Nuance Goes Missing in a World of Soundbites

by Kelleen Kaye

I’m a researcher.  I like data.  They can answer concrete questions like, what is the proportion of children born outside of marriage and how has that grown over time.  But sometimes even the way data are collected influences the stories we tell in ways we might not think about.

Take births.  These data come from birth certificates and of course it’s the woman who actually gives birth.  So, when we report on trends in childbearing, we often talk about mothers, and women.  When in fact, becoming parents, or not, and whatever type of relationship that goes with it, reflects the joint experience of men and women.  Similarly, when we talk about the circumstances of children living with single parents, we usually talk in terms of single moms, even though the child is increasingly floating between households.  But old habits die hard.  It wasn’t until the late 1990s that there was even a concerted effort to collect more data from men regarding family formation and parenting

I’m  also a big fan of hard core statistical research—when done well, it does its level best to truly understand how various factors, like marriage, influence the outcomes we care about, like child well-being, even after netting out lots of other things going on in young people’s lives.

But even the best research does not give us a crystal ball into how the lives of young families will turn out, because every family is different and some are more resilient than others.  The most we will ever be able to say is that particular families are more at risk than other families.  Of course being at risk matters—it matters a lot—because in the aggregate it translates into hardship for many families and their children.

It’s sometimes hard to communicate this nuance in the word of soundbites and headlines.  But it’s important to say it here.