Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Teaching The Levees

Ted Jackson, staff photographer on the New Orleans Times-Picayune, contributed The Eye of the Storm photo essay in the Fall/Winter 2006-07 issue of Greater Good that illustrates how he responded to the scenes before him during the first day that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

Since then Spike Lee has produced a movie about the disaster, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” from HBO Documentary Films, and now "Teaching The Levees" a curriculum package is currently being developed at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Through the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, free copies will be made available to teachers, schools, libraries, and community groups in late summer 2007. The package will include copies of the “When the Levees Broke” DVDs and the curriculum book.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

increasing the human capacity for empathic curiosity

UCB bio-ethicist and friend of Greater Good, Dr. Jodi Halpern, addresses the dilemma of doctors who experience a range of negative emotions when confronted with patients who refuse necessary treatment or are angry, in an article, "Empathy and Patient-Physician Conflicts," appearing in the May issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine. Her work was featured recently in a UCB newsstory:
"Caregivers who can learn to sustain their genuine curiosity about and receptivity to patients' perspectives, even in the midst of emotionally charged interactions, not only reduce levels of anger and frustration for both parties, they can significantly improve decision-making on both ends and increase the effectiveness of treatment."

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Interview with Family Historian Stephanie Coontz

Stephanie Coontz is a professor of history at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families. She is widely recognized as one of the leading authorities on the history of the American family.

Coontz has authored numerous books and articles, including,
The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap and The Way We Really Are. In 2005 Viking-Penguin published, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage—a tremendously important book that's just been released in paperback.

Marriage, A History argues that marriage has evolved from the economic and political alliance of two or more family groups, to an individual love-match, which over the past thirty years has catalyzed the creation of new family forms like gay and lesbian families and helped dissolve the division of labor between husband as breadwinner and wife as homemaker. The result, says Coontz, is not the end of the family as we know it, but instead its revitalization as a more just and equitable institution.

I sat down to talk to Coontz at the tenth anniversary conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, an organization she helped to found.

In your books, you’ve demonstrated how the family is constantly evolving. But have you identified any traits shared by all families that successfully cultivate the health and well being of their members?

In the broadest sense, there are some universals. For example, helping members to go outside the family – I think there’s been an incest taboo for a good reason, for thousands of years. We even find a primitive version of it in chimpanzees. It’s important to create individuals who not only can build successful relations within the group, but that are not so physically or emotionally incestuous. The good family teaches its members to reach out and form bonds with others.

So the family is a facilitator of human diversity.

Or rather, of social connection. The healthiest families are those families that don’t try to be everything and do everything. But I do think that what makes a family work really depends on social circumstances.

Let’s take the question of marriage. I think that in the 1950s you could build a successful marriage and rear kids who were going to do pretty well on the basis of a union of two gender stereotypes. And it wasn’t really necessary to have the depth of intimacy and friendship that is required now. That could lead to all sorts of abuses, and did. But on the whole, it could produce pretty decent people in the context of that time.

Today, that doesn’t work. When you have two people coming together at an older age, they are both economically and emotionally independent in very important ways. Men don’t require women to do their housekeeping services, women don’t require men to support them. In that circumstance, the level of friendship has to be much deeper and the level of intimacy needs to be much deeper. You can’t raise your kids with the same degree of authoritativeness—or especially, with the same level of authoritarianism—that they could, many years ago.

And each of these changes, I think, creates new problems. We solve old problems but create new ones. A good example is parenting. We have solved so many old problems in parenting. There is so much less child abuse, both emotional and physical, than there used to be in the past. There is a real interest in developing the child’s individuality—not necessarily individualism.

But, some parents go too far in the opposite direction and forget the need to establish generational boundaries and not be their kid’s best friend. So over and over again, what families need changes with the social and historical context and we create new challenges in the process of solving old problems.

As new family forms are emerging—and I mean the whole range, including reverse traditional families, gay and lesbian families, stepfamilies, and so on—how might that evolution contribute to the well-being of family members and society as a whole? How does the evolution hurt well-being?

Well, it’s another one of those trade-offs. Families have always been diverse, but that diversity was swept under the rug, and they were made to be ashamed of it. They were not helped, nobody analyzed their potential strengths and helped address their absolutely clear weaknesses. So as we’ve brought this diversity into visibility and increasingly legitimized that diversity, we’ve opened the way for all sorts of positive things. For example, preventing people from being forced to stay in a heterosexual marriage when, in fact, their impulses go the other way, or forcing people to stay in an unfair or unsatisfying marriage, which has been a huge relief for many people, I mean, literally a life saver. In every state that adopted no-fault divorce, the next five years saw twenty-percent declines in the suicide rates of wives.

But again, it certainly opened up more opportunities for people to make more bad choices, more opportunities for failure. It’s opened new opportunities to misjudge how much work it takes to build a new family form in an environment where the economy, the work practices, the school schedules, and the emotional expectations favor—privilege—one family form. So you have some people being overly optimistic about how easy it is to carve out a new life – they might say, “Oh, I can be a single mom, no problem,” and they’re not prepared for the difficulties they’ll encounter.

So I think that it does have some negative effects, but I would emphasize that these changes are not going back underground. They’ve had tremendous positive effects by rescuing people from very difficult situations and they pose us the challenge of helping people make more informed choices.

In Marriage, A History, you show love and intimacy have become more important to marriages. How has that evolution contributed to the rise in male caregiving?

This is one of the real, unambiguous good news stories that we’re finding. When the women’s movement first encouraged women to make these demands on their husbands, to spend more time at home, it caused a lot of conflict in families. And I think the conservatives are quite right to say that women’s liberation destabilized marriage.

But as men made adjustments—and they really have—the result has been tremendous good news, that, first of all, these adjustments have strengthened marriage. Men who do more caregiving have more satisfying marriages, they are less likely to have their wives leave them, and their kids do better. It’s a win-win situation, because if the parents do divorce, men who have been involved in such caregiving are much less likely to walk away from their kids. They have developed an independent relationship with the kids that is no longer mediated through the mom, and they don’t have that old-fashioned idea that, “Since I no longer get the mom’s services, so I can’t relate to the kids either.”

So I think that there are all sorts of positive things about it. There’s a myth in sociology and among many feminists that there’s been a stalled revolution, that there’s been a lagged one, but the fact is that men are changing very rapidly. In fact, as a historian, I have to say that they are changing, in a period of thirty years, in ways that took most women 150 years of thinking and activism. Every cohort of men is doing more in the house, and if you look within a cohort, the longer a man’s wife has worked, the more likely he is to do caregiving and housework. This is a huge change.

How has the rising importance of love in marriage contributed to the emergence of gay and lesbian families?

Social conservatives claim, as James Dobson put it, that gay and lesbian marriage is turning 5,000 years of tradition on its head. I actually believe that 5,000 years of tradition has been turned on its head, but it was heterosexuals who did it, and they changed marriage in ways that encouraged gays and lesbians to say, now this institution applies to us – after, in fact, having rejected that institution, because of its rigidity and inequality. I think this is good evidence that the institution has been evolving in a way that means it is not inherently oppressive.

Now I have gotten attacked by a couple of feminist authors for saying that. They want me to keep arguing that there’s something inherent in the institution of marriage. I think, in fact, we’ve transformed it and discovered that it’s not inherently oppressive, except in so far as it is put forward as the only way to honor long-term obligations. But if it is not, then I think marriage has become much fairer through the ages and much more capable of really being equal, and I think that’s why many gays and lesbians have started to embrace marriage.

You describe a lot of change. What hasn’t changed?

There are still a lot of rigid gender roles. It’s a lot worse around the world, where women still face incredible amounts of domestic violence. There are massive gender inequities on a global scale to be addressed, and there is the residue, and a serious residue, of inequality at home, too. But the biggest problem we need to address is the peculiarly American assumption that individuals can learn individual responsibility without any social responsibility. We ask individuals to keep commitments that we don’t ask corporations or politicians to keep, and that needs to change.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Unconventional Wisdom

I just got back from the tenth anniversary conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, a network of family researchers that I recently joined. There they released a new report entitled "Unconventional Wisdom" that summarizes recent research and clinical findings by CCF members. Some highlights:

In contrast to the media focus on gender differences, a new consensus challenging this view is emerging from the research literature. Many well-designed studies find no significant gender differences with respect to such cognitive and social behaviors as nurturance, sexuality, aggression, self-esteem, and math and verbal abilities. The big story is that there is far greater within-gender variability on such behaviors than there is between-gender difference. For example, when young boys act up and get physical we are accustomed to hearing their behavior explained away by their high levels of testosterone. In fact, boys’ and girls’ testosterone levels are virtually identical during the preschool years when rough-and-tumble play is at its peak.

When we compare the work-day hours that Gen-X and Boomer fathers spend caring for and doing things with their children in 2002, we find that Gen-X fathers spend significantly more time with their children, an average of 3.4 hours per workday versus an average of 2.2 hours for Boomer fathers -- a difference of more than 1 hour. Because Gen-X fathers typically have younger children than Boomer fathers, we adjusted for the age of youngest child and still found the same significant difference favoring Gen-X.

Numerous studies reveal the benefits to a relationship and family when a father participates in housework. Women are more prone to depression and to fantasize about divorce when they do a disproportionate share of the housework. Wives are more sexually interested in husbands who do more housework. And children appear to be better socially adjusted when they regularly participate in doing chores with Dad. In my clinical experience, men do more in homes when they have stronger egalitarian attitudes, and when their wives are willing to negotiate standards, act assertively, prioritize the marital friendship, and avoid gatekeeping.

People often think that women whose husbands make “good money” stay home when they have children. But it takes being married to men in the top 5th percentile (men earning more than $120,000 a year) to seriously reduce women’s employment -- only 54 percent of mothers with husbands with these top earnings worked for pay. Among married women whose husbands were in the top 25 to 5 percent of all earners (making salaries ranging from about $60,000 to $120,000), 72 percent of mothers worked outside the home, almost identical to the 71 percent work participation figures among married moms whose husbands' earnings were in the lowest 25 percent of men’s wages. Women’s own education has a much bigger effect on her likelihood of working than her husband’s earnings; highly-educated women who can earn a lot typically don’t become stay-at-home mothers.

Despite concerns of policy makers that children are not receiving sufficient parental time, married parents’ time with children is higher now than during the “golden era” of the nuclear family in 1965: Married mothers increased their time in childcare by 21% (from 10.6 to 12.9 hours per week between 1965 and 2000) and fathers have more than doubled their time in childcare (from 2.6 to 6.5 hours per week). How have they done this? Mothers in particular have shed large quantities of housework in order to accommodate their increased time with children. Married parents of today’s era also spend more time multitasking, and less time with their spouse and friends and extended family. Although parent-child time has increased over the years, almost half of American parents continue to feel they spend too little time with their children, particularly married fathers who spend less time overall with children than married mothers. Married mothers also long for more time for themselves and both mothers and fathers feel they have too little time for each other.

In a study of 130 couples from wedding until their first babies were three years old, John and Julie Gottman found that 67% of couples had a big drop in relationship happiness and a big increase in hostility in the first 3 years of the baby's life. In addition, the parents' hostility during pregnancy was associated with baby's responsiveness at three months. Based on this, they designed and tested an intervention to help new parents: the workshop reversed the drop in couple happiness and the increasing hostility. They also found a reduction in postpartum depression. At three years old, the babies whose parents had been to a workshop were more advanced in terms of emotional and language development. Part of this was due to father's involvement: the workshops improved father's involvement.

A nationally representative study of more than 1000 young people in the 3rd through the 12th grades asked children: “If you were granted one wish that would change the way that your mother’s/your father’s work affects your life, what would that wish be?” In a parallel study, more than 600 employed mothers and fathers were asked to guess what their children would wish. Most parents (56%) guessed that their children would wish for more time with them. But more time was not at the top of children’s wish list. Only 10% of children made that wish about their mothers and 15.5% made that wish about their fathers. Most children wished that their mothers (34%) and their fathers (27.5%) would be less stressed and tired.

Men and women who were married or had children were asked in 1977 and again in 2002, “How much do your job and family life interfere with each other?” In 1977, 41 percent of women, but just 34 percent of men, reported experiencing some or a lot of work-family interference. By 2002, however, more men (46 percent) than women (41 percent) reported experiencing work-family stress. Fathers in dual-earner families are no more likely to experience some or a lot of work-family interference (53%) as fathers who are in single earner families (52%).

Based on a representative sample of a major metropolitan area, almost eight out of ten young adults who grew up in a home with a work-committed mother believe that this was the best option. In contrast, those who lived in homes where mothers did not work in a committed way are more divided in their outlooks, with close to half wishing their moms had pursued a different path. Those who lived in a single-parent home are similarly divided. While a slight majority wished that their biological parents had stayed together, close to half concluded that, while not ideal, a parental separation provided a better alternative than living in a conflict-ridden or silently unhappy home. Conversely, among children who grew up in an intact home, most agreed that this was the best arrangement, but four out of ten felt their parents might have been better off apart. In all these family arrangements, sustained parental support and economic security are more important than family form in shaping young adults’ satisfaction with their childhood experiences.

The full report is well worth a read.