, it’s her humanity and compassion that I will remember. If you haven’t seen her achingly beautiful portraits of child and young adult survivors of bacterial meningitis, do yourself a favor and check out her Protecting Our Tomorrows series. I could write on and on about the risks of childhood diseases and you’d be bored to tears. One look at the ballerina fairy princess without arms and legs and you will think twice the next time you hear about vaccines.


The New York event kicked off the annual Global Moms Relay, a global conversation among mothers and their friends to create change. From just before Mother’s Day through Father’s Day (May 1-June 19, 2015), each day a celebrity, community leader, or everyday mom and dad will share a personal story on the kind of future they want for their family and the world, and then “pass the baton” to the next contributor. Each time you share one of these posts via social media, Johnson & Johnson will donate $1 (per action) to help improve the health and well-being of moms and kids worldwide through the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA), Shot@Life, Girl Up and UNICEF. For more information, visit http://www.GlobalMomsRelay.org


You can watch the Moms+Social Good event here too.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Fact-Checking Claims: Are Parents Really So Terrible?

Earlier this week I questioned New York Times columnist David Brook’s allegations. Basically parents spend too much time praising, improving and withholding love from their children. In case you missed his rant:

There are two great defining features of child-rearing today. First, children are now praised to an unprecedented degree…Children are incessantly told how special they are.

The second defining feature is that children are honed to an unprecedented degree…Parents are more anxious about their kids getting into good colleges and onto good career paths. Parents spend much more time than in past generations investing in their children’s skills and résumés and driving them to practices and rehearsals. Love and Merit, David Brooks, New York Times

His final blow:

Children are bathed in love, but it is often directional love. Parents shower their kids with affection, but it is meritocratic affection.

How true are these claims? Is there any evidence for them?

Brooks, who often pads his column with social science research, provides no evidence for any of these claims. True, he spouted them in an opinion piece but he has a huge platform. He wasn’t the first to such claims. He won’t be the last. Similar claims regularly pop up in the media. They’ve entered the public imagination. It’s high time to turn a more critical eye on these largely unchallenged accusations that very well may become our parenting legacy. Each one deserves a thorough debunking but I’ll only be able to briefly address each one here.

CLAIM #1: PARENTS PRAISE KIDS TOO MUCH.

Despite it’s popular appeal, the evidence is not readily available. Although plentiful articles, books and op-eds accuse parents of such obnoxious behavior, researchers have not been overly bothered about proving it. I cannot find any studies or even mere surveys documenting this trend. One of the challenges here is simply trying to clarify the exact behavior that so offends or troubles Brooks and other commentators. So I’ve dug up some related areas of research.

The perils of praise.

Ample research has documented the downside of praising a child’s innate abilities rather than effort - what a 2007 New York magazine cover story called the Perils of Praise. When children are congratulated for being smart, they attribute their performance to their intelligence (and not effort) and are less likely to prep and do well on a future test than those high-fived for their hard work. When they don’t do well, they attribute poor grades to their lack of intelligence.

Carol Dweck’s popular ‘perils of praise’ studies, while certainly important, don’t address how often parents praise kids. Her research shows the outcomes of specific types of praise. I couldn’t find research addressing whether parents generally praise abilities over effort. I do it sometimes but still, it’s not clear how often parents do it. In their book Nurture Shock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman report a Columbia University survey found 85% of parents think it’s important to tell their kids they are smart. I can’t find it and it’s not quite the same as evidence showing parents constantly tell kids they’re smart or athletic or anything else. Even if you and the soccer mom next door suspect it’s true, no one has bothered to find out whether it is true. The media’s focus on “perils of praise” lends the impression parents are praising too much.

Biting off another huge issue…decades ago, psychologists and educators used to worry about low self-esteem. They labored to raise child self-esteem (Joshua, you are so smart! You are special! You Are The Child of the Day!). The current emphasis on the perils of praise could be fall-out from the self-esteem movement that has now fallen out of favor with the experts. If parents do praise inherent traits and abilities it is again because this is what the experts recommended for a long time.

Narcissistic children.

Narcissism has been suggested as another downside to too much praise. You might recall a recent study out of the Netherlands showing kids who received a lot of praise by parents showed narcissistic traits (“kids like me deserve something extra”). Studies on children like this are rare. As many parents know, narcissistic-like behavior can be a part of normal development in children. There’s a reason we don’t call toddlers who refuse to share narcissists. Anyhow, some U.S. studies show narcissism rising among adults and college students. Some do not. Some show empathy on the decline, others, on the rise. For brevity’s sake, you can see some of the critique of the apparent narcissism epidemic in this NY Time’s article – Seeing Narcissists Everywhere.

Children are overprotected.

There’s also a growing sense that parents coddle or smother children by obsessing about their safety. But what exactly does overprotection mean? Parents could have an exaggerated sense of danger. For example, parents might have an elevated fear of kidnappers.  Free Range mom Lenore Skenazy might agree parents overestimate the chances a kidnapper lurks around they corner but I’ve yet to find data to this effect. I’m not sure there’s any study on the accuracy of parental risk perception. It would be cool. Someone should do it. On a scale of 1 (no biggie) to 9 (my worst fear)….how concerned are you about….look how easy it is. I’ve already started it, there. If it’s out there, let me know.

Parents could be accused of protecting their kids against a host of risks their grandparents didn’t even know existed. Older generations might jeer parents today for slathering kids with sunscreen, cutting out high fructose corn syrup and insisting on bike helmets. But is this fair? Are the new concussion screenings and carseats overprotection?

Again, if parents worry about a lot more threats, it’s largely because the experts and the media constantly report these threats – often in dramatic fashion. When not breastfeeding has been likened to a pregnant women riding a mechanical bull, it is clear even public health messages are not immune from hype. As I’m writing, the “Internet Safety Letter” arrived in my inbox from the school.

Even if kids are overprotected from negative or potentially harmful experiences, it’s not clear how this might affect children. If parents spend a lot of time and money ensuring their children’s future health and well-being it could promote the idea kids are fragile creatures and not necessarily gifted or capable of helping themselves. It could also make kids feel like they are the center of the universe. There is not much in the way of research here.

 Children get too many awards/gifts/parties.

It could be argued that kids get too many awards, lame holiday parties and trophies. I don’t know even where to look for this data or what form it would take. I would agree there are too many of these events and rewards but still, these are not quite the same behaviors. I will sign the No More Birthday Party Goodie Bag Petition. Send it to me. Quick.

Parents don’t discipline anymore.

Much anecdotal and some empirical evidence suggest parents focus less on obedience than in the past. Certainly they spank less. Discipline has veered away from physical punishment to time-outs and talking it out. In fact it’s not even called discipline much anymore. Today experts recommend positive reinforcement (e.g., complimenting or reinforcing good behavior). Alan Kazdin, Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry at Yale, recommends a ratio of 3 positives for every negative (see my post). Scientific evidence of the widespread changes in these trends remains rather limited despite frequent discussion of them by experts and the media. So it is not clear to what extent parents actually practice kinder, gentler child behavior management. If parents are engaging in more positive or lenient discipline (I have to admire how quickly you powered down your iPad, Stella) then they are perhaps praising more.

Surprise, surprise. If parents are getting soft and practicing a more positive approach it’s because the experts recommend it.

Parents are too permissiveness about chores.

In line with the kinder/gentler/wimpy parent argument, there’s a popular sentiment parents don’t make kids do monotonous, routine tasks around the house and garden anymore. Much of the evidence is far from rigorous, anecdotal in nature but studies do attest to the benefits of childhood chores. The Wall Street Journal definitely thinks children need chores. No surprise, advice columns and parenting magazines love chores. A lot of experts like to advise parents how they should manage the chores. Do them together. Make it fun. Don’t say “do your chores.” Say “let’s do our chores!”.

Parents don’t let kids fail.

I suppose this is another kind of coddling/overprotection. Here the offense entails kids getting special dispensation or saved from bad behavior or grades. It could entail school work, namely parents helping their children with school projects. I can’t find any data there. By media and anecdotal evidence it would seem epidemic. But then again, first grade is the new kindergarten and school has gotten harder. Is there grade-inflation in elementary and high-schools. Can’t find much evidence either. Colleges, most say yes though Alfie Kohn disagrees.

Sometimes there are complaints about not keeping score in kiddie sports. I’m not even looking for any data here. Tracking goals at preschool soccer games might coddle kids, but they often know the score or don’t care. Rest assured, if they stick around the sport for a couple more years they land on travel teams, often year-round commitments that offer a good dose or reality where players and teams are scored, ranked, demoted, promoted, repeatedly, in-flight, out-of-flight, in-state, out-of-state, regionally, perhaps even nationally.  

Kids are special.

Indeed there are more special needs kids than ever with our expanded awareness and diagnoses of psychiatric disorders and physical conditions and illnesses, including food allergies, concussions and gluten-intolerance. More kids are labeled with ADHD, autism, depression, bipolar disorder, conduct disorder and anxiety to name just several conditions in the psychological realm. This is probably not what Brooks meant but I do think it could contribute to the sentiment kids are treated with kid gloves, even if it operates on a more unconscious level. In any event, this is not a state of affairs to pin on parents. 

CLAIM #2: PARENTS HONE CHILDREN TOO MUCH

Brooks argues parents engage in a constant process of bettering their children in an attempt to get a leg up on the competition.

Parents are more worried about getting their kids into college.

Kids apply to more colleges than in the past. This has produced more applicants and applications and enhanced the “selectivity” of colleges. So getting admitted appears to be more difficult. I think we can agree there are also more test prep services, counselors and college guides than ever. In an attempt to get a measure of “college-admission anxiety,” John Tierny at The Atlantic mapped the geographical distribution of private college-prep consultants across the U.S. and found a concentration in the Northeast and other large metropolitan areas. The Princeton Review’s 2015 College Hope and Worries Survey found 73% of parents are stressed about college admissions. I probably don’t need to mention it’s a biased sample.

I can find plenty of college admission counselors and admissions consultants admonishing parent to stop stressing so much (you over-involved bad mommies!) but not a reliable survey showing parents are stressed. How much do parents worry unnecessarily about college? It remains unclear. What is certain, parents worry a good deal about paying for college according numerous surveys including a recent Gallop poll. Considering the costs, I’d say those concerns are totally reasonable.

Parents spend more time building their kids’ resumes/extracurricular activities.

Studies do show parents are laying out a lot more moola for enrichment activities. There has been an escalation in extracurriculars or as a married team of economists put it, the rug rat race. After moving to an affluent enclave in San Diego, they produced some evidence that upper-income parents have rapidly increased their expenditures in extracurricular fare over the past few decades, out-spending their less-moneyed peers. Not surprising, they pinned most of the blame on women, namely well-educated women who dropped out of the workforce to shuttle their budding college applicants from Mandarin to squash and Kumon.

Even if parents spend more time and money on their children, is it all in an effort to get their kid into a selective college? Why do parents sign their kids up for so much? Is it to pad a kid’s college admission application? Maybe parents are keen to expose their children to a wide range of experiences, perhaps ones they never had themselves. Maybe they do it because it’s the norm. Maybe their kids like to play the piano or paint pottery. Maybe they work and need somewhere for their kids to be after school. Maybe they prefer a few minutes to themselves (in the car waiting for their kids?). Maybe they are making up for music and art classes cut out of their schools. There are plenty of reasons but I can’t find a survey on the matter. There is, however, plenty of debate and some mixed research on how many extracurricular activities children should endure. 

Parents are too involved in their kid’s lives.

Yes, mamma bear, you know this charge. It goes by several different names – hyper-parenting, intense parenting, hovering and helicopter parenting. This claim deserves more attention than I can do justice here. I do think some parents are over-involved thanks to a number of factors including smartphones and social media. We all know some of these parents. Some days it seems they are a large, boisterous crowd. Despite lots of speculation and bashing of parents in the media, however, there is not much actual evidence to go on here.

There are but a handful of studies on helicopter parenting, most if not all are on college students. Why? They’re a handy subject pool. Also, hovering parents bug the heck out of college administrators. In one survey university officials and faculty estimated about 50% of parents hover too much. Their concern might be warranted. A recent study found college students with controlling mothers were more depressed and less satisfied with life. But here’s what the media did not report. Hovering mothers were not the norm, far from it. Other studies have shown a similar lack of rampant hovering. The extent of the problem remains uncertain. Stay tuned.

CLAIM #3: PARENTS GIVE AFFECTION BASED ON MERIT.

I can’t find any direct evidence parents today mete out hugs or warm fuzzies based on their children’s achievement. The closest relevant data comes from older studies on affluent teens by Luthar and Latendresse. The research duo has documented how privileged kids face stress and depression due to their parents’ high expectations and often physical or emotional absence. Madeline Levin writes about these at-risk advantaged youths in her book Price of Privilege. So the claim appears more relevant to more achievement-oriented, affluent families. Do these parents directly hand out love and affection for good grades, the right SAT scores and such? I suspect it's a more indirect, more subtle process. It might be that kids in these families think their parents care more about their grades and SATS scores than emotional well-being, opinions, happiness, etc. And the parents might. Even if parents are heavily involved in their kid's academic schedule or college major, is this the same as merit-based love? Brooks went all out here but there's not much evidence this happens. 

Are parents in general more manipulative or discriminating in their love? Is this a troubling new trend? Unconditional love doesn’t appear to be new. The psychological literature attests to parents differentially distributing not just affection but time, attention and money based on a child’s gender, physical appearance, personality, birth order and sexual orientation to name just a few conditions. I’m not excusing this behavior, merely suggesting parents today did not invent it.


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PHEEWWW. Patient friends, that was just the tip of the iceberg, an initial pass at fleshing out these claims and the evidence to support them. I hope it’s become clear that the evidence is not great for most of them. This doesn’t mean they are not real or not happening in a portion of families or neighborhoods. The fact that research hasn’t addressed them remains troubling. For all the public fuss it is remarkable nobody has asked parents for their opinion or tried to track some of the behaviors. Nor tried to query parents to better understand these behaviors. It is relatively simply to ask parents why they sign up their kids for after-school activities, for instance. They may not have particular insight into some behaviors, like how often they praise their kids, but on some of these matters they could fill in some blanks. 

If these supposed bad parenting behaviors are happening (to an unprecedented or some critical degree) than the question becomes, so what? In Brooks' piece and the larger media space there is rarely a nuanced examination of the scope of consequences of such trends, but a preponderance of focus on the negative impacts. 

Also troubling, the not so subtle assumption here and elsewhere? Parents are to be blamed for all of these behaviors, basically due to their competitive, self-involved, wimpy characters. There is little nod to the complex socio-cultural, political, economic, educational, historic factors involved. As I initially remarked, the media and the experts should take a long look at their roles in perpetuating and promoting these ideas and trends, if in fact parents are committing them. If parents are focused on shaping or bettering their children’s health and well-being, it’s in large part because they are repeatedly being told how to improve their children by a constant barrage of advice, anecdotes, official recommendations, warnings and studies from newspapers, parenting websites, mommy bloggers, press releases, tv and radio hosts and public health ads.

NOTE: If you do have evidence relevant to any of these claims, please let me know.