Asking About Housework

October 20, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
The working mother — how does she find the time? Did being a worker mean that she would spend less time being a mom? A new study by Suzanne Bianchi finds that contrary to expectations some years back, work did not reduce the time mothers spent with their kids. In fact, parents — both moms and dads— are spending more time with their kids than parents did in previous generations. What’s been cut back is housework. (NPR did a longish (16 minute) report on the study — an interview with one of the authors, calls from listeners— which you can find here.)
There’s much to be said and blogged about Bianchi’s findings, but I want to make one small methodological observation, something I’ve mentioned to students. Some questions have a built-in “social desirability” bias. Suppose you want to know about reading habits. It’s socially desirable to have read more books (at least I hope it still is), so if you ask “How many books do you read a year?” or “How many books did you read last year?” you’re likely to get something higher than the actual number. Instead, you ask, “Did you read a book last week?” A person who never reads a book might be reluctant to say that he hadn’t read a single book last year. But there’s no social stigma attached to not having read a book last week.
The same thing goes for housework and parenting. Ask me how many hours I spend on housework and childcare each week, even though as a good friend of social research I’d try to be accurate, I’d probably try to be accurate on the good side. So as the Times reports, “Using a standard set of questions, professional interviewers asked parents to chronicle all their activities on the day before the interview.” (The study notes that we dads are doing more of both than fathers of only a few years ago.)
(More later. Right now, I have to put the wash in the drier, start making dinner, and help my son with his homework.)

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