Sunday, July 22, 2007

Social Capital: Do Dads Have it?

You probably already have a gut sense of what the social science buzzword 'social capital' means. Warren Buffet has financial capital; George Bush at one point thought he had political capital; someone with 'social' capital has a store of power and knowledge about 'how things work' in social institutions. The value of this capital isn't measured in terms of equities, cash, or political favors; it's measured in terms of who you know and how many of them you know. In the simplest terms, social capital is all about being part of a network and being able to easily move around within it.

The idea of social capital throws new light on the day-to-day challenges of the at-home dad in the early years before schooling begins. For example, much of the discussion of gender equity vis-a-vis childcare currently revolves around issues of labor and reward: how much unpaid or paid labor each parent does, how this balance is structured according to certain gender norms, and how enlightened public policy or changed mores can tweak this balance to achieve maximum benefit to both the parents and children in the 21st century economy.

What is less commonly discussed is the way certain gendered forms of sociability act to accrue resources that will benefit the child and family unit, apart from the issue of labor in and out of the workplace. Looked at this way, even dads who willing and able to pull their load of household and childcare labor may be dirt-poor in the kinds of social capital that are essential to getting their kids into the right city school, the summer camp of choice, or just positioning them to take advantage of the opportunities that come their way. Social capital means getting out there and mixing it up with the people who have information. Those people, in the world of early childcare, are mostly moms. You can do the math.

Among at-home dads, a big topic of reflection is the issue of social acceptance at the play-park. The moms congregate their in cliques, the men are a distinct minority, and awkwardness prevails. As with any new technology or social practice, a new etiquette struggles to be born: is it OK for a dad to arrange a playdate with a mom he just met? Is it manly or not for two dads at a playpark to exchange phone numbers? Is it worth the time for a dad to get involved with a playground clique of mostly moms?

The idea of social capital would suggest that the answer to the last question is "yes," because cliques of neighborhood moms are much more than social groups: they are information networks. Without a doubt they are highly gendered, based on forms of sociability that are heavily feminized according to traditional gender constructions. But in a "networked" society, this form of sociability is now where the advantage now lies -- across the board, not just with regard to parenting -- and women therefore have a distinct edge.

I've met a number of moms in my neighborhood so far, and all of them have been extremely helpful and generous in sharing information and welcome advice. Even though most of the parenting list-serves and play groups are run by and populated by moms -- who tend to be very good at gathering and disseminating information -- by no means does this mean that they are closed sororities in which men are unwelcome. Nor are the social skills that help these organizations take shape and flourish limited to women alone. In an economy in which the general ability to network is now a fundamental survival skill, more and more men are likely to feel comfortable adopting the hitherto strictly feminine practice of kibitzing at the playpark in order to gain access to vital childcare knowledge, support, and healthy camaraderie.

But this means that the issues involved in discussions of reverse-traditional families, or gender equality in childcare, need to expand beyond the core concerns of labor and reward, to include basic practices of sociability that can have tremendous impact on the future prospects of one's child. Blogs about at-home dads are certainly one step in that direction. But because most educational and daycare questions are unavoidably local, nothing beats face-time on the neighborhood mommy beat. The 'strong, silent type' of dad will be a disaster when it comes to setting a child up for academic success, even if he outdoes mom in terms of diapers washed and dishes cleaned. Much of what is most valuable in parenting resides in intangible but significant networks of information and the ability to access the network at different points.

Some universities have already implemented controversial gender-based affirmative action policies -- for men. Young men are being outnumbered and outperformed in terms of college admissions by young women. I'm convinced that social training in a network-based sociability is a big part of this. Dads can't afford to sit in the play park and read the sports page while the moms pow-wow by the sand box, not if they want their kids to get the best care and education possible.


Jeremy Adam Smith said...

This is a fascinating topic to me, and you've brought an original perspective to it. My own family struggled mightily to rebuild our social capital after Liko was born. About 18 months ago, we made it a real priority -- this blog was product of that period. And I think our efforts paid off in many, many ways.

I have empirical studies coming out of my ears these days. Here's one relevant to this discussion: When University of Texas researcher Aaron Rochlen and his team recently studied 213 stay-at-home fathers, they found that social support seemed to be the most important factor that predicted the psychological well-being and relationship satisfaction of the dads. “Social support seemed important in several different contexts—with their partner, friends, and family,” writes Rochlen. “Conversely, those who had low social support in these areas seemed to be struggling more in their relationships and in life.”

Unknown said...

As a dad, I definitely feel a bit "on the outs" at the park when The Moms are hanging out together and chatting. I don't think it's a huge handicap, however. Yes, you probably can't enter a friendly conversation as easily, but when Moms are talking "business" (schools, child care, toys, activities), it's easy to butt in and get involved. Neighborhood and parenting listserves have made it even easier for Dads to take initiative and ask for advice or pick up that cheap bag of clothes.

I think it's less about Moms' willingness than it is Dads' skill sets. As gender would lead us to expect, Moms seem to approach each other easily, while Dads have a hard time breaking silence and relating over the sand box. It's always easier for me to talk to Moms, since they expect it and understand the "culture" of parenting in society. It's also a safe assumption that the Mom you're approaching is the primary caregiver and a holder of knowledge and skills. I mean, who doesn't recognize the Saturday Morning Scene at the plaground, where all the dads collect for their "babysitting" while Mom sleeps in? Under those circumstances, what capital is there to really get, anyway?

When it's necessary and I really can't turn "park friends" into "playdaters," I bring in Amy to make the initial connection and then go on from there.

chicago pop said...

Just this morning, I saw a dad sitting at a lesser-used playpark, facing about 90 degrees away from his daughter, who was in a swing facing away from him. There was one other mom with a child in the park. the dad was reading the paper. Don't get me wrong; there are times when this could be a great relief and opportunity to relax. As you may have noticed from an earlier post, "The Zen of Strolling," I'm not always inclined to go dive into the mix myself. I like a lot of the solitude that caregiving brings. But I do recognize my own "masculine diffidence", if I may put it that way, and that it's something I will have to occasionally tamp down if I want to stay plugged in to the wealth of info in mom networks. Which will mean going to the standing-room only playpark, instead of the sleepy one down the street.