The Power of Conventional Narrative: The Atlantic makes a strange error in an article on parenting and social mobility

Once again demonstrating that entrenched narratives on parenting can blot-out contradictory data, The Atlantic just ran one of those general-interest-publication-reviews-a-scientific-study articles, this time on social mobility generally, and (in passing) on parenting. It’s a well-written piece, but the author of The Atlantic article made an odd mistake. Here’s the paragraph, with the sentences numbered for ease of reference.

  1. Second, your parents’ marriage (or living arrangement) matters.
  2. The single strongest predictor of a child’s economic fortunes is the fraction of single parents in the area where she grew up.
  3. Children of married parents have a much better shot of getting ahead even if they’re in areas where single parents are the norm.
  4. “The fraction of children living in single-parent households is the strongest correlate of upward income mobility among all the variables we explored,” the researchers said.

The careful reader has noticed that sentences 1 and 3 are suggesting something totally different than sentences 2 and 4.

Sentences 1 and 3 are saying: ‘what matters is YOUR parents’ marital status, regardless of the marital status of families around you.’

However, 2 and 4 suggest: ‘what matters is the marital status of the families around you, regardless of YOUR parents’ marital status.’

Well, which is it?

According to the study, it is 2 and 4: the marital status of the families in your community is powerfully correlated with your social mobility, regardless of your parents’ marital status.

*So the article’s headline is also incorrect. Instead of reading “Economists: Your Parents Are More Important than Ever,” is should read “Economists: THEIR Parents Are More Important Than Ever.”

Of course, the conventional narrative holds the opposite to the study’s findings.

Conventional belief is that a parent’s influence on how their kids turn-out trumps other factors.

That’s why, you know, it really is supposed to matter whether you limit television viewing, only stock whole-wheat bread, push the local school to place your child on a gifted-and-talented track, schedule the child’s every waking moment, and yell helpful instruction to them during sporting events.

That’s the premise underlying all this stuff. We believe that the these sorts of parental decisions and behaviors matter for how the kid turns out. And once again a data-driven study suggests the opposite: that individual parenting choices – even big ones like staying married or getting divorced – aren’t the strongest correlates with how kids turn-out as adults.

Yet the narrative is so entrenched that the author of this study – and, I assume, an editor at some point in the process – just didn’t notice that he was misquoting his source (the data-driven study) and stringing together a few contradictory sentences.

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