Researchers Studied New Yorker Cartoons to See What Rich People Think About Kids

There's a sort of hipsterfication going on with parenthood: Fewer people are doing it, but the people who get into it get way into it.

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Aug 25 2015, 4:30pm

Image: Fred Benenson/Flickr

There's a sort of hipsterfication going on with parenthood: Fewer people are doing it, but the people who get into it get way into it. It's sort of like craft beer, and just like craft beer, these trends are more pronounced among the affluent and the educated.

And how do researchers parse the minds of the affluent and educated? Where do you find a barometers of their changing attitudes and mores? It's not that complicated, a team of researchers in Indiana discovered; just flip through some New Yorker cartoons.

In a paper being presented at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in Chicago, Jaclyn Ann Tabor and Jessica McCrory Calarco explain that the rate of American women who end their childrearing years without having children has reached 20 percent, which is double the rate in the 1970s. The trend of chosen childlessness "seems to be particularly common among highly educated and affluent women," the paper states.

The researchers cite findings that, over the same period of time, children have become seen as more and more valuable, both emotionally for the parent and as means of self-fulfillment. More parents report being a parent as the most important part of their identity. It's also when you see the rise of the much-loathed helicopter parent, a generally educated and affluent parent who practices something called intensive parenting and gets written about in Newsweekor The Atlantic or even the New Yorker.

The researchers perceived an impasse here: If children are seen as increasingly valuable, especially to the affluent and educated, why is the childless rate highest among the same group? Is there something about the way they feel about childhood also changing, in ways perhaps left unsaid?

To discover such a thing would take some sort of repository of this group's self-appraisal—the more sardonic and knowing the tone, the better. A longstanding institution of this kind could even allow the researchers to compare these attitudes over time.

So, naturally, they read nearly 6,000 New Yorker cartoons.

Out of the 70,439 cartoons published over the New Yorker's first 81 years, roughly 9 percent every year, have been about children or child-rearing. Sifting through the data, the researchers found 5,868 cartoons and analyzed the sentiment it expressed: Was the cartoon critical of children and childrearing or accepting of it?

"Humor publications," the paper states, "are particularly useful for tapping into societal attitudes...because humor requires cultural resonance—comedy often hinges on the revelation, distortion or exaggeration of cultural realities. As a result, humor tends to reveal (and play with) commonly held ideas about society, its inhabitants, and their behaviors."

They found that, while kids may be valuable, the cartoons trace the rise of another realization: valuable or not, having kids also sort of sucks.

Percentage of New Yorker cartoons that are accepting, critical or both of children, child-rearing and/or parenthood. Image: Tabor/Calarco

"Our data show that the modern era is characterized by a deep ambivalence—children and childrearing are often portrayed positively, but are also recognized as entailing significant challenges for parents and for society as a whole," the paper states.

Lest you write off me or the cartoonists at the New Yorker as a bunch of self-absorbed, big city no-child-havin' freaks, the most prevalent theme of the cartoons was about how children benefit society. But the next most prevalent theme is the cost of children to society, followed closely by the cost of children to their parents.

Even then, however, one of the best footnotes I've ever seen in a research paper pointed out, "A surprisingly large number of cartoons depicted children playing music so poorly that parents cringed, complained, or even tried to stifle the sound. These were coded as part of the 'costs to parents' theme."

The type of cartoon, the number of them, and a percentage of the whole, New Yorker cartoons, 1925-2006

Complaining about the sounds of amateur tuba is well-precedented and the researchers discovered that so is the correlated rise of both childlessness and a public acknowledgement of the downsides to parenthood.

"A similar set of mixed attitudes toward children and childrearing can also be found in cartoons from the 1920s and 1930s," the paper states. "That time period, like the most recent one, was also marked by both a high degree of parental concern for child well-being and unprecedented rates of childlessness."

The researchers argue that the study is proof that we should be wary of explanations that oversimplify historical changes, and it is also proof that all of these newly digitized archives are chock full of interesting tidbits, if you know how to organize the metadata. The researchers in this case compared all of the odd numbered years to the even numbered, in order to fine-tune their formula and better understand what they were seeing.

And written into those New Yorker cartoons, they found support for the explanation that rather than being at odds, the two trends feed into one another: Concern for child well-being creates pressure to practice intensive parenting, which makes being a parent difficult, which leads to some people choosing to opt out of the whole endeavor. It's like how people who take craft beer way too seriously make you want a glass of rosé. It might pair nicely with curling up with a longform article—once the kids are in bed, that is.