A new study about parenting is out, and it promises to be a doozy. Its findings? Dads who do more chores around the house are more likely to have daughters who aspire to high-paying careers. The study is set to be published later this year in the academic journal Psychological Science. According to the Association For Psychological Science, which oversees the journal:
The study findings indicate that how parents share dishes, laundry and other domestic duties plays a key role in shaping the gender attitudes and aspirations of their children, especially daughters.
While mothers’ gender and work equality beliefs were key factors in predicting kids’ attitudes toward gender, the strongest predictor of daughters’ own professional ambitions was their fathers’ approach to household chores.
“This suggests girls grow up with broader career goals in households where domestic duties are shared more equitably by parents,” says psychology researcher and study author Alyssa Croft, a PhD Candidate in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Psychology. “How fathers treat their domestic duties appears to play a unique gatekeeper role.”
The study results suggest that parents’ domestic actions may speak louder than words. Even when fathers publicly endorsed gender equality, if they retained a traditional division of labor at home, their daughters were more likely to envision themselves in traditionally female-dominant jobs, such as nurse, teacher, librarian or stay-at-home-mom.
Fascinating, right? According to the study’s authors, whether a father does chores is “the strongest predictor of daughters’ own professional ambitions.” Strongest. Predictor. There’s only one problem, though: the study and its underlying data (or lack thereof) don’t come anywhere close to supporting that conclusion.
Before we delve into the specifics of the study, let’s think about a handful of the factors that might explain why children aspire to certain careers. Parental occupation is probably a good place to start. Maybe household income as well. And parental educational background. Whether a child’s parents are married or even live in the same home together probably has an effect. Intelligence, both of the parents and the child, might be a factor as well. How much time parents spend with their children, or whether they read to them at all, could also be significant factors in a child’s career aspirations. The quality of a child’s school and the aspirations of her friends and peer group might also be important. Surely the authors would have collected data on these different variables and included them in the study. After all, how could you possibly attempt to quantify and predict a child’s career aspirations without including any real data about her family’s background?
Unfortunately, not a single one of those factors was taken into account by the study’s authors. Not one. The authors ignored massive predictors of future child achievement and yet had the audacity to claim that household chore distribution is the single strongest predictor of a child’s career aspirations. Those omissions alone forfeit the right of this study to be taken seriously.
Don’t worry, though. It gets worse. The authors only collected data for both parents from 27 percent of the children they interviewed for the study. Forty-eight percent of the data comes from families where the father was never even interviewed. Overall, 326 children were interviewed. Less than half (154, or 47 percent) were girls. All told, only 13 percent of the study sample was comprised of daughters whose mom and dad were asked questions about household chore distributions.
But surely the researchers put together a representative sample of families and children across the U.S., right? Right? Not so much. From the study:
We recruited 326 children between the ages of 7 and 13 years (172 boys, 154 girls; mean age = 9.34 years, SD = 1.72) and at least one of their parents—204 mothers (mean age = 42.30 years, SD = 11.17; 52% Caucasian) and 140 fathers (mean age = 43.64 years, SD = 5.97; 66% Caucasian). Participants were recruited at a local science center.
The entire sample came from a single “science center” (location not disclosed). That alone ought to disqualify any of the study’s conclusions. Would you be fine if presidential elections were decided by the votes from a single precinct? Me neither. The authors acknowledge that they made no attempt to collect or even verify a random, representative sample of U.S. children. In fact, they just assumed the sample was good since other researchers had previously used the same single site to collect samples:
Furthermore, although we have reason to believe that mean levels of education and income in our sample are representative of national averages (based on socioeconomic status measured in other research samples from the same site), recruitment from a science center could have led to some restriction of range in these variables and in gender-stereotypical biases that could have plausibly reduced our estimates of true effect sizes.
Oh, and the researchers didn’t actually measure the amount or percentage of household chores done by each parent. They asked the parents and children involved to guess what percentage of the chores were done by each parent. And the researchers deliberately excluded time-intensive chores like home maintenance and yard work that are traditionally done by men.
Finally, the study makes no attempt to determine whether aspirations eventually become reality, which is something you would probably want to track if you were concerned that girls were underrepresented in certain high-paying careers.
You could drive a caravan of 18-wheelers through the methodological holes in this study.
This is not how “science” is supposed to be done. Actual science — the search for truth — does not consist of picking a fun, media-friendly conclusion and then haphazardly designing a methodologically questionable experiment that deliberately excludes easy-to-collect data that would surely have a huge effect on the underlying results. Actual science attempts to collect representative data before making representative conclusions. Scientists are supposed to #LeanIn to data, not pretend it doesn’t exist.
Now, do I think men should be more involved in chores around the house? Absolutely. As a former janitor, I regularly put my cleaning skills to use around the house. I also do a good share of the cooking, as well as all of the yard maintenance and home repairs. I believe a healthy marriage and a healthy family life require each family member to share some of the burden. But let’s not pretend that parental chores are the key to raising healthy, responsible, productive children.
Kids need constant love, encouragement, and discipline. Daughters need to know that their fathers love and respect their mothers. Daughters desperately need to know that their value and self-worth don’t come from their beauty or their intelligence. Children need to be loved by their moms and dads for who they are — precious lives made in the image of their Creator.
Should dads do more to help around the house when they are able? Of course. But if they want to raise confident daughters who truly believe they are capable of achieving anything, today’s dads need to focus more on loving their daughters for who they are, on being an active and engaged participant in their daughters’ lives, on giving them a steadfast example of how real men treat women, and less on simple chores.
That may not be science, but it is absolutely common sense.