Saturday, November 26, 2005

A New Structure for the Blog

I am getting the hang of writing a daily blog, and I very much appreciate your feedback.

I have also been finding that the “faith and family for centrists” blog is very heavily about family, light on the faith stuff.

And, looking ahead to the end of my sabbatical and my return to full-time teaching, I need to make a small adjustment.

SO, The Gruntled Center will remain a daily blog. Saturdays, though, when readership is at its lightest, will be very light fare.

And, to be sure that I regularly treat religious matters, Sundays will be about religion.

Monday through Friday will remain what I hope are substantive and current blogs about family life.

To start us with some light fare for this Saturday, I give you a joke I heard from a standup once. (I would be happy to credit it if anyone knows who it came from):

My wife uses fabric softener. I never knew what that stuff was for. Then I noticed women were coming up to me (sniff) 'Married' (walk off) That's how they mark their territory. You can take off that ring, but it's hard to get that April fresh scent out of your clothes.

Friday, November 25, 2005

The Faculty Brat Shortage

The other day I wrote about student loan debt as a kind of contraception. An anonymous commentator directed me (and all of us) to a fine article by Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden, "Do Babies Matter? The Effect of Family Formation on the Lifelong Careers of Academic Men and Women." This piece appeared in the publications of the American Association of University Professors, and promotes some AAUP recommendations about how academic institutions could better accommodate motherhood in faculty and staff positions. These are sensible recommendations, which I endorse whole-heartedly.

The main finding was that women with children, especially early children (within five years of the Ph.D.) or with more than one child, are less likely to make it to the top of the academic profession. This is especially true in the sciences. I wrote about this recently in relation to the Lawrence Summers controversy. Women who want children are more likely to opt out of the research tenure-track in the first place. The academy was born as a monastery, from which married men were also excluded, and has never entirely gotten over it.

I was struck by another point that Mason and Goulden made:

Overall, women who attain tenure across the disciplines are unlikely to have children in the household. Twelve to fourteen years out from the Ph.D., 62 percent of tenured women in the humanities and social sciences and 50 percent of those in the sciences do not have children in the household. By contrast, only 39 percent of tenured men in social sciences and humanities and 30 percent of those in the sciences do not have children in the household 12 to 14 years out from the Ph.D.

Our culture has made a huge effort in the past two generations to open all opportunities to women, to encourage women to become educated, and especially to enter the sciences. This effort has paid off tremendously. There are eminent women in all professions. Most college students are women, and the graduate and professional schools are at or near parity. The number of women Ph.D.s has doubled, and doubled, and doubled again. Women are hired in very significant numbers throughout academia.

Yet most tenured women with Ph.D.s do not have children. As Mason and Goulden report, most women with advanced degrees are married to men with advanced degrees (the reverse not being true). So every childless female Ph.D. is also more likely to represent a childless male Ph.D. or the equivalent, as well. And the picture is not much better for the men. A third of men with Ph.D.s are childless.

It takes a huge social investment to produce such highly educated people – men and women. This is a social investment, not just an individual one. The first return to society is the intelligence that highly educated people can bring to social needs. The second return, the spin-off of investing in smart people is that we are more likely to get a new generation of smart kids. Smart kids can come from all kinds of parents, of course, and the academy is richly endowed with smart parents who have produced some very squirrelly children, indeed. But the fact remains that the children of smart parents are more likely to be smart, and the children of a smart couple are much more likely to be smart.

Faculty brats make a disproportionate contribution to the smarts of this country. Yet our academic system makes professors more likely to choose not to have kids in order to advance their academic careers – especially women, This is not just a loss for the family lines of these professors. Losing half of each generation of faculty brats is a long-term loss for society. We are eating our intellectual seed corn.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving

I just wanted to send a greeting this holiday from the whole Gruntled family. Today our nuclear unit will sit by the fire and read. And watch movies (ok, documentaries – we are pretty nerdy).

One little bit of substance: contrary to widely believed myth, suicide rates do not rise at Thanksgiving and Christmas. On the contrary, both days have below average suicide rates (spring is suicide season). For those with families to go to, solidarity counteracts anomie, as Emile Durkheim argued long ago. And the generous nature of most families in this country means that millions of people who are at loose ends on Thanksgiving are drawn in to some social group for a feast. Go Solidarity!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Student Loan Debt is Highly Effective Contraception

The recent launch of the Project on Student Debt has put the spotlight on the high levels of indebtedness that many college graduates carry. Reaching across the middle of the political spectrum, the project is led by former Clinton administration education advisor Robert Shireman, and it counts among its lead sponsors the American Enterprise Institute. Debt limits what students can do after college, and what they think they can afford to do for decades after graduation. In particular, highly indebted students often rule out low-paying public service work.

Allan Carlson, head of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, raises a further intriguing possibility. He believes that debt makes some students put off marriage and children until they are financially secure. Student loans, he says, are "a highly effective form of contraception."

Carlson cites as evidence the correlation between education and small family size. This seems to me a very tenuous connection. There are many factors that go into small family size that also come from education, such as the large proportion of their child-bearing years that highly educated people use to finish their education and launch their careers, the greater expense that they have to plan for in raising children who will in turn become highly educated, and the belief, still taught in many schools, that there are too many people in our country.

Nonetheless, I think Allan Carlson is probably right that college graduates with high debt would postpone children until they had brought their debt down to manageable levels. I would expect this to be especially true of women launching business or professional careers, who could expect their personal income to go from comfortable to zero in the first years of having children. That prospect is scary enough even with no indebtedness.

Carlson’s proposal is a $5,000 per child tax credit to pay off or forgive educational debt. I have some qualms about this, as it would skew the tax code even further toward the better off. Still, there would be a social benefit in making it easier for our most educated citizens to have children. Moreover, our most educated women are also the ones facing the biggest pressure to be in school or working during their prime child-bearing years as it is. Educational loan forgiveness would target exactly the people who suffer an unintended demographic injury by the current system.

I would especially welcome responses from people whose decisions to have children, and when, were affected by their school debts.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Why I Don’t Believe in Children

A decade ago, the American Sociological Association created a new specialty section on the Sociology of Children (now Children and Youth). I had long been a member of the section on the Sociology of the Family, and was drawn to the new group. In fact, I served as first secretary of the section. It is a good section, and does honorable work. However, I decided that I should not continue with it, but should stick with the Family section. The more I thought about it, the more I concluded that I don’t really believe in children as a sociological group. Children are, of course, real, and important, and I cherish my own kids. But sociologically speaking, children are, I believe, best understood as a subset of families. And children who are not part of families are in desperate trouble.

James Q. Wilson, our most distinguished criminologist, wrote in The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families, that

For a century or more, reformers tried to find ways of helping the child without hurting the family. They thought they succeeded, but all they really did was to decide that it was the individual more than the family that deserved protection. (135)

Among students of society in the broad middle of the spectrum, this may be the Great Divide: is the individual the basic unit of society, or is the family? This is a rich question, with many good arguments on both sides. For me and my house, though, I believe that families are the basic social unit. Families come in a variety of shapes and sizes. It is my conviction that at the core of all family forms (families as social structures, not any individual family) is the mother-child unit, to which any enduring society finds ways of attaching fathers.

Liberal social thought (think John Locke, not today’s left/right kind of liberalism) believes that individuals are created by nature, and they construct society. By contrast, I follow the great sociologist Emile Durkheim in thinking that individuals do not produce society, but society produces individuals. And the social unit that does the most to produce most individuals is the family.

Sometimes children are not in families. Alex Kotlowitz wrote about them in There Are No Children Here, about slum kids trying to make it without families in a community with few functioning marriages. This was not a story of the happy independence of individuals; it was a disaster story about “the other America.”

This is why I think it is such a mistake to treat marriage as just another “close relation” that individuals can choose to enter into. Why discussions of marriage and divorce which look only at the adults are so wrongheaded. And why well-meaning and politically savvy efforts to expand social welfare programs, such as health insurance, by starting with services to children taken separately from their families are risky. We enjoy many benefits from having a bias toward the equality of individuals. But an individualistic bias is most dangerous when we are talking about children, and not their families.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Twentysomething Bride is the Happiest Wife

One of the most interesting family findings to appear recently is that women who marry in their mid-twenties are happier than teen brides or older brides. In “With This Ring,” the marriage survey of the National Fatherhood Initiative that I wrote about a few days ago , the ubiquitous and excellent Norval Glenn reported that women who married in their mid-twenties reported the highest rates of marital success. Success was measured by a combination of stability and happiness. Teen brides, as is well known, are not likely to have stable marriages. The new finding is that women who marry for the first time after 27 report stable marriages, but they are notably less happy than those of women who marry between 23 and 27. The key finding is that of the older brides who had never divorced, “more than 45 percent were in marriages they reported to be less than ‘very happy,’ a much larger percentage than was the case for respondents who married younger.”

Let me say before I go on that if you were a teen bride, an older bride, or past 27 and not yet married, you are not doomed. Many teen marriages endure; most post-27 brides have happy marriages.

It is not so surprising that teen marriages tend to be stormier and break up at high rates. Teenagers are more likely to marry impetuously (and pregnant), and the odds are not good that a teen couple will mature in complementary ways as they work their way out of adolescence. The cure for teen-age impulsiveness is marriage when you are more mature. 25-year-old brides make more mature marriages than 15 year olds do. So why doesn’t the same principle apply at later ages, as well? The intriguing question is, why would older brides be less happy?

I don’t know the answer to this question, and I don’t think anyone else does, either. I feel free, therefore, to offer two speculative possibilities.

One possible reason is that after a point a man and a woman become too set in their ways to fully grow together, to shape one another as the marriage matures. Two mature people may find one another lovable and suitable partners, but some of the plasticity of young adults is already gone. This can make for an effective partnership. As I noted earlier, happiness is not the only purpose of marriage, or even the main point.

Another possibility is that the ticking biological clock makes women more impetuous in their marital choices. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, in Creating a Life, reports fairly recent research that the quality of a woman’s eggs start to fall off sharply after about 27 years. Though many young women consciously think that they have all of their 30s, even their 40s, to find a husband and start having children, their bodies may be giving them subconscious clues starting in their late 20s that it may be time to stop waiting for Mr. Right, and take Mr. OK.

In The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton reports a brutal proverb of a century ago, that a woman is like a Christmas cake: no one wants her after the 25th. It is a very good thing that women today have many more options than the desperate marital search Wharton ably chronicled then. It is also a good thing that men and women can make a happy marriage, including having children, well past their 25th birthdays. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that the average age of first marriage for women is now about 25. This represents a significant rise from the Baby Boom-producing years. The fact that most brides are in their mid-twenties may be more than a current statistical artifact. Perhaps American marriages are, in this one respect, at least, at an ideal benchmark.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Is Parenthood “National Service”?

I have been having a debate with myself this morning. The occasion has been a line in Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s excellent Weekly Standard piece which attempts to get the Republican Party to actually deliver a pro-family conservatism. They offer a whole list of interesting ideas, including this one:

Republicans might consider offering tuition credits for years spent rearing children, which could be exchanged for post-graduate or vocational education. These would be modeled on veterans' benefits--and that would be entirely appropriate. Both military service and parenthood are crucial to the country's long-term survival. It's about time we recognize that fact.

Will Wilkinson at the Fly Bottle offers a libertarian response. He found the comparison between parents and veterans as national servants “creepy.” He argues, rightly, I think, that the family is the most private of institutions, not an arm of the state. He reads Douthat and Salam as basing their argument solely on the potential tax return to the state of having more kids raised by subsidized families. I don’t think that is entirely fair – Douthat and Salam see parenthood and well-raised children as crucial to national survival in every way, not just the financial viability of the state. Still, he raises a good point. (I thank Maggie Gallagher for distributing Wilkinson’s piece).

I agree with Wilkinson’s starting point. The family is not an arm of the state. It is creepy to think of parenthood as an efficient way for the state to outsource the production of future taxpayers. It would be dehumanizing and perverse to think of parenthood as a branch of the service for which one volunteers, willy-nilly, by the act of having children.

Still, families do not exist only for themselves. The state does not exist only to serve families. Both families and the state are central institutions – the central institutions – of the nation. Parenthood is not state service, but it is national service. Parenthood is a great good even when there is no nation, as is the case for hunters and gatherers, and parenthood would still be a great good should there ever again be no nation. But we live in families in nations, nations with a hugely complex array of interdependent institutions. The institution charged with superintending the whole is the state. This means that the government is necessarily concerned with how families are functioning, promoting and supporting good parenting practices and compensating for and, if possible, diminishing bad parenting practices.

From that perspective, tuition credits for parenting is an idea worth considering.

There is a larger point in seeing parenting as national service. Families who have a vision of service larger than just serving themselves live a richer life. Parents will shape their children as citizens whether they intend to or not. Parents who raise their children to serve a larger cause than just their own comfort are performing a service to their children and to the nation. Families who work together to serve others are more cohesive and authoritative as families, and appear to be more contented, as well.

Parenthood as national service serves the nation and the family.