An Epidemic of Generalization

The mainstream media has had an awesome couple of weeks of telling us how much we all suck.  First, there was Elizabeth Kolbert pondering why American kids are so spoiled.  Then came Anne-Marie Slaughter laying out for us why women still can’t have it all.  And if you didn’t feel crappy enough because of your spoiled kids and futile, pitiful attempts to have an amazing career and a wonderful family, then you must certainly feel lousy after Tim Kreider chided us all for being busy for the sake of being busy last Sunday.

Those stories went viral, generating discussion and reaction.  What frustrates me is that those articles were held up as truth when they were actually one person’s experience generalized to all of us.

Spoiled Kids

Kolbert’s article compares a study Ochs and Izquierdo did on 32 middle class families in Los Angeles to the helpful, cooperative children of the Matsigenka tribe.  While a six-year-old member of the Matsigenka tribe cooked and cleaned for members of the tribe, an 8-year-old named Ben in LA refused to untie his own shoes, and in example after example, the parents ended up doing things for their children.  Kolbert’s conclusion is that all American parents want their children’s approval and are raising spoiled, entitled children.  I object to that generalization.  If Daniel cannot tie his shoes at 8-years-old, I have done a pretty crappy job as a parent.  The examples used by Ochs and Izquierdo are horrifying, and I cannot believe that the majority of parents reading Kolbert’s article would nod and agree that those scenarios happen in their house.  Thirty-two families from the same city is also a very small sample size and certainly too small to use to generalize to millions of parents and children.  It’s another case of shoddy research or at least misunderstood research generating headlines.

Can’t Have It All

Ms. Slaughter left her dream job as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department  to return to her university job and her family after only 2 years because she decided her family needed her at home.  I’m not deriding her decision; I object that based on her experience, she pronounces that women can’t have it all and gets to do it from a major outlet.  I don’t even dispute many of her points and recommendations. Slaughter’s article addresses the dearth of women in high-level leadership positions, which isn’t germane to most working women.  And yeah, that’s sort of her point but at the same time, for many women, we’re working hard to survive and taking care of our families. We don’t have the luxury to stop and think about why we aren’t in positions of leadership.

More importantly, what is the definition of “having it all?” At what point do I say I have it all?  At what point would Slaughter conclude that I have it all?  I work full time doing challenging, interesting work.  My paycheck pays our mortgage and other bills. I manage 3 people.  I travel to conferences and around the state for meetings.  I’m fortunate to to have the ability to take my son to doctor appointments, schedule play dates, scope out day cares, play with him at night and on the weekends, read books to him and sing him to sleep.  To me, that’s having it all. If I have a friend who works as an executive assistant or dental hygienist and they are happy with that, then don’t they have it all?  I absolutely, 100% agree that there are a lot of changes to be made to legislation and in the workplace in order to make it easier for men and women to have careers and be the involved parents they want to be, but that’s for any job, not only high-level ones.  I disagree with Slaughter deciding that based on her “all” not working out for her, her “all” is my “all” and impossible to have.

My Fault I’m Busy

And last but not least, Mr. Kreider.  Mr. Kreider can support himself by working a few hours a day.  If he wants to take off for parts unknown or kick up his feet, he can.  And based on his experience, he concludes that the rest of us are manufacturing being busy in order provide “existential reassurance” and meaning to our sad, boring lives.  First of all, I can assure you that I am not making up being busy because the truth is that I don’t like being busy.  Sure, sometimes it’s nice to be busy and have meeting after meeting, obligation after obligation to create some structure to my day or week, but more often, I prefer not being busy.  I love the nights when we have nothing more to do after dinner is eaten and Daniel is in bed than to read or watch mindless tv.  Or sit on the porch and talk.  As with Slaughter’s article, there is a grain of truth in Kreider’s piece in that we could all do with a slower-paced life, but it’s insulting that he accuses us of causing our own problem instead of acknowledging that modern life is incredibly fast-paced and that most of us don’t have the luxury to unplug and work only a few hours a day. Take back your finger wag, please!

Mass Media and Truth Making

I also recognize that you could accuse me of generalizing too based on only my experience.  Fair enough, but that brings us to my second major issue: mass media and truth.  By being published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The New York Times, Kostner, Slaughter and Kreider have the power of traditional media behind them to sanction their points of view.  The challenge to traditional media is exactly why I love blogging and its power.  We get to share our voice and challenge these sanctioned points of view.  We get to demonstrate that there is not one truth but many truths. My truth, your truth, someone else’s truth. I believe blogging has the power to take down the Truth Makers of traditional media.

Or at least I did believe that.  I’m worried that the potential blogging has is in jeopardy.  I have a brain crush on Bon Stewart, and she has been doing some amazing thinking on identity, truth-making and culture in the Digital Age.  We’ve chatted a bit about whether traditional media is reasserting control over us through monetization and audience-building trends in blogging.  Please read her post today on produsage and think about the potential harm Kostner’s, Slaughter’s and Kreider’s articles pose when communication is only one way.

What do you think?  Is this another case of KeAnne going off her rocker again?


  1. GAAAAAH! I just wrote a lot of this on my own blog. Not published yet of course because I write lots of stuff and don’t ever get it ready to publish. I was talking about the spanking/mental illness study, though. I also have a series about the logical fallacies in the works. Just wanted you to know that we’re totally on the same page.

  2. I’m going to have to digest this a bit more before I have a substantive contribution to make – and read some of the links – but I did just want to drop a comment about the first article that reviewed some anthropological research. By and large, anthropology is not about generalizability. It is the opposite of quantitative research that seeks out the common denominator through sheer numbers. In contrast, anthropology is about understanding particular phenomena deeply and locally (not unlike literature). I haven’t read the particular studies cited in Kolbert’s article but I am familiar with Och’s work generally, and I respect her as an anthropologist. I would guess that rather than shoddy research, it’s a case of research presented somewhat superficially – and certainly over-generalized.

    I think that what resonated for me in the article was my fear that I WILL be tying my daughter’s shoes when she’s 8. There was this flash of recognition, not of the particulars, necessarily, but of a pattern. For me, there are numerous ways in which I fail to encourage her independence and self-sufficiency. For example, she balks at walking places so (we have no car) we generally let her sit in the stroller, or ride on her dad’s shoulders. And she’s not very good at drinking out of a cup, because we’ve always let her drink with a straw.

    Anyway, I haven’t read either of the other two articles although a friend of mine was talking about the “having it all” one. I want to read the linked blog post about “produsage” (I just skimmed it) but it looks very thought-provoking. In any case, your point about the power of mass media and popularized science (that is, if anthropology is actually science) are important ones.

    1. Your correct – I should have emphasized the writing over the research because I’m sure for their study, their methods were sound. After all, I chose qualitative for my Master’s thesis and had a sample size of 8, so I definitely did not intend my conclusions to be generalized to a larger population! I stand by what I commented on your blog that I do think that while what the researchers found was extreme (I hope), it does serve as a reminder to let D learn to do things for himself and not give in and do it for him.

  3. I’m going to agree with you that a sample size of 32 is just not enough. I love anthropology, considered majoring in it and yet, this article doesn’t seem right. The conclusions may well be the same, but before we generalize that all American kids are spoiled, I’d like to see not only other regions queried but also many more children evaluated.

    Definitely Keanne raising questions that need to be asked, and I also love this about blogs.

  4. As a former member of the mainstream media, I must say in defense of all those publications mentioned that next week columns with the opposite point of view likely will appear. The fact that they published articles that got everyone talking virtually means they did something right. Used to, they’d just be paper used to line bird cages after they were read.

  5. I think the problem is more about irresponsible reading rather than writing. Too many people read articles that use personal anecdotes to “prove” the existence of a wide-spread “problem” or that summarize studies and that draw conclusions for the reader. Some readers take these conclusions as fact and as equal to having read the study itself. More people need to take the op-ed commentaries about these studies as opinion pieces, which is all they are, and use them as a jumping off point to view the actual study, questioning the methodology, the biases, the valid arguments and the arguments that need more proof. Only then should they formulate any kind of opinion about the data presented by the study, much less change their lifestyles in deference to the study’s findings. Instead you end up with people making major decisions and formulating strong beliefs citing data that they’ve not actually ever even seen, much less evaluated. I think the fact that we have instantaneous access to actual primary documents is the best thing about the internet. Unfortunately, people do not always take advantage of it, which I think is more of a failure on the part of the reader rather than the writer.

    1. I agree with you about irresponsible reading. I am stunned daily by evidence of how poor reading comprehension is becoming. However, I do think a lot of the writers don’t understand research and causation/correlation and write misinformed pieces that are read by irresponsible readers.

  6. So, I haven’t read two of the articles, but the Slaughter article I read, and am grateful that it was written. Since I had my sons I have wondered: am the only woman who fells like I can do it all, but not do it all well? As a litigator, before I had my sons I routinely worked 60 hours a week and often, particularly when I was trying cases, would work more like 80 hours a week. Now I work closer to 50. Do I miss the extra work? Sometimes. Has my career taken a hit by my unwillingness to stay till 7 or 8 every night? Absolutely. Do I feel torn between my obligations at work and my obligations at home? Everyday. Do I feel guilty when I walk out the door at 5:45 or 6? Yes I do–I feel guilty about not leaving earlier to go home to my sons and step-daughter and guilty about not staying late like the single and/or male associates I work with.
    Perhaps redefining ‘having it all’ is something you are able to do in your career. GOOD FOR YOU! But I think you’re confusing happiness and ‘having it all’ as defined by the article. I am probably happier, on a day to day basis, than I’ve ever been in my entire life, but I am honest that I don’t ‘have it all’ because I sacrifice my career for time with my family. Another example: what if that dental hygientist wanted to be a dentist, but didn’t want to put in the hours because she wanted more time with her kids? Or may that assistant would be excellent at running the whole darned firm or office, but doesn’t want to put in the hours to do so because she’d rather be home with her kids? They may be happy, but do they really have it all? Or are they making sacrifices and choices in the best interests of their families?
    Doesn’t anybody else had the feeling that they had to chose? Or that lots of us had to chose and that’s why more of us aren’t running things? It’s certainly not because men are more competent.
    Come on, be honest, not rah-rah I am woman hear me roar. The truth of the matter is that we aren’t represented 50% in politics or in business leadership positions. Why is that?
    For the life of me I can’t understand why so many people got so up in arms and angry about Ms. Slaughter’s article. Generalized though it may be, there was the ring of truth in it.
    Ms. Slaughter made me feel like I wasn’t alone in feeling like I could do it all, but not do it well. I mean, if someone as accomplished as Ms. Slaughter feels conflicted and torn between work and family, maybe it’s not crazy.
    Her discussion about redefining a career path, in particular, spoke to me. It made me feel like, well, maybe I’m not sacrificing my career related dreams to be the mother I want to be, maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to pursue those dreams when I’m older.
    Sorry for the rant–but the Slaughter piece really made me feel better about the world, not worse. I think it was a brave piece to write.

    1. One more thing: I agree with Jane that if people are talking and reacting, then the media did something right. It was the main stream media that put that Slaughter piece out there, and I’m glad it did.
      Also, I agree with Katie about irresponsible reading. But at the same time, there are a lot of studies that show correlations which are fed to the public as articles that suggest causation.

    2. I still have mixed feelings about the Slaughter piece, but first of all, I apologize for not acknowledging that I have a job that is 8-5. If I choose to work late, it’s my choice, not because it is expected of me. I realize that women who are doctors, lawyers or scientists or who wanted to enter those professions have to make different choices and resent having to make those choices. I don’t think I’m confusing happiness and “having it all.” I object to how Slaughter defines having it all as having a high-profile career AND effortlessly parenting. I think I knew from an early age I was going to have to make choices, so maybe it’s not a surprise to me like it might be to others. I think what we both feel is guilt that we aren’t doing anything well.

      1. I agree. I didn’t disagree with Slaughter’s conclusions so much as I was shocked that this was a surprise for her. One of the biggest myths of, I don’t know, feminism? Life? Is the feminine idea that you can have both a high profile, ambitious, trend-setting career and be 100% — or even 40% involved in your home life. Furthermore, I fear that too many will say, “We can’t have this because we’re women…” when the fact is, NOBODY has this. Even a single white male will make sacrifices in other areas of his life should he choose to throw himself into climbing the corporate ladder. In fact, when my husband WAS a single guy, he talks about a period of years when he worked non-stop, was very successful at his work, got lots of promotions and made a lot of money, but realized he never saw his parents and had no social life. Life is like that. We make choices. We strike balances. We can’t be two places at once and there’re are only so many hours in a day. Of course women can’t be high-flying career women, and keep spotless houses, cook home-made dinners, make every recital, game, and school play, and volunteer in their kids’ classrooms all at the same time. But the reason women can’t do that has nothing to do with gender, men can’t do it either. So while I agreed with Slaughter’s article, I wasn’t surprised by her conclusion and I hope we can all develop more realistic standards about what is reasonable to expect from a day’s work and a day’s play. In other words, stop wanting to “have-it-all” and start wanting to “have-enough.”

  7. Ha! I read all these articles myself, and the only one which did scare me was the “busy for busy’s sake.” Mostly because I see it everywhere; the scheduling and an almost competitive-ness about it. “Oh gee, I’m sorry, we can’t do X because we’re SO busy!” Seems a way for moms to put other moms down. And I reject that.

    I liked Slaughter’s article, though, because she really did make me feel less alone. I personally made a choice recently to leave my well-paying corporate job because I kept hearing from management that I needed to work more than my 50 hours a week and I just didn’t want to make that choice. Stepping off the career path into something that is more part time was the RIGHT choice for my family – it just came with a lot of complicated emotions about what I thought my life would be versus what it really is today. It also surprised me, as it did Katie, that she was surprised she couldn’t have it all. I always knew that I’d have to make choices, that there’s just not enough time in the day to devote 100% to work AND family each. My surprise was that I chose a more traditional route, especially since my husband was more than happy to be a stay at home dad or contractor or whatnot. I always thought I was more of a feminist than that, I suppose.

    And ohmigoodness I’m so thankful you linked to Bon Stewart; love her perspective on the whole digital media thing. I’ve been blogging for 7 years, though regularly for 6 years, and I’ve had SUCH a hard time with what I’ve seen as the commercializing of blogs to reach a large audience. I’ve fought against it probably more than I should by stubbornly refusing to link to twitter or Bacefook or any other social media, really. Which doesn’t always make sense, because I do get the idea that I could do MORE with my network. Loved this.

    I don’t necessarily agree with the idea that these were one way conversations, though. So much of the blogosphere is back and forth over all three of these articles. It might not be AS prevalent as the articles themselves are, but it has people talking. And really, isn’t that the point of media? To get people talking about ideas?

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