Caring for Crib Lizards

For a country that claims to love kids, the United States sure seems to dislike parents. According to a 1999 survey conducted by the foundation Public Agenda, only 23 percent of Americans feel that parents are good role models for their children, while fully 49 percent believe that "irresponsible" parents--and not social and economic pressures on families--are the main reason children fail to thrive in our society. Contemporary moms and dads are seen as simultaneously neglectful and overindulgent: They're never around to help with homework or turn off the TV--and then they assuage their guilt by buying their kids all kinds of inappropriate stuff.

Two years ago, in our book The War Against Parents, we detailed how adults with children had been hurt by workplace policies, shortchanged by tax regulations, and degraded by the media. Given the years of research that went into the book, we thought we had a pretty good idea of the range and scope of the onslaught parents face. We were wrong. In the months following publication, we discovered that we had underestimated two things: the virulence of the attack on parents and the depths of their despair. On a promotional tour in the summer of 1998, we spoke in 28 communities in eight states and came to an inescapable conclusion: While our book may have succeeded in taking the measure of the structural forces facing moms and dads, we had failed to appreciate the emotional intensity of the war against parents.

For one thing, parent bashers seemed to own the airwaves. On radio talk shows such as The John and Ken Morning Show (on KABC in Los Angeles) and The Geoff Metcalf Show (on KSFO in San Francisco), callers were reduced to incoherence by their rage. According to these listeners, neighborhoods in California are full of welfare queens raising superpredators on taxpayers' dollars.

Meanwhile, in public libraries, churches, and community centers, we met group after group of demoralized moms and dads who painted a very different picture. At the Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, we spoke with mostly poor black folk; at the New York Public Library, mostly fancy white folk. But all these parents appeared to be hurting--trapped in a thankless struggle, beaten back by a tidal wave of blame. A father of three in Chicago told us that "parents somehow have become the fall guys, taking the rap for the consequences of America's careless, unbridled individualism."

On our book tour, we probably caught the first stirrings of the new backlash against parents and children. In 1998 the "child-free," as they have come to call themselves, were not remotely organized, but they were beginning to flex their muscles.

That was nothing. Over the past six months, the child-free have begun to organize, accusing parents of grabbing more than their fair share--of "wanting a child and a Lexus too." In a new book, The Baby Boon, journalist Elinor Burkett makes the extraordinary claim that the "past decade has seen the most massive redistribution of wealth since the War on Poverty--this time not from rich to poor but from nonparents to parents." She sees herself as spearheading a "simmering backlash against perks for parents." Burkett is actually moderate compared to many of her child-free peers. Web sites dedicated to parent and kid bashing, which go by names like "I'd Rather Talk to My Toaster" and "Unruly, Ill-Mannered Yard Apes," feature such parent-averse postings as these:

Breeders feel entitled to take constant time off for child related issues whereby their co-workers become burdened with additional workloads.

Other breeders seek fertility treatments and give birth to a frankenspawn litter.

Child-free groups display a startling antagonism toward kids, referring to them as "anklebiters," "crib lizards," "crotch fruit," "fartlings," "germ mongers," "semen demons," "vomit comets," "spawn," and "sprogs."

The ugly attacks on parents are not only misinformed--American parents enjoy rather few perks or benefits, especially relative to parents in other industrialized countries--they are dangerous to the well-being of children. Attacks on parents are, de facto, attacks on children. After all, the vast majority of children live with their parents (or grandparents), and their life circumstances are a direct reflection of what is going on with mom and dad. America's high rate of child poverty does not come out of nowhere; rather, it's a direct consequence of the inability of large numbers of moms and dads to earn a living wage. If we want to help children--and that's the basis of much political rhetoric--we must, first, seek to help their parents.

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The Plight of the Parent

Vicki Parker, a working mom with three kids, has a punishing schedule. During the day, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., she works in the drug treatment program of the New York City Housing Authority. Her job is to locate drug abusers and persuade them to get treatment. At night, from 11:00 p.m. to 7:30 a.m., she works as a counselor at the Good Shepherd, a group home for runaway teenagers. Her job there is to make sure the kids come back to their rooms at night, to listen to their troubles, and to keep them from hurting one another and themselves. Parker goes from her nighttime job straight to her daytime job. When she arrives home at 5:30 p.m., she has put in a 19-hour day.

"It's hard to describe how bone tired I am at the end of the afternoon," she says. "Most days I walk into my house knowing there's not a prayer I can be a good parent to my kids. First off, in my weary state it's all too easy to find fault: Why hasn't Tiffany [age 10] stacked the dirty dishes? Why didn't Tyrone [age 16] pick up the groceries? Or worse still," Parker goes on, "how come Jasmine [age 14] forgot to pick up her little sister from school and left her stranded with an annoyed teacher? Seems like I am always chewing them out for something or other. They're good kids, but the resentment builds when I pile so many responsibilities on them."

Parker is a single mother; the root of her problems is the struggle to earn enough money to support her family by herself. Her day job pays $26,000 a year. That comes to $224 a week in disposable income once taxes ($402 a month), rent ($624 a month), and her college loan payment ($168 a month) are deducted. This simply is not enough to cover basic living costs--utilities, food, clothing, transportation, school supplies--for Parker and her three children. Last winter when Con Edison turned off her electricity and Parker found herself too deeply in debt to borrow an additional $80, she figured the time had come to take a second job.

When we talked to her, she was very worried and upset: Jasmine had not been home for three days. Parker knew that her daughter had fallen in with some bad company recently--a 21-year-old man who kept her out until all hours. She was desperately concerned that Jasmine not get pregnant. "She's just started high school, and she's a real strong student," Parker explains. "I can't stand the thought that she might be about to throw her chances away. But I guess my not being there at night has just made it too easy for her to act out."

Parker sees a bitter irony in her situation:"I know what happens to neglected kids. I work with them 19 hours a day. In fact, I am forced to work with them so long and so hard that I end up doing all kinds of bad stuff to my own kids."

Too many parents find themselves in situations like Vicki Parker's. For large numbers of child-raising adults, wages have fallen in recent years. Aside from making it harder to pay for kids' food, clothing, and educational expenses, sagging wages have forced many parents to work longer hours and take on additional jobs--leaving much less time for parenting. A 1999 study by the Council of Economic Advisers shows that between 1980 and 1996 there was a decrease of 22 hours a week in the amount of time parents had available for their children. The effect on young people's lives has been disastrous.

A large and growing body of evidence now demonstrates links between absentee parenting and a wide range of behavioral and emotional problems in children. Researchers who surveyed 5,000 eighth-grade students in southern California found, unsurprisingly, that the more hours children were left by themselves after school, the greater the risk of substance abuse. Meanwhile, a 1997 study of 90,000 teenagers undertaken by the Adolescent Health Program at the University of Minnesota found that youngsters are less likely to get pregnant, use drugs, or become involved in crime when they spend significant time with their parents. Indeed, the mere physical presence of a parent in the home after school, at dinner, and at bedtime greatly reduces the incidence of risky behavior among teens.

And yet, despite the obvious consequences of the parental time crunch, government policy has been tilting against parents in recent years. Professor Edward Wolff of New York University reports that the economic status of parents relative to that of childless adults has been continuously eroding over the past 40 years, "with government policy being the powerful driving force." Even as we have hugely expanded benefits for families without children (Social Security, for example), we have cut back on benefits for families with children (the "reform" that turned Aid to Families with Dependent Children into Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, for example). The net result: In 1998, 15 percent of families with children were poor, compared with only 4 percent of families without children. Indeed, between 1974 and 1998, the median income of families without children grew four times faster than the median income of those with children.

Elinor Burkett and her child-free cohorts appear to be wrong. If there has been a redistribution of wealth in American society, it has gone from parents to nonparents, not the other way around.

A Two-Part Proposal

Given this hostile context, what can policy makers do to help adults who are raising children? We have a two-part proposal. The first part is rich in symbolism and counters the parent bashers on their own image-laden turf: Communities around the nation should make room for parents in the public square. State and city governments, as well as schools and businesses, could find ways of making our communal spaces more welcoming to parents and children. Disabled folks and senior citizens have learned to use space and place as symbols to increase their access to restricted areas and to bolster their political presence. Parents should do the same.

If you try climbing aboard a crowded New York City bus with a baby and a stroller in tow, you'll quickly find out how difficult it is to take a child anywhere by public transportation. There is often nowhere to sit, nowhere to put the baby gear. On city buses we have learned to honor the special needs of the disabled and the elderly with priority seating. But there is no place for you if you are eight-months pregnant or are clutching a one-year-old. Or try taking a child to the zoo. It is an expensive proposition. This is why outside the petting zoo in New York's Central Park on a Saturday morning you will invariably find a row of grown-ups, mostly African-American moms, waiting for the one parent who has been designated to take all the children inside to feed the Vietnamese potbellied pig while the others wait outside because they cannot afford the price of admission.

It's not just city spaces that need to be made more parent-friendly. Suburban communities could offer priority parking in shopping malls for pregnant women and parents with small children (a few do already), and the federal government could offer free or discounted admission to national parks, monuments, and museums so that moms and dads could always afford to accompany their children.

Finally, all schools should allocate space for a parents' room. It need not be elaborate: Some comfortable chairs, a pot of coffee, and a pile of resource material would be enough to encourage parents to participate in the life of the school--with enormously positive results for children. As University of Chicago sociologist James S. Coleman and Temple University professor Laurence Steinberg have shown, parental involvement is more important in determining school success than any attribute of the formal education system.

The second part of our proposal aims straight at the economic squeeze and time crunch that afflict parents--and it does so in a way that will maximize public support while blunting parent bashing. Quite simply: Working parents should be allowed to draw Social Security benefits for up to three years. This idea, developed by National Parenting Association policy expert Nancy Rankin, is based on the assumption that those who elect to borrow from their Social Security accounts would later have to repay the system. (A more detailed discussion can be found at Parents could make this repayment in at least three ways: They could increase the amount they contribute to the system when they are older and less burdened by child care responsibilities; they could defer the age at which they begin collecting retirement benefits by up to three years; or they could, upon retirement, draw a reduced Social Security benefit. Whichever payback option is used, the basic principle is the same: Parents are given a choice, not a subsidy. The understanding that parents would pay back this advance on their Social Security will be essential in generating support for this proposal.

The availability of a Social Security benefit would transform the choices facing parents and greatly increase their child care flexibility. Taxes and child care costs take so much out of parents' income that Social Security payments could largely replace the net income from the average job. For example, the average Social Security benefit of $10,140 per year is worth about the same as a job that pays $30,000 a year. A working parent who earns $30,000 (assuming his or her spouse earns a similar amount) nets only $10,065 after taxes, child care, and work expenses are deducted.

Thus, the sum involved in a Social Security benefit is large enough to enable a mom or dad to stay home and look after a child. This proposal has an important margin of flexibility in that it allows a parent to draw Social Security for any three years until the child reaches age 18. The beginning of a child's life is obviously a time when a parent might want to take time off, but there are others: when a four-year-old is diagnosed with attention deficit disorder; when a nine-year-old flunks third grade; when a 16-year-old plunges into serious depression. The complexity of modern family life is such that all kinds of crises arise that might be better dealt with if a parent could take significant time off work. And given that a husband and wife could each take up to three years, that's six years when many families--even those in the lower economic strata--would be able to have at least one parent home full-time with the kids. Clearly, a parent who took advantage of this policy would encounter some difficult re-entry problems--no one is suggesting that an employer should hold a job open for a year or longer--but if a child is in serious trouble, many a parent would jump at the chance to stay home, help, and risk the job market down the road.

Social Security is an appropriate framework within which to help adults who are raising children. The program is meant to reward hard work with a measure of financial security. No work is more vital to the health and wealth of our nation than parenting. What we are proposing here is an enhancement to income security so that parents have time to engage more effectively in the hard work of parenting.

When a parent is able to provide psychological support and financial resources--and thereby increase the likelihood that his or her child becomes a well-adjusted person who succeeds in school and graduates from college--the reward is hugs and emotional satisfaction. But a more tangible (if less significant) payoff goes to the nation. These children are more likely to become productive workers, who will boost the gross domestic product and pay their taxes, as well as responsible citizens who will vote and otherwise contribute to community life. It is in our national interest that grown-ups bear and raise children, and do it well. We are all stakeholders in the well-being of parents.

We do not pretend that this two-pronged proposal is a comprehensive solution to the challenges parents face these days. But it's a start. Adopting our first suggestion--creating new space for parents--would give moms and dads a more visible political presence. Implementing our second would greatly increase the capacity of adults to be good parents and would enhance the legitimacy of their caregiving by putting a tangible financial value on it. Theda Skocpol, a Harvard professor of sociology and government, has observed that while Americans don't like welfare, they have "always favored social benefits for those who contribute vitally to the national community." By this yardstick, parents more than qualify. Their work contributes greatly to the well-being of the nation, now and in the future. It's time public policy supported them. ?