Monday, November 26, 2007

Are stay-at-home dads raising dumb sons?

A new UK study suggests that stay-at-home dads hurt their sons' chances in school--but not their daughters'.

"Our analysis points strongly towards the idea that fathers do not, on average, provide the same degree of cognitive stimulation to sons that mothers provide," says the study.

My esteemed allies in the progressive parenting blogosphere have already criticized the study: Equally Shared Parenting faults its methodology; Rebeldad quotes University of Texas professor Aaron Rochelin as saying that the study's conclusions are way too sweeping given its limited data set.

They're right in their particular criticisms, but my take is even more fundamental: A study like this is rigged from the start.

Take single moms. There are many studies showing that single mothers don't do as good a job raising kids--measured in terms like mental health and school achievement-- as two-parent families. However, there are many other studies showing that not all homes headed by single moms have the same outcomes. Most of the time, it turns out that poverty and social isolation, not single motherhood per se, hurts kids chances in life.

Thus the wiser, richer societies craft public policies to support single mothers, by providing basic welfare and health care, quality daycare and preschool, and job training and opportunities. And yes, I am thinking of all those nice Scandinavian social democracies that we American progressives like so much.

The results speak for themselves: Single motherhood in those countries does not contribute to social inequality and children are not condemned for not having a breadwinning father in the house.

Conservatives will argue that the Nanny State is stepping in to replace fathers–and they’re not wrong. When dad runs out, someone has to help. In places where state support is extremely stingy–the United States comes to mind–mothers with strong social networks of friends and relatives still succeed in raising happy, healthy, successful children.

But over two decades, the US government has waged virtual war against single motherhood, heaping burden after burden on mothers in an effort to discourage it. And yet moms continue to head families, as a result of divorce, abandonment, and out-of-wedlock births--and generally speaking, they do a pretty good job of it, despite all the obstacles tossed in their way.

Single motherhood is now a fixed part of the landscape; it's a byproduct of the emancipation of women, who not very long ago couldn't vote, own property, bolt from abusive marriages, or charge their husbands with rape. There's no going back to the bad-old-days when women were property and marriage, with its flip side of illegitimacy, was a life sentence. Instead the question is, how can we leverage the good and mitigate the bad, so that children in these families have the same chances as other children?

What does this have to do with stay-at-home dads?

Stay-at-home dads are another byproduct of women's advancement. Reverse-traditional families are a new family form, and every new family form involves trade-offs, just like older kinds of families. The results of a study like this need to be replicated before it can be considered authoritative, but let's say for the sake of argument, that stay-at-home mothers do provide some marginal benefit to sons that fathers do not. Even in that case, the results are not an argument against stay-at-home fatherhood. Instead we have to ask: Why is that? And then: What can we do to address it?

Because dads are not going to stop taking care of children just because some study somewhere says that their sons will do .17 percent less well in school than other kids. The growth of caregiving fatherhood is being driven by forces that are larger than any one family. We can’t stop it–nor should we, because it comes with huge advantages for men, women, children, and society. These advantages (such as a more caring, emotionally intelligent masculinity; greater paternal investment in children; more work opportunities for women; etc.) far outweigh the piddling objections raised by those who would have us revert to 19th century gender roles .


rlevings1248 said...

"But over two decades, conservative governments have waged virtual war against single mothers, heaping burden after burden on them in an effort to discourage it." Boy I heard that!

I am a single mom in Florida, and I can tell you that so few people in my social class even have a clue as to what I have to deal with. The people that go to my church (sorry, it's a Bible-believing church) have even less of a clue. I had a mom the other day say that "she was so blessed" that she could stay at home full time and raise her kids. I thought "it must be nice...".

Your blog is great because it very thoughtfully discusses these issues. I am a Christian, but I am moderate in my beliefs. I do believe in the Bible, but I know that some Christians (not just fundamentalists, but Catholics, etc.) can get carried away in putting down "non-traditional families". Being a single parent I sometimes feel like the odd person out here. I must say my church has been very accepting of me and my son, but I am one of about 3 single parents (2 moms and 1 grandmother raising her grandchild) there.

I worked at a job for a while where nearly all the people (IT developers) were white, male, and in some strict Christian demonination or other. My immediate boss was Mormon, and his boss was Independent Baptist (more conservative than Southern Baptists if you can imagine that). They had NO CLUE why I had to leave by 5:30 to pick up my son from day care, and why it was very difficult for me to stay up all night and work. Their wives stayed home and took care of the kids. You would think that Christians would be more family-friendly, but they just did not have any contact with single parents in the work place other than maybe dealing with janitors, etc. What a Hell it was to work there, but now I am wiser and won't put up with that crap any more. Plus now my son is older and can stay alone some.

chicago pop said...

My dad stayed at home with me when I was little; in fact, he spent a whole lotta' time with me throughout my youth.

Somehow, I still managed to get into college.

Very suspicious of how the variables are all accounted for in this study; it would seem to me that, regardless of who stays home, of which parent is around the most, the most important factor in a child's scholastic success is the educational attainment of the parent(s) (taken as an index for all sorts of other correlating factors, such as economic security, access to outside educational support, higher literacy and vocabulary, knowing how to take tests, etc.)

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Chicago Dad, that is so touching to hear how you overcame your disadvantaged background as the son of a SAHD and still managed to get your Ph.D. You're an inspiration.

Rlevings1248: Thanks so much for this comment and welcome to Daddy Dialectic.

Amy said...

Although I know it will never happen, I would love to see this study repeated using families where the father was the primary parent, with data from surveys completed by the fathers. Somehow, I bet the results would say that for some small subset of children, mothers just aren't as good as fathers.

chip said...

you are right of course, but I can also see some people holding up studies like this to argue against paternal leaves.

Dave said...

Good piece.. I'll have a comment after I get my two kids to bed.. if I have the energy.. but I did have a silly spelling thing for ya..

right at the end.. you say they "was us to go back".. we know you mean "want"..

... hmm.. as I sit here while my kids brush their teeth I see the comment on my left.. it mentions Christianity.. my sleep-deprived brain says, "What if Jesus was being a stay-at-home dad.. would that be bad for his kid??"

Ok.. bed time.. enjoy!

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

I also just put Liko to bed! Your comment made me take a second look at the post and revise it a bit...this might be cheating in the blogosphere, but whatever.

Chip, I absolutely think findings like this are being used to fight paternal leave--there's a big push by conservatives in the UK to show that dads won't use it, and if they do, it'll somehow hurt the kids.

Anonymous said...

I am with you on the point that the UK study, if taken at face value, raises the questions, "Why and what can be done?". However, I am missing your point about how this study is "rigged" from the start. I am not making the connection.

Also, while the discussion of single moms is interesting, you dwell on it too much in a supposed discussion of the UK study.

I think there are several problems with the UK study, but you seem to only point out a second-hand quote of Aaron at Texas.

Sorry for the straight medicine, but that's my comment.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Sorry if that wasn't clear. My simple point is that if you go looking for flaws in a family form, you'll find them--it's in that sense that it's rigged.

My case might have been better served by holding up so-called traditional households as a counter-example instead of single moms. Politicians, pundits, and some academics may hold up the male breadwinner/female homemaker household as an ideal and use it as a yardstick against which to measure other families, and yet in recent decades traditional households have come to appear increasingly dysfunctional and prone to failure.

To give just one narrow example: If you measure traditional heterosexual families against lesbian households, you find children of lesbians are far less likely to be sexually or physically abused. (See Charlotte Patterson's research.) This fact--which was intuited long before research confirmed it--has caused feminist outliers to propose that children should just be raised apart from men in all-female households (e.g., Perkins's Herland) --leaving men to live separately in some masculine dystopia that presumably would look like a combination of perpetual football game and gay neighborhood.

Most people, feminist and nonfeminist alike, don't see this as a serious proposal--the benefits of having fathers around outweigh the problems they seem to bring. And so again, the question is, how do you leverage the strengths of families with fathers while mitigating the potential weaknesses and dangers? In response, human society has developed some very elaborate rituals and protocols to regulate bad behavior on the part of men.

I'll note, as an aside, that most lesbian-headed families I know see a lack of father-figure as a problem to be solved, especially when they have boys. Some lesbian parents will consciously ask male friends and relatives to serve as mentors and role models for their sons--my friends Jackie and Jessica did this for me and their son Ezra.

And so again, the point is that all family forms have weaknesses for which the parents must try to compensate. We don't actually know what weaknesses reverse-traditional families have--it's too new to say. In my own interviews and experience with reverse-traditional families, I see patterns, which I'll be writing about in my book.

That said, I seriously doubt that dumb sons are one result of the reverse-traditional family form--in fact, that conclusion seems laughable on many levels. But science is science: I'm open to the possibility that subsequent studies might confirm this finding. If so, then we'll have to deal with it.

And on this point: "There are several problems with the UK study, but you seem to only point out a second-hand quote of Aaron at Texas."

I didn't see any point is repeating the criticisms made by Rebeldad and Equally Shared Parenting--that's why I provided links to their sites, so you could read them first hand. I had my own take, which compliments theirs.

chip said...

leaving men to live separately in some masculine dystopia that presumably would look like a combination of perpetual football game and gay neighborhood.

I had to laugh at that. I could take the gay neighborhood part, but I don't think I could deal at all with the perpetual football game...

chicago pop said...

leaving men to live separately in some masculine dystopia that presumably would look like a combination of perpetual football game and gay neighborhood.

For anyone out there familiar with Chicago, this description seems uncannily apt when applied to the border zone between Lincoln Park (perpetual (Big 10) football game) and North Halsted (gay neighborhood). I can't quite imagine them both in the same space, however.