While perusing a distressing new study from the Pew Research Center called “Parenting in America,” the movie “A Christmas Story” came to mind.
How would the movie’s Parker family have answered some of the questions that the Pew pollsters asked their 1,807 American parents? Are they worried that their kids could be shot? How about drug problems? Do they regard their neighborhood as safe? Would they describe themselves as overprotective? (“You’ll shoot your eye out.”) How often do they read to their kids?
Of course, Christmas movies usually present an idealized vision of the holidays; for many Americans, the gap between ideal and reality creates problems that can bring on holiday depression. The gap between the Parker family and the modern family described in the Pew study looks like the Grand Canyon.
It appears the Parkers had it pretty good back there in their working-class *Hohman, Indiana, neighborhood in the 1950s. Mom stayed home with Ralphie and Randy while the Old Man went to work. On a single working-class salary, they owned a car, lived in a single-family home and had enough money for bountiful Christmas gifts. Class distinctions didn’t seem to matter as much back then.
Today, according to the New York Times account of the Pew study’s findings, “The class differences in child rearing are growing, researchers say — a symptom of widening inequality with far-reaching consequences. Different upbringings set children on different paths and can deepen socioeconomic divisions, especially because education is strongly linked to earnings. Children grow up learning the skills to succeed in their socioeconomic stratum, but not necessarily others.”
So there’s Ralphie Parker, going to what appears to be a pretty good public school. He has to worry about being beaten up by Scut Farkus, but gangs don’t seem to be a problem. As for guns, his only concern is his lack of an official Red Ryder-carbine action-200-shot-range-model BB gun.
Today, the Pew study finds, “at least half of all parents, regardless of income, worry that their children might be bullied or struggle with anxiety or depression at some point. For parents with annual family incomes of $75,000 or higher, these concerns trump all others tested in the survey.”
Meanwhile, down at the other end of the income ladder, Pew found, “Along with more negative ratings of their neighborhoods, lower-income parents are more likely than those with higher incomes to express concerns about their children being victims of violence. At least half of parents with family incomes less than $30,000 say they worry that their child or children might be kidnapped (59 percent) or get beat up or attacked (55 percent), shares that are at least 15 percentage points higher than among parents with incomes above $75,000. And about half (47 percent) of these lower-income parents worry that their children might be shot at some point, more than double the share among higher-income parents.”
Tragically, those fears are not unfounded. Guns are everywhere, and they’re not BB guns, and they’re far more likely to kill a friend or family member than they are a bad guy.
And bullying is a far more pernicious problem than getting jumped by Scut Farkus on the way home from school. It ranges from social ostracization and online harassment to assault and armed retribution.
Back in the 1950s, two-parent homes were the norm. In 1960, 87 percent of kids were living in homes with parents who were married. Today it’s 62 percent overall; among blacks, the number is half of that.
Reams have been written about the breakdown in family structure, particularly in the black community. Poverty is not the sole predictor, but it’s key. The less money your family makes, the more likely you are to find yourself in a single-parent home in a troubled neighborhood with lousy schools. This is no revelation.
Nor, unfortunately, is the income distribution. In the 1950s and 1960s, prosperity was far more widely shared than it is today. Old Man Parker wasn’t rich, but most rich people then weren’t rich by today’s standards. In 1955, Thomas J. Watson, the CEO of the booming IBM company, was paid the equivalent of $3 million in today’s dollars.
What the Pew study demonstrates is how much the changes that have occurred in the American economy, along with changes in social mores, have affected family life. The effects are most profound among those who are struggling, but it’s true for the affluent as well.
In ways we haven’t yet grasped, cultural and economic changes have turned the little slice of life that is “A Christmas Story” into a fairy tale. It is a story as foreign as elves at the North Pole.
Yet rich and poor, upper-middle and lower-middle, working class and executive class, Americans still want better for their kids. They may hover over them like helicopters, schlepping them to soccer and dance classes and violin lessons. Or they may farm them out to others as they work that second job to pay for daycare. But regardless of income, more than 90 percent of parents that Pew surveyed think they’re doing a good or very good job raising their kids. No matter what the neighbors think.
One sign of hope in the study is that in the past decade, more low-income parents have begun reading to their children and taking them to libraries. Still, reading to kids under 6 is far more prevalent when the parents are college graduates — one way that class differences perpetuate themselves. Being an American kid is tougher than ever. So is being an American parent.
The smartest thing we ever read about parenting was written by the essayist and novelist Calvin Trillin. In his memoir of his late wife, “About Alice,” he writes that because he often wrote about his daughters, he frequently was asked for parenting tips. He said, “Your children are either the center of your life or they’re not. The rest is just commentary.”
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.