Obligatory sociological reminder that there is little evidence of Halloween candy tampering

Every Halloween, sociologist Joel Best reminds people that there is little  evidence of Halloween candy tampering:

For decades, parents have been warned to check sweet-wrappers for signs of tampering, chocolate bars for hidden needles, and apples for surreptitiously inserted razor blades when their children return home from knocking on strangers’ doors. But Dr Joel Best, a sociologist and criminologist at the University of Delaware, has researched every reported case of so-called “Halloween sadism” in the past 45 years, and has concluded that not one of them was genuine…

Dr Best has discovered 90 cases of alleged poisoning reported by newspapers or hospitals since 1958 but he says that none can be attributed to random attempts to harm kids. Most are pranks by children seeking attention; some are murkier attempts by parents to gain compensation…

The myth picked up speed in the late 1960s, as the popularity of Halloween also increased. At the time, many Americans apparently believed that hippies might get a kick from adding LSD to the sweets of unsuspecting children.

The phenomenon peaked in 1970 and 1971, when there were 10 and 14 reported incidents respectively. There was another mini-peak in 1982, when 12 alleged cases occurred. None have ever been confirmed, but the myth of “Halloween Sadism” nonetheless endures. Over the years, America’s National Association of Confectioners, for whom 31 October is crucial, have attempted to persuade the nation that trick-or-treating is safe. But Dr Best’s research, which has informed a book called Threatened Children, leads him to believe they face an uphill struggle.

Some urban legends live on. Here is what might contribute to the longevity of this particular story:

1. Journalists who are looking for such stories. If most of these cases did not pan out, did these same media outlets report this or issue a correction or retraction? Even if they did, the harm was likely already done.

2. Parents who are generally scared for their children in lots of areas, not just candy received on Halloween.

3. Are there any movies, books, or TV shows that have perpetuated this storyline? I can’t think of any but I wouldn’t be surprised if such works exist.

4. It seems like it could be plausible, perhaps even more so than cases like the unsolved 1982 Tylenol cases in Chicago (see a recent oral history here).

5. The holiday of Halloween lends itself to such stories. It is hard to imagine similar stories emerging out of Easter or Christmas, both holidays that involve candy and gifts that could be tampered with.

A few sociological answers to why American kids are “spoiled rotten”

A recent piece in the New Yorker asks “Why Are American Kids So Spoiled?” Here appear to be the crux of the problem:

With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world. It’s not just that they’ve been given unprecedented amounts of stuff—clothes, toys, cameras, skis, computers, televisions, cell phones, PlayStations, iPods. (The market for Burberry Baby and other forms of kiddie “couture” has reportedly been growing by ten per cent a year.) They’ve also been granted unprecedented authority. “Parents want their kids’ approval, a reversal of the past ideal of children striving for their parents’ approval,” Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, both professors of psychology, have written. In many middle-class families, children have one, two, sometimes three adults at their beck and call. This is a social experiment on a grand scale, and a growing number of adults fear that it isn’t working out so well: according to one poll, commissioned by Timeand CNN, two-thirds of American parents think that their children are spoiled.

The article is primarily built around anthropological comparisons with “the Matsigenka, a tribe of about twelve thousand people who live in the Peruvian Amazon.” But I think there are also some sociological answers to this issue.

1. American culture has long emphasized children. While this article seems to suggest some of this is tied to recent technological and consumer changes (we can buy so much stuff so cheaply), this stretches back further than the consumeristic 1980s to today. This reminded me of the Middletown study, an in-depth examination of Muncie, Indiana that started in the 1920s. In the first study published in 1929, here are a few of the findings regarding children (and these are from my notes so there are some summaries and some quotes):

-growing problem of “early sophistication” where young teenagers (12 to 14) act like grown-ups (135) – part of this is the relaxation of traditional prohibitions between interactions of boys and girls (137) – greater aggressiveness and less modest dress of girls (140) – parents are unsure and puzzled about what to hold children to (if they could even do that ) (143) – parents increasingly devoting more of their lives to and sacrificing for the children (146-147) – mothers eager to get their hands on any resource that will help them train their children (149) yet there is “a feeling that their difficulties outrun their best efforts to cope with them” (151)

-the school provides the most formal and systematic training (181) – the school now has more responsibility where this task may have fallen to the family in the past (190)

-“If education is oftentimes taken for granted by the business class, it is no exaggeration to say that it evokes the fervor of a religion, a means of salvation, among a large section of the working class.” (187) – “Parents insist upon more and more education as part of their children’s birthright; editors and lecturers point to education as a solution for every kind of social ill…” (219) – “Education is a faith, a religion, to Middletown.” (219) – education is not desired for its content or the life of the mind but rather as a symbol: “[seen] by the working class as an open sesame that will mysteriously admit their children to a world closed to them, and by the business class as a heavily sanctioned aid in getting on further economically or socially in the world.” (220)

In other words, the Middletown study hinted at an American world that was starting to revolve around children: teenagers were gaining independence (particularly with the introduction of the automobile) and education was a growing community emphasis as it represented future progress for younger generations.

Researchers in the early mass American suburbs also noted the emphasis on family and children. The classic study of Crestwood Heights (1956) as well as some work by Dennison Nash and Peter Berger (early 1960s) showed that suburban life was organized around children. People moved to the suburbs for their children, particularly the increase in open space, the better schools, and safety. Other more recent researchers (such as Eileen Luhr) have also noted this emphasis in contemporary suburbia.

Overall, these studies suggest that the emphasis on children is not necessarily new in the United States. The form that it takes might have changed but this is not simply the result of recent trends and this is also intertwined with the important processes of consumerism, suburbanization, and education which also have a longer and more complicated history.

2. This reminds me of Annette Lareau’s two types of parenting (see Unequal Childhoods): concerted cultivation (middle-class and up) and the accomplishment of natural growth (working-class and below). Lareau argues that there are benefits of both styles of parenting (as well as disadvantages) and I wonder if some of this “spoiledness” could be beneficial down the road. What the journalist is describing seems to fit some of Lareau’s description of concerted cultivation: parents cede authority to children as the children are taught to ask questions and assert their interests and children are pushed by parents into all sorts of activities to develop their skills. Here are my notes on what Lareau says are the advantages of this:

children become adept at using language, activities are said to teach them skills that will prepare them for later opportunities/jobs/school, parents help them access new things in school and activities, they become assertive and challenge institutions to help them, institutions often made up of same kind of people so these kids fit in

And my summary of the disadvantages:

feel a sense of entitlement, little talk about money so children have little idea what things cost (in terms of money and time), parents spend a lot of time sacrificing for children, conflict can arise with professionals (school teachers and administrators in particular throughout the text), conflict between siblings and limited contact with extended families

Doesn’t this sound like this article is arguing? While there are clearly disadvantages to this way of raising children (and the differences are perhaps made more stark in comparing this to past childrearing strategies, or even the relative lack of childhood several hundred years ago), there are also advantages. Overall, Lareau suggests children raised under concerted cultivation are better prepared than their counterparts to join the adult world. Even from a young age, these children are taught to challenge institutions and given skills that serve them down the road.

Based on Lareau’s findings, is the story all bad? Perhaps not. When I read critiques like this, I always wonder if there is a little generational bias present: “these young people of today just aren’t like we were in our day.” I suppose time will help us figure this out, particularly as we see how today’s youths handle adulthood and what they are able to accomplish.

Sociological study of sitcom fathers from the 1950s to today: men portrayed similarly

It is a common complaint that television sitcoms make fathers out to be buffoons or at least incompetent parents. One PhD student in sociology looked at sitcoms from the 1950s to today to see how the fathers compare:

Miller found that while family structures in sitcoms has kept up with real social change — there are more single and divorced men in the recent sitcoms, for example — the men in both eras are more likely to be similar than different.

There is almost no difference in how often men express anger or emotional attachment. And men in the 1950s were almost as likely to say they were being victimized by someone else, such as their boss, as they do in the recent sitcoms.

Men in both sets of sitcoms also show almost equal amounts of self-deprecating behaviour…

Probably the greatest difference Miller noted is that men in the recent sitcoms make fewer imperative statements, are less likely to be respectful to others, and less likely to be respected by others. It might signal a decline in male authority, but it’s also a sign of all-around lower standards of decorum and politeness, she says.

Men in the recent sitcoms are also more likely to be immature. In Miller’s recent sample, there were about five times as many incidents of immaturity as in the 1950s series. But sitcom women have also become increasingly immature.

Perhaps the real story here is the consistency of television formats: the sitcoms of the past may not really be that different from the sitcoms of today even as the characters and situations have changed slightly.

Another possible takeaway is that television probably isn’t the best place to look for examples of good behavior. I assume most Americans would readily agree with this but considering the number of hours people watch plus the cultural power shows can have, television characters end up establishing certain behaviors.

Moms in TV advertisements buy products for the good of their families

Two sociologists argue that a majority of mothers in TV commercials buy products for the good of their children:

Nearly two-thirds of mothers featured in ads on prime time Canadian television are “intensive” moms who buy products solely for the good of the family, while non-mothers were more likely to be portrayed as independent free agents, enjoying themselves far more, a new analysis has found.

The lion’s share of mothers were shown to be “organized, informative and in control,” and always purchasing the product for the benefit of their children, according to University of Toronto sociology researchers Kim de Laat and Shyon Baumann, who combed through 68 television ads…

But Ms. de Laat and Mr. Baumann say the advertising they studied is promoting “sacrificial consumption” — a term they coined to describe the act of buying products primarily for the care of others, rather than for self-care.

“It’s only been within the past 20 to 25 years that we’ve seen increasing emphasis solely on the children to the point where women are supposed to derive satisfaction from all of this caregiving,” said Ms. de Laat, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.

“Sacrificial consumption” is an interesting phrase but it isn’t a new idea. I’m reminded of the research of Viviana Zelizer (in Morals & Markets) regarding how the once controversial product life insurance came to be viewed as a necessary and sacrificial product that would provide for one’s family. What might be new here is the idea that these commercials are tying motherhood, a social role, to a particular action, providing for children. It attaches a different idea to products: if you’re family needs the product or would at least benefit, whatever money that needs to be spent is well-spent. Being a good mother means buying the “needed” products, not necessarily providing love, support, time, or attention. Do these commercials work by guilting people into action (i.e, “I’m not a good mother unless I do this”)? I wonder how this ties in with the whole idea of “concerted cultivation” where middle- and upper-class parents look to give their kids advantages (including necessary products?).

Is sacrificial consumption used effectively to sell products to other groups? Can you imagine such marketing aimed at men/fathers?

Revealing a child’s gender at age 5

This genre of news story pops up every now and then: parents decide not to reveal the gender of their child to the public for several years. I have used a 2009 story about a Swedish kid named “Pop” as an example in class. Here is a more recent example from a few days ago:

Laxton, a UK-based web editor, and her partner, Cooper, decided to keep Sasha’s sex a secret when he was still in the womb. The birth announcement stated the gender-neutral name of their child, but skipped the big reveal. Up until recently, the couple only told a few close friends and family members that Sasha was a boy and managed to keep the rest of the world in the dark. But now that he’s starting school the secret’s out…

But the sandbox is just a precursor to the classroom. When Sasha turned five and headed to school, Laxton was forced to make her son’s sex public. That meant Sasha would have to get used to being a boy in the eyes of his peers. Still, his mom is intervening. While the school requires different uniforms for boys and girls, Sasha wears a girl’s blouse with his pants…

Last year another couple, Kathy Witterick, 38, and David Stocker, 39, of Toronto made a similar decision when they had their baby, Storm. At the time, certain psychiatric experts voiced concern over their decision. “To have a sense of self and personal identity is a critical part of normal healthy development,” Dr. Eugene Beresin, director of training in child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, told ABC News. “This blocks that and sets the child up for bullying, scapegoating and marginalization.”…

As for Laxton, she says she’s open to her son pursing any career or sexual preference he chooses as he matures. “As long as he has good relationships and good friends,” she says, “then nothing else matters, does it?”

When I present a story like this to students, they tend to think that the child will be harmed because they will be confused about their identity and will end up enduring taunts from classmates. This seems to line up with the experts cited in this story. Now that I think about it, I can’t say that I have seen any cited experts saying the child would be just fine but perhaps I missed it.

At the same time, these are great examples to talk about the boundaries of the nature vs. nurture debate. Could a child even be treated neutrally? At some point will society “force” the children to pick a side?

By this point in time, do we have any studies of kids who have grown up in these settings? It might also be interesting to see if there are patterns in the parents who follow this path.

94% of American parents expect their kid to go to college

Looking at the article “Is a college education worth the price?“, I was pointed to Pew survey data released in May 2011 about what Americans think about college. Among the findings:

Nearly every parent surveyed (94%) says they expect their child to attend college, but even as college enrollments have reached record levels, most young adults in this country still do not attend a four-year college. The main barrier is financial. Among adults ages 18 to 34 who are not in school and do not have a bachelor’s degree, two-thirds say a major reason for not continuing their education is the need to support a family. Also, 57% say they would prefer to work and make money; and 48% say they can’t afford to go to college.

These are pretty high aspirations that cut across income levels and backgrounds. Pew suggests the primary barrier to reaching these expectations is money: the need to support oneself and a family gets in the way.

But I wonder if there is another barrier that is partly due to finances and partly due to other factors: it can be difficult to translate aspirations into outcomes. In today’s world and particularly in America where parents have always desired great things for their children (I remember this coming out distinctly in the original Middletown study), what parent wouldn’t say that their kid will attend college? If one comes from a privileged background, a child can see how this path will logically play out: you go through the stages of school and naturally you will move from high school to college (with finances somehow being taken care of and parents socking away money for over a decade in a college fund). But, in lesser circumstances, where is this easy path? It may be doable but there are a lot of obstacles standing in the way.

This reminds me of Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods. While I can’t remember whether she specifically talks about college aspirations, the class-based styles of parenting she outlines could lead to different outcomes in achieving these parental aspirations.

Sociologists on the “chore wars”

Time magazine’s latest cover story on “chore wars” features two competing explanations from sociologists:

The assumption that working women had become the Clydesdales of contemporary marriage can be traced back to the publication of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Second Shift in 1989. In the 1970s, Hochschild was a sociologist with two young children who was trying to get tenure at Berkeley, where she saw her male colleagues unencumbered by demands at home and was inspired to write about the working women’s double day. “It came from my own anguish, my own conflict,” she says…

Hochschild came up with that number by averaging data collected in the 1960s, spotlighting what is now clearly the product of a culture in transition, a lag between women’s entry into the workforce and the great domestic shakeout in which working women cut back on housework, often by outsourcing, and men reduced office hours and chipped in more at home. Yet Hochschild’s interpretation of that statistical blip in the 1960s came to define the plight of women in the 1990s and 2000s. The Second Shift was a huge crossover hit and sparked a huge surge of academic writing on the inequalities of the household…

One American sociologist, Suzanne Bianchi, stood on the sidelines of the why-men-aren’t-doing-more debate for many years. From 1978 to 1994, she was a demographer and statistician at the U.S. Census Bureau working with large represtnative samples that shed light on long-term changes at thepopulation level. Bianchi was looking at almost everything but housework – education, earnings, changes in employment – so she became aware of the pitfalls of focusing only on the domestic sphere. “Maybe men really were all jerks and not doing their fair share, or maybe they were allocating their time to other things. By isolating housework from other kinds of work, you lost track of the fact that families need money as well as time,” she says. “I began to get interested in what we really know. We think men don’t do anything, but is that right? Are we systematically missing what they do do?”…

Bianchi and her colleagues analyzed time-diary data from 2003 to ’05 and found that among couples in which both partners work full time, men’s greater hours of paid work counterbalanced women’s greater hours of unpaid work. A second shift, where it still existed, was most evident in dual-earner couples with children under the age of 6, but it was a difference of five hours more of combined paid and unpaid work for women a week, not 15. “That didn’t mean that The Second Shift was completely wrong, just that it was misleading,” says Bianchi, who published her analysis in 2009. “Another thing that got missed was that women shed housework when they’re employed full time, but they hold on to a lot of child care, and that’s a big piece of why The Second Shift resonates so much.”

The article suggests that the gap between the work of men and women has closed and there needs to a more nuanced explanation about the subject. It seems like the larger conversation would also be enhanced with more data rather individuals relying on personal anecdotes. For the forthcoming edition of The Second Shift (January 2011), will Hochschild also include updated/new data?

Two further issues:

1. The argument in this story works because of a methodological concern: men’s paid work counts in their total. If we look at just the figures for work within the home, there is still a decent gap between men and women. On one hand, we could consider all kinds of work to be equal (and work at a paid job certainly has its own stress and advantages). On the other hand, if an earlier goal was for men and women to equally share work at home, it hasn’t happened.

2. Where do we go with this data? The article suggests the arguments of The Second Shift resonate with newer generations. Will this article convince anyone that men are doing more work (or more equal work) or will it simply reinforce existing divides?

Rise in single father families

The number of families led by a single father has grown in the last decade:

Joe Cioffi, a physician from Fairfield, Connecticut, settled for visitation rights to his son after he and the boy’s mother split up. Soon, he decided that wasn’t enough, so he spent four years struggling to win primary custody…

Cioffi’s custody victory and living arrangement encapsulate two distinct changes driving a 27.3 percent jump in U.S. families led by single fathers in the past decade, according to figures released from the 2010 census. While the number of single dads remains small, greater acceptance of shared custody and more unmarried couples have altered traditional ideas of child rearing, demographic experts said.

“It’s time for us to stop assuming that single parents are always women,” said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “There is a visible presence now of single men caring for their kids. We didn’t see that a few decades ago.”…

The growth in single fathers remains a small percentage of the larger shift away from the traditional family. The majority of single parents are still mothers. They head 7.2 percent of all American households, not just those with kids, compared with 2.4 percent of those households led by single fathers, according to census figures.

The illustration from this story suggests that men tend to become single fathers as the result of a court case. I would be interested to know whether younger men ever really envision or aim to be single fathers or whether this is usually the result of unplanned events. This would be a great question to ask today’s college students to see how they envision their future families.

Additionally, as the number of single father families grow, how are the fathers and kids treated – socially, it is an advantage or disadvantage to be a child in a single father family versus a single mother family?

Considering the ethics of adopting children to study them

An ethicist look at three scenarios to help sort out the difference between studying one’s biological vs. adopted children:

Ethics has a bizarre blind spot around parents and children. For no justifiable reason that I can discern, we deem it perfectly tolerable for a parent to decide unilaterally to raise their child genderless or under the Tiger Mother or laissez-faire method of parenting, but horror at the idea of someone “testing” one of these parental styles on a child. Recall, there is no test to become a parent, no minimum qualification or form of licensing. In fact, if you are so irresponsible as to unintentionally have a child you do not want and cannot support, you have more of a right (and obligation) to rear that child than a stranger with the means and desire to give that child a better life…

I would like to test this reproduce-rearing correlation with a thought experiment. The details of the thought experiment appear below the fold, but the conclusion is as follows: it would be ethically permissible for a scientist to adopt a large group of children and then perform specific, non-harmful, nature-vs-nurture social experiments on those children…

After running through three scenarios, here is the conclusion:

Therefore, if it is morally permissible for parents to independently decide how to raise their children in regards to gender, it should be morally permissible for a team of scientists to conduct a rigorous experiment with their own adopted children on the impact of rearing on gender and sexual preferences.

I imagine an IRB would have a very difficult time approving a formal proposal for this.

Several other methodological issues come to mind:

1. There could be issues of objectivity: how do we know parents of either biological or adoptive children could “objectively” observe their own kids? This may be a bigger problem in some disciplines than others: ethnographies, for example, utilize participant observation which parents would certainly be a part of. But even then, there are concerns about the researcher becoming too immersed in the setting of the study and losing an outsider’s point of view. Scenario #3 simply suggests that sociologist parents would make “unbiased observations.”

2. How could an experimenter be sure that results from adopted (or even biological) children are the result of the treatment rather than prior experiences and behaviors? Experiments try to isolate the effects of treatments but adopted children could have numerous confounding factors from their pre-adoption days.

How social class might affect a family’s view of its pet

Some sociologists have examined the relationship between people and their pets. Indeed, there is even an American Sociological Association section titled  “Animals and Society” (read their rationale here).  Here are the thoughts of two sociologists on this dynamic between pets and their owners:

Sociologist Elizabeth Terrien discovered in a study of dog owners that people from rural backgrounds view dogs more as guardians that should be kept outside. More affluent people tend to see their pets more as children and describe them in terms such as “child,” “companion” or “partner in crime.”

Terrien found that those with Latino backgrounds were more likely to use the term “protector” or “toy” to describe their pet’s role.

Carey also refers to sociologist David Blouin’s three main categories of pet owners:

Dominionists,” who view pets as useful but replaceable helpers. Many of the people in this category in Blouin’s study were immigrants from rural areas.

Humanists,” who pamper their pet much like a human child, let their pets sleep in their beds or leave money in their will.

Protectionists,” who have strong opinions about how animals should be treated and decide what they think is “best” for an animal (untying a dog tethered to a tree, for instance, or determining when a dog should be put down).

I wonder if we could map these ideas on top of Annette Lareau’s ideas about class and parenting styles in Unequal Childhoods. Lareau suggests that lower-class parents practice the accomplishment of natural growth, a more independent view of children and not encouraging children to challenge external authorities, where middle- and upper-class parents practice concerted cultivation where children are encouraged to speak up and parents give children the activities and cultural tools to get ahead. These categories seem to line up with the idea of these two sociologists: pets are more replaceable and functional for lower-class people (“dominionists”) while pets take are much closer to family members in more wealthy families (“humanists” and “protectionists”).

I also wonder if there is work comparing the treatment of children in families to treatment of pets. What might the impact of this be on children?

Additionally, it sounds like there could be some value judgment regarding which of the three approaches is most appropriate. How do “humanists” and “protectionists” view “dominionists”?