Sunday, January 25, 2009

Stand by your woman

Mothering reports on an important new study:

The best chance of forming a long lasting relationship with an unmarried father and building the foundations for a stable family life are the critical months of pregnancy, says new research from the University of Maryland. Marriage itself is not a guarantee, the study adds.

"Unmarried dads are less likely to drift away if they are involved with their partner during this vital period when a family can begin to bond," says University of Maryland human development professor Natasha J. Cabrera, the principal investigator and a researcher at the school's Maryland Population Research Center.

The study, published in the December Journal of Marriage and Family, is the first to explain the importance of the prenatal period in the formation of non-traditional family patterns. The researchers analyzed data drawn from an ongoing project—The Fragile Families Child Wellbeing Study—which mostly involved unmarried couples, a total of 1,686 couples in all (

In their analysis, Cabrera and her colleague, Jay Fagan at Temple University, found that fathers involved during pregnancy were significantly more likely to remain involved in raising their child at three-years-old.

"The unmarried father is much more likely either to maintain or move into a more committed relationship if he's involved before the birth, and that's the critical difference," Cabrera says. "As you might expect, research has consistently shown that creating a stable home life predicts whether a father will be an active participant in raising the child, but what we've learned here is that the prenatal months are when that kind of family structure is most likely to coalesce."

The study found that marital status is not a critical predictor of a father's involvement. "It is the decision that couples make to strengthen commitment and move in together that is important, rather than marital status per se," Cabrera said. "You don't need much imagination to see that a live-in dad is likely to be more involved in child care and family life. It's the personal investment in the child's and the mother's future that counts the most, not the paperwork."

For more on the science of father involvement, see this July post.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Plug plug

Like most yahoos with a blog, I gets lots of emails from random people plugging this or that product or resource. I always check them out, though most turn out to be irrelevant to what we do here at Daddy Dialectic. Recently, however, I've gotten word about some sites that I like.

Earlier this week I got an email from DadLabs. At first, I was skeptical. Then I watched the videos, like the one above, and they turned out to be hilarious, and even sorta useful. So check out DadLabs.

I also got a note from Paul Banas, a dad whom I knew from my son's preschool. What I didn't realize, however, is that Paul has launched a site for dads called GreatDad, which is a kind of straight-faced counterpart to DadLabs.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to mention that Daddy Dialectic's Chicago Pop is launching a personal blog, Bookish Dad. Finally, I also got a note from a new site called Trekaroo, which seems like it could be a useful resource if you're traveling with kids.

Feel free to plug your own or other people's projects in a comment!

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Failure of Success

I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success while at the same time applying to kindergartens for Liko. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

The message of Gladwell’s book is simple: Success is the product of environment plus practice plus accidents of birth; intrinsic talent is a factor—mostly because it allows a person to take advantage of whatever opportunities arise—but not the most important one, not even close.

In one chapter, Gladwell explores a classic study by sociologist Annette Lareau of childrearing in working-class with middle- and upper-class homes (“less-educated” and “more-educated” might be a better characterization). By following twelve families closely for long periods of time, Lareau found that “there were two parenting ‘philosophies,' and they divided almost perfectly along class lines.”

The working-class parents followed a path of what Lareau calls “natural growth”—meaning that children are generally left to their own devices, and parents did not attempt to manage their education. This, writes Lareau, produced children who were more independent and better behaved, but also (paradoxically?) more passive, especially in the face of authority. (This is just a thumbnail; you'll need to read Gladwell's book or Lareau's study for details.)

By contrast, the educated parents adapted a policy of “concerted cultivation.” They actively identified weaknesses to correct and strengths to develop in their children; heavily scheduled their time with classes in music, art, etc.; and intensively managed their formal education.

Most importantly for Gladwell’s purposes, these parents taught their children how to ask questions, interact with authority figures in ways that asserted some degree of control, and express opinions. This produces a sense of entitlement, which Lareau neutrally defines as the ability to act as though they had a right to pursue their individual interests and speak up for themselves in institutional settings.

These observations feel true to my experience. I’ve heard teacher-friends describe similar patterns, I’ve seen it in my own family, and I’m seeing it play out in the murderous world of applying for kindergarten in San Francisco, which is like an arms race.

One example: Liko attends a preschool that is heavily slanted toward educated middle- and upper-class parents. (Education aside, we are not those parents, by the way; Liko wouldn’t go there if my wife hadn’t worked at the school and if we weren’t receiving financial aid. Those were opportunities of which we took advantage.)

Concerted cultivation is institutionalized: teachers report weekly on the kid’s activities (with photos!), there are regular parent-teacher meetings tracking the child’s development; school time is scheduled with art, gym, and so on; and it is normal for the kids (including Liko) to go from school to after-school enrichment classes.

This isn’t the case in all preschools. I have a friend who works as a teacher at a preschool that caters to low-income families. There, says my friend, there is no parent involvement, no reporting, very little structure, and no enrichment. The parents drop the kids off, they play for much of the day, and the parents pick them up. This is more akin to daycare, not preschool, which is the more common arrangement for working parents.

Put aside, for the moment, moral and political judgments, and look at the situation coldly. Guess which group is going to be better prepared to enter kindergarten? (I'm not saying that your kid will never get into Harvard if she doesn't attend a good preschool; I'm saying that every educational opportunity increases the likelihood of advancement.)

In addition, the kids at Liko’s preschool are sorted into classes by birth date, so that in Liko’s class most are born in the summer. And here, we’ve discovered something interesting: It appears that most of the kids, especially the boys, are not going to kindergarten next year. They’ll attend pre-K and enter kindergarten when they are six.

Why? Because it will give them a developmental advantage in both academics and athletics. Holding your child back once entailed a stigma; no more. Now, it’s a status symbol.

Are we, Liko’s parents, above all this? Of course not. We feel intense pressure to follow the norms that we see around us, and we are also considering sending Liko to kindergarten when he is six—mostly because I shudder to think of Liko, down the road, sharing a school locker room with boys who are up to a year older than he is. Our decision will be based on a) whether or not he gets into a good school next year; and b) where his teachers say he stands developmentally.

You might think this educational arms race would actually come to nothing, just a lot of overeducated “helicopter parents” wasting their time and turning their kids into neurotic whiners. You can probably point to lots of people, perhaps even yourself, whose parents followed the “natural growth” path and “turned out just fine.”

But one of the interesting things about Gladwell’s book is how decisive concerted cultivation seems to be when it comes to later success in life; through many examples, Gladwell shows how the difference between the successful and not-successful is early cultivation and opportunity. This is confirmed by quite a bit of research, and it’s how social class plays out in America.

My own upbringing was a transitional one from working to middle class, with elements of both natural growth and concerted cultivation. I never went to preschool and time in my childhood was never all that structured. As I approached adolescence and we moved to progressively larger school systems, opportunities began to appear.

At one point I was tested as part of a program called the Midwest Talent Search, which ultimately led to me being able to attend a special summer writing program at Northwestern University. I remember that period as revelatory; for the first time, I was among kids my age who were interested in books and ideas, and I had sympathetic teachers. I’m grateful for that little sliver of freedom and exploration, which decisively shaped my life, but I also think that I would have benefited from having had more opportunities like it.

Of course, one can reject the very concept of “success,” and, indeed, there is a parental counterculture that simply opts out of the arms race, sometimes through homeschooling; we know some folks who are following this path. It’s one I’m reluctant to embrace.

It’s plausible to me that a parent could replicate the advantages that children get through educational institutions—for example, exposing kids to cultural diversity through participation in church activities. But my real problem with homeschooling as a movement is that it’s not a solution to inequality of opportunity in our society. In fact, I’d wager that homeschooling, if implemented on a wider scale, would dramatically exacerbate inequalities. (It’s worth noting that the superrich have always homeschooled; an acquaintance of mine makes her living as a private tutor for one such family, a name you’ve heard.)

And so I am disinclined, as a parent, to apologize for participating in the system and taking advantage of whatever opportunities come my son’s way. As I see it, the problem is not that parents are pursuing what is best for their kids on the terms our society offers. Instead, the problem is with a system that so unevenly distributes opportunity.

It doesn’t have to be this way: There are countries all over the world where kids all receive the same early childhood education, and parents’ education and income levels are much less important in shaping the life chances of their children. Believe it or not, the U.S. actually ranks quite low in social mobility, when compared to Canada and Western Europe.

Gladwell’s book is not a story about the triumph of middle-class values, nor is about how wonderfully accomplished wealthy people are. Instead, his story of success is a story of luck. We in America have fooled ourselves into believing the rich deserve everything they have. And if you are not Bill Gates, says a certain strain of American thinking, you are a failure.

No: As Outliers makes clear, Bill Gates (one of Gladwell’s case studies) is just a lucky bastard. Talented, sure—but no more talented than many of the people who work for him. My grandfather had somewhat less in the way of luck; his success consisted of holding the same stable job for 40 years and putting food on the table every day. His children never starved: That’s success. We have to measure our lives against the opportunities we have been given. And the only moral response to the absence of luck is compassion, toward oneself and others.

On the other hand, feeling guilty about one’s privilege is not helpful; your guilty feelings don’t make one damn bit of difference for low-income families. To really make a difference, middle- and upper-income parents need to pay their fair share of taxes and vote for politicians who are going to allocate funds to early childhood education, health care, and programs that help all kids fulfill their potential. I am writing this on the eve of inauguration day: Let’s hope President Obama leads the way.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Raymond Proulx, 1923-2009

My grandfather died this week. The following is adapted from the first chapter of The Daddy Shift, for which I had interviewed him.

My great-grandfather was born in rural Quebec, Canada. At the age of twelve, he immigrated with his widowed mother and four sisters to Lowell, Massachusetts, and all of them started work in the city’s textile mills.

In Lowell, my great-grandfather married and had thirteen children. My grandfather, Raymond Proulx, was born in 1923. Starting at the age of eight, my grandfather worked side-by-side with his father at home, tending the garden that helped feed them and taking care of the pigs, chickens, and cows they kept.

I asked my grandfather what lessons he learned from his father. He replied: “You do what you have to, and if you don’t, you don’t eat.” Their relationship was not an intimate one. Discipline was strict and enforced with the back of a hand.

At fifteen, my grandfather found a job in a slaughterhouse butchering cows. He quit school and never went back. In 1945, he was drafted and served in World War II. In 1946, he married my grandmother and started work at a quarry—a job he would hold for the next forty years.

“My wife was so poor,” he said. “They didn’t have nothing. I took her out of poverty when I married her. At the quarry, I got fifty cents an hour, working like a horse. There wasn’t a union, we just worked. If you asked for a raise, you’d get four cents.”

A year later my mother was born; my two uncles both came within the following decade. “It was my wife’s responsibility to take care of the kids, and I used to go to work,” said my grandfather.

He told me that he wanted to play a role in their development—which he defined as making “sure they do what they’re supposed to do”—but the main measure of his success consisted of going to the quarry every day and putting a roof over their heads. “I used to go to work, come home. I didn’t drink at all. I didn’t spend my money foolishly. Everything went to feed the kids and the clothes.”

I never heard any of his children say otherwise; my mother says that she often saw my grandfather work seven days a week, for up to 12 hours a day. By the standards of his time and social class, my grandfather was an excellent father. He had been a soldier and a breadwinner and those were the two things he was proudest of. I had always had the impression that he defined those two roles by duty, modesty, and steadfastness.

His sacrifices were enormous, but my grandmother, Cecile Proulx, seemed almost crushed by the burdens of her life. I can’t include her voice here—she died years ago—but I have pictures and memories of a woman who seemed to be always battling against herself and the world, her lips set, her eyes fearful.

“She worked for me,” said my grandfather of his wife. “I always said, You work for me. She took care of the kids and I took care of the money; I brought it home, so she would have enough.” When I asked him if he faced any challenges in raising the kids, he replied: “I never did. My wife took care of all that. She brought the kids up.”

In reading through my college journals, I am surprised to see many small reminisces about my grandfather—though I didn’t see him more than twice during my undergraduate years, his appearances in my journals outnumber those about both my parents. In one entry, I recall an incident when he had accidentally killed a man at the quarry and we found him at the kitchen table, head in his hands; on another page, I describe a bicycle he built for me, “the best bike I ever had, the fastest in the neighborhood.”

We were never close. Why did I write about him so often? I think in many ways I was haunted by how different he seemed to be from me; I was quite simply incredulous that we were related. He apparently represented some rough masculine quality that I never had and didn’t want, but which still held the same attraction that the image of Havana seemed to have for the second-generation Cuban-Americans that I knew in my Miami high school. My friends had no desire to go back to Cuba—they felt their families led freer, richer lives in Miami—but they still romanticized Havana’s shark-finned cars and crumbling buildings, which cast a long shadow over their lives. My family had not crossed an ocean strait, but in many ways I was just as far away from my grandparents.

My grandfather died on January 7, 2009. Raymond Proulx didn’t want a funeral; the family isn’t having one.