Mike Bonner, Ph.D. has a doctorate in Educational Psychology, with a specialization in organizational development. In the past, he has served as a practicing school psychologist, a university faculty, a full-time stay-at-home dad. He now balances his work with his family, which is comprised of a full-time working wife and two children, ages 9 and 7. When he isn’t providing “child care” for his kids, he teaches college courses in psychology, and provides community psychology services to organizations to improve organizational and human functioning.

A report from the U.S. Census Bureau (Who’s Minding the Kids, 2010) was recently criticized in the New York Times’s parenting blog, Motherlode, because the report classifies fathers as family-related child care and mothers as “designated parent.” The post on Motherlode, and the many others it has spawned, argue that dads are in fact parents not just a “child care arrangement.” Beyond that, however, is how these classifications affect the results of the survey and how those results reported by the Census inaccurately reflect the child care arrangement decisions of families.

The Census report (Who’s Minding the Kids, 2010) describes a subset of data collected by “The Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP),” one of many surveys used to supplement the decennial census count. Such surveys are meant to provide more detailed views of the population characteristics and changes in those characteristics over time. The SIPP focuses on collecting data about population income and participation in various government programs. According to the U.S. Census office, “The SIPP data allow the government to evaluate the effectiveness of federal, state, and local programs.” The report classifies fathers as a family-related child care arrangement equal to that of a grandparent or sibling, when providing care for their children. Mothers, on the other hand, are classified as a “designated parent” and thus, any care provided is not considered as a child care arrangement, but a parental responsibility. There are exceptions to this classification, for example single parent fathers, but the focus of criticism by Motherlode (and others) is on the differential designation of coupled parents for the purposes of measuring child care use patterns.

In response to a request for clarification on it’s assumptions about moms and dads by Al Watts, President of The National At-Home Dad Network, Daddyshome, Inc, a Census spokesman defended these definitions on statistical and methodological grounds, arguing that the criticism by the Motherlode blog portrayed “the Census Bureau’s SIPP as a survey on parenting. It is not.” Unfortunately, his reply shows the Census has missed the point, yet again. The critique by Motherlode, and here, is not about parenting definitions. It is a criticism of the statistical assumption that Mothers are “designated parents” and Fathers are “child care providers” for the purpose of understanding the family decisions regarding child care arrangements. To argue that changing this characterization is outside the scope of the survey’s intent is to entirely miss an opportunity to do exactly what the survey is supposed to: help our country (its citizens and policy makers) understand the dynamics of child care use in modern society.

Challenging the designation of married mothers as the “designated parent” and married fathers as “child care providers” is not an argument about definitions of parenting. It is an argument focused squarely on the stated goal of the SIPP, i.e, “to provide accurate and comprehensive statistics about…the government programs in which these households…may participate.” Classifying married parents as separately as one “designated” and one “child care provider” completely muddies the understanding of family child care complexities that the survey seeks to understand.

Consider these real world examples:

Couple A is married, the husband works for a local university, and so has flexible hours. The wife works as a part-time substitute teacher, and is taking online classes. She has flexibility about the days, but not the hours she works. They have one child, with another on the way. How do they handle care of their child? Most days, the wife stays home and cares for their child. Because the husband often works nights for evening classes, he is able to work from home, or flex his time, allowing his wife to substitute teach a couple days a week. Occasionally he goes in late so as to care for their child and give his wife time to do her homework.

Couple B is married, and the husband freelances out his home, and so is able to stay home and care for the couple’s youngest child, and transport the oldest child to school and activities. The wife works full-time, and often has long hours, working from 8 to 5 as a standard. This leaves the husband as the primary caregiver. If the husband ever needs to be away from home for any work-related activity, it has to be dependent on the availability of neighbors to help care for their youngest, or it has to be a time when the wife is able to take time off work.

According to the data definitions provided in the report “Who’s Minding the Kids,” couple A is not using child care resources, except when the husband stays home from work to care for their child while the mother works one of her sub teaching days or doing online class work in the morning. Couple B makes extensive use of child care, as all of the father’s time is classified as a child care arrangement, despite operating nearly identically to the wife of couple A.  Furthermore, when wife B takes time off work to allow the husband time to attend an event outside of the home, her time is NOT considered a child care arrangement, even though extensive planning and schedule juggling occurs. If the husband drops his youngest child off at the neighbor’s house, from the U.S. Census office’s opinion, that is a child care arrangement equal to if the father has just stayed home that day. If the mother leaves work to care for the child, she is simply performing activities of a designated parent, as described by the definitions in the report. If we reverse the genders in these examples, the same patterns of child care yield completely different data for the purpose of this report!

To illustrate this further, consider another example. A couple with one spouse working full-time, and the other who is staying home with the children. If the working spouse takes time off work to watch the kids so the at-home spouse can attend an hour long volunteer meeting, how much the children are counted in child care will depend on the gender of each spouse. If the working spouse is a male, the children are in child care for the hour that the father is home during the mother’s absence. If the working spouse if female, the children are in child care for 7 hours, and not during the hour the mother is home from work with them.

You can see the problems with the current classification definitions. Two couples trying to work out joint care of their children through flexible schedules and career choices, yet one couple registers high on child care use, thus contributing to overall picture of how much children are in child care, while the other couple, functioning virtually identically, registers much lower on child care use. How does this mixed counting of time help us understand the dilemmas that both of these families face? The way the time is classified, differentially by gender, confuses our understanding of how much child care is used, or needed by families.

This is not a criticism about whether we should count the free-lancing father as a stay-at-home parent. This is not a criticism of the U.S. Census not providing an accurate understanding of contemporary parenting roles. Such criticisms may be valid, but are left to another time and place. This is a point-blank criticism of poor data collection and analysis that provides an incomplete understanding of who actually is “minding the kids,” and how much juggling and financial commitment parents (fathers and mothers) must do to make sure the kids are adequately cared for during the day (and night).

For the U.S. Census Bureau to release a statement saying the critique is off-base because the survey isn’t about parenting is a misunderstanding at best, and bureaucratic defensiveness at worst. Thankfully there is a simple fix to all this. I’ll explain that in a follow-up post on Monday.

Share and sign Daddyshome’s petition to the Census requesting recognition of dads as equal parents at www.dadsdontbabysit.com.