Unconventional Wisdom on Families

Did you know:

* That married parents, mothers and especially fathers, spend more time interacting with their children today than they did in 1965, when stay-at-home moms were far more common? Single moms spend less time than married ones, but more than married ones did back in 1965.

* That during the 1990s youth crime levels fell to their lowest rate since 1966, and by 2004, violent crime in schools was one-third less than the 1991 peak rate?

* That most European countries, such as Germany, are much more approving of teen sex than Americans, but have lower rates of teen pregnancy, abortion, and sexually-transmitted diseases?

* That married women and men are LESS likely to visit, call, and offer practical help to neighbors, parents, and other relatives than are the unmarried?

* That gay and lesbian couples use more affection and humor than heterosexual couples when they bring up a disagreement, and partners are more positive in how they receive it? However, gay men need to be especially careful to avoid negativity in conflict.

* That men are more likely to report work-life conflict than women?

These and more than 75 other pieces of under-reported research and clinical findings were released last weekend, May 4-5, at the 10th Anniversary Conference of the the Council on Contemporary Families, held at the University of Chicago. The document, "Unconventional Wisdom," can be found at www.contemporaryfamilies.org. Participants also received two new briefing papers on women's and men's work and family behaviors and heard a multicultural, interdisciplinary group of national experts discuss recent research and best practice findings on interventions to strengthen father involvement and relationship quality, reduce domestic violence, and provide support systems to vulnerable youth and displaced persons

As one of the founding members, a former Co-Chair, and current Director of Research and Public Education, I am proud of how far we have come since our early meetings in people's kitchens just over 10 years ago, and I encourage readers of The Huffington Post to use us as a resource for information on family and gender issues. For researchers who have struggled for years to get heard over media shouting matches about such artificially polarized debates as whether divorce is "good" or "bad" for people, perhaps the most exciting aspect of the conference was the fact that several of the journalists in attendance were especially interested in what appeared to be a difference between the two briefing papers about gender roles. Researchers Molly Lang and Barbara Risman argued that despite a dip in egalitarian attitudes and women's workforce participation in the first few years of the new millennium, progress toward equality has generally resumed its upward march, and the lives and values of men and women continue to converge. But another report prepared for the Council by researchers David Cotter, Paula England, and Joan Hermsen, suggested that, while mothers are certainly not "opting out" of the labor force, increases in their labor force participation may have reached a plateau.

Neither paper can be proven right or wrong, and both are based on some of the same evidence. But the Lang and Risman paper stresses the increasing participation of men in housework and childcare, while the second paper suggests that in the absence of even further change in men's roles and the adoption of family-friendly work policies, we could be approaching an upper limit to women's labor force participation. The Cotter et al paper, however, also notes that the single largest group of stay-at-home mothers is found among wives married to the lowest-income men, suggesting that they have not opted out of the labor market but are shut out by unaffordable child care and low-wage jobs.

The fact that you could make a case either way is what distinguishes discussions at the Council. We try to explore what the trends and data actually are instead of simply spinning them to make short-term political capital. After the past few years, that may sound breathtakingly radical. So I suppose it's no surprise that a May 7 press release from the the World Congress of Families (WCF), an extremely conservative group that "seeks to restore the natural family as the fundamental social unit and the 'seedbed' of civil society," accused CCF of wanting to ''de-institutionalize marriage" and of celebrating the fact "that an increasing number of women are choosing not to marry and have children."

In fact, however, we at the Council on Contemporary Families simply believe in recognizing reality instead of wishing it would go away. We are not an advocacy group. We do not endorse candidates or legislation, and our membership (which is confined to family researchers, clinicians, and practitioners) holds a range of opinion about what are the positive and negative aspects of various changes in family life over the past 30 years. We welcome any family professional who is ready to discuss what we know about how to help today's diverse families minimize their vulnerabilities and build upon their strengths. This does rule out people who want to beat up on different kinds of families or try to force people into a single mold. But it leaves a lot of room for constructive discussion about what the range of reputable disagreement is on family issues, versus what claims are simply out of touch with scholarly evidence and interpretation. We are interested in hearing from members of the press and public who have questions or concerns. And for those of you who are activists in different social movements, you can turn to CCF for evidence-based information that can help raise the level of political discussion about family life in America today.