It’s Slate’s Turn to Denigrate Dads

I seem to be repeating myself, but just in time for Father’s Day came yet another article denigrating dads (Slate, 6/17/10).

(I wonder if, in the lead-up to Father’s Day, the various media organizations purchase time slots in which to trash dads. My guess is that the closer we get to the actual day, the higher the cost of the slot. So Slate paid more for its slot than did, say, the Atlantic Monthly, whose hit came days before. That’s my theory.)

The piece is entitled “Why Do Dads Lie on Surveys about Fatherhood?” The message? You know all those surveys in which dads say they’re committed to fatherhood? Don’t believe them. They’re lying. How do we know? By referring to other surveys because in those the subjects weren’t lying. How do we know they weren’t? Eh, don’t ask that question.

The piece reveals a long-known truth about surveys which social scientists call “aspirational lying.” That means that people who answer surveys tend to give answers that make them look better than they actually are. So if, for example, voting is perceived as a positive thing by the people answering the survey, they might say that they’ve voted in every election for the past 20 years when in fact they skipped a few.

As I said, this is well known and social scientists know to discount for it. One way that’s done is to not take any one survey too seriously, but to look at how it corresponds (or doesn’t) to trends. The assumption there is that, from study to study, aspirational lying will be about the same for any given topic.

Now, the problems with the Slate piece are legion. What’s gotten the writer, Katherine Reynolds Lewis, upset is a recent Boston College study of 33 new fathers who reported huge satisfaction with being a parent and who said they spend on average 3.3 hours per day on childcare, or, about the same as the mothers of their children. Lewis doesn’t like that idea, so she says they’re probably lying.

Well, they may or may not be inflating the figures a bit. We don’t know. In such a small study, it’s entirely possible that they aren’t. Her only evidence for the fact is that, when compared to the entire population of fathers in the country, as in Census Bureau data, the new dads in the BC study spend a lot of time caring for their children. But of course those guys aren’t the same as the population at large. They’re far younger and have been brought up in an era that, to some extent values active fathering. So you’d expect them to do more. They don’t represent American dads generally any more than the general run of dads represent them.

But far worse is the fact that Lewis (again, this is two days before Fathers Day), while acknowledging that aspirational lying is a common phenomenon, overlooks the fact that, when women are surveyed, they do it too. So for Lewis, if women say that they do 3.8 hours a day on childcare, as they do on one survey, that’s the unvarnished truth; no lying for those moms. Needless to say, that’s fishy.

The simple truth is that both moms and dads are probably fudging the figures a bit, so the comparison between the two is probably about right.

Lewis is right that the direction of aspirational lying is significant. That is, people will tend to inflate what they do in favor of behavior they consider good and deflate it about what they consider bad. If voting is considered good, they’ll say they vote more than they actually do. If TV watching is considered bad, they’ll downplay how much time they spend staring at the tube.

Now consider this. Lewis wants us to believe that these days, doing more daddy tasks is widely considered an unalloyed good by men. Therefore, when surveyed, they inflate the amount of time they spend parenting.

But is that true? Of course not. To say that this culture is conflicted about dads, their value to children, etc. is to hugely understate the matter. There are in fact far more anti-dad messages floating around in the ether than pro-dad ones. Indeed, there are plenty of portrayals of fathers as downright evil. That means that surveys of dads will reflect aspirational lying in two directions, not one as Lewis assumes. Surveys of dads therefore reflect the conflicted nature of the culture, so any large-scale study will find some dads overstating their dad time and some understating it. Lewis misses the point entirely.

It’s true, as Lewis says, that in the 70s fathering was seen even more negatively by dads than it is now, but that doesn’t mean, as she assumes, that fathers now are seen – or see themselves – in a solely positive light. They don’t and surveys reflect the ambivalence.

Now to mothers. The culture is also conflicted about women and mothers. The Good Mother is still a staple of a huge amount of popular culture from TV to movies to advertising, etc. But so is careerism. There are plenty of popular messages promoting women in jobs, careers, professions, politics, etc. So aspirational lying among women in surveys necessarily tends to inflate the figures for both time spent in childcare and time spent at work.

Needless to say, Lewis overlooks both. I’m sure she’ll get around to it next Mothers Day.

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