in: Family, People, Podcast

• Last updated: December 6, 2023

Podcast #946: Counterintuitive Ideas About Marriage, Family, and Kids

There are a lot of popular ideas out there around marriage, family, and culture, like, for example, that living together before marriage decreases your chances of divorce, people are having fewer children because children are expensive to raise, and society is becoming more secular because people leave religion in adulthood.

Are these ideas actually born out by the data?

Today we put that question to Lyman Stone, a sociologist and demographer who crunches numbers from all the latest studies to find out what’s going on in population, relationship, and familial trends. We dig into some of the counterintuitive findings he’s discovered in his research and discuss the possible reasons that cohabitation is actually correlated with a higher chance of divorce, the effect that marrying later has on fertility, why the drop in the number of kids people are having isn’t only about cost but also about the rise in high intensity parenting, and how the increase in societal secularization can actually be traced to kids, not adults.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. There are a lot of popular ideas out there around marriage, family, and culture, like, for example, that living together before marriage decreases your chances of divorce, people are having fewer children because children are expensive to raise, and society is becoming more secular because people leave religion in adulthood.

Are these ideas actually, born out by the data?

Today we put that question to Lyman Stone, a sociologist and demographer who crunches numbers from all the latest studies to find out what’s going on in population, relationship, and familial trends. We dig into some of the counterintuitive findings he’s discovered in his research and discuss the possible reasons that cohabitation is actually, correlated with a higher chance of divorce, the effect that marrying later has on fertility, why the drop in the number of kids people are having isn’t only about cost but also about the rise in high intensity parenting, and how the increase in societal secularization can actually, be traced to kids, not adults.

After the show is over check out our show notes at

All right. Lyman Stone, welcome to the show.

Lyman Stone: It’s good to be with you.

Brett McKay: So you are a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and you focus on demographic changes in family life. And a lot of your research has looked at a lot of popular ideas that we have about family life. And today I wanna talk about some of these ideas and maybe some of the counterintuitive findings you found with your research. One idea that’s out there is that before people get married, you should live with your potential spouse first so that you can know whether you’re compatible or not. So let’s talk about cohabitation. First, what’s the state of cohabitation in the United States today?

Lyman Stone: So lots of people cohabit. It’s very common. If you go back to the 1960s, marriages in the 1960s, only about 5% of them were to people who were cohabiting before marriage. Today, it’s over 70%, perhaps 75%. So there’s been a huge increase in cohabitation over the last few decades. Just really this extraordinary social transition that I think is taken for granted now but it’s snuck up and we’re like “Oh, wait. This happened. Now everyone cohabits, it seems like.” Again, three out of four marriages will have premarital cohabitation now. So that’s a huge change in just two generations.

Brett McKay:When demographers look at this rise do they attribute it to anything like societal changes, changes in religiosity, or what’s going on there?

Lyman Stone: Yeah, there’s tons of different… This is a very debated question. What caused all this? There’s a couple of things. One is… Actually, there’s a very nice paper that just came… The final version of it just came out recently. It’s called Collateralized Marriage. And they argue, I think fairly persuasively, that the legal benefits of marriage have declined over time. That is, it doesn’t give you the same guarantees it used to in the past. That is, it doesn’t protect you in the event of divorce. You have to pay… Men have to pay… Parents, but usually men have to pay child support, even if they weren’t married. The relative benefits to marriage have declined for men and women. People often talk about this as a decline for men, but, actually, the benefits for women have declined very dramatically as well, as this paper I mentioned shows pretty clearly. So as the benefits for formal marriage have declined, the thing is that a lot of the benefits of informal cohabitation have not declined. Living together is still convenient for sexual access and sharing rent and things like that. And furthermore, the taboos on premarital cohabitation or non-marital cohabitation have declined a lot.

So in some sense, it got cheaper to cohabit and the legal benefits and social benefits and protections of marriage declined. As a result, people still, they still won’t have convenient sexual access to one another, so cohabitation rose. But because marriage was no longer a contract that really offered a lot of benefits, particularly, for lower socioeconomic status people, marriage really declined quite a lot. Though, as you mentioned, that this trend really is very class-biased. Cohabitation rose the earliest and rose the most for lower socioeconomic status people. And higher socioeconomic status people are still less likely to cohabit and more likely to marry, and they’re more likely to marry directly with no prior cohabitation.

Brett McKay: That’s interesting. Yeah, I think they also… Upper class or middle class and above, whatever, however you want to break it down, less likely to divorce than working class. Well, so this idea, “Okay, well, you should live with somebody before you get married because we can figure out if we’re compatible.” What does the research say about that? Let’s say someone cohabitates and they decide to get married, will that cohabitation period improve the marriage?

Lyman Stone: No, it will increase their likelihood of divorce. The idea is called trial marriage. So it’s like a test run of a marriage. And the theory has been, yeah, that it’s going to enable better match quality. So look, we can check. We have these large data sets that I and others use with hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands of women, I think, over the last several decades. And we can ask these questions. We can say, okay, if we compare women who did cohabit to women who didn’t, how do their divorce probabilities vary? And the answer is that if you cohabit you’re more likely to divorce. There is a divorce penalty, or you can call it a penalty, a divorce penalty associated with cohabitation. Essentially, this is a way of saying that what really happens with cohabitation is two things. First of all, who cohabits isn’t random. So if you’re cohabiting, it’s often because you’re not quite sure about the relationship yet. You wanna take a next step. You’re just not confident about marriage yet, which might speak to lower match quality to begin with, but secondly a lot of cohabitation just happens. People slide into it. It’s like they just… They’re just spending the night a lot and then somebody goes, “Maybe I’ll start moving more stuff over and then if and you still pay rent for a year or whatever… ”

Brett McKay: Yeah, Scott Stanley. Yeah, Scott Stanley talks about that.

Lyman Stone: And those things in particular… Decisions are very useful for people. Making clear decisions is associated with… Even making bad decisions, if you actually make it as a decision, you’re better off than doing it accidentally. You don’t wanna do things on autopilot in your life, just in general. You should exercise agency at every opportunity you can. And so the upshot of this is that there’s a lot of selection in cohabitation of people who might be lower match quality to begin with.

Brett McKay: And some other research I’ve read, and these are all just theories that social psychologists have put out there about why cohabitating has a divorce penalty, is that with cohabitation you can slide into the relationship and then you can slide out of it. And so if you do that before marriage it could prime you like, “Well, if I don’t like the relationship I can just get out of it.” Again, it’s a theory. I don’t know if you can prove it but that’s one thing I’ve read.

Lyman Stone: Yeah, it’s absolutely a possibility. It’s hard to test what’s going on inside people’s brains, but yeah it could create bad habits. Also, the expectation of cohabitation might change your search protocol, so to speak. So let’s say that you expect to marry directly, that is, with no cohabitation. Because you don’t get to do that test run you’re gonna look for other ways to investigate mate quality. You’re gonna try and find other ways to figure out if this is a good mate. And one of the big ways you would do that is investigating their family background. That you try and meet the family, meet them a lot, hang out with them a lot, learn about their background, because people’s family is a good proxy for them. Sorry if you don’t like your family, but the truth is statistically you’re gonna be a lot like them in your life.

So historically, that’s how marriage happened. Marriage generally involved a lot of family to family interaction. That’s the origin in the traditional marriage ceremony of, “If anyone has any reason why these two cannot be joined together, let them speak now or forever hold his peace.” That’s asking, you’ve got all the families together and you’re supposed to look around and be like, “Do you recognize anybody? Is this an incestuous marriage that they didn’t realize?” But look around, make sure nobody knows each other too well. So you used to do a lot of this family-level investigation. That doesn’t happen anymore. A lot of people their first time meeting their partner’s family will be after they move in together or something. So instead of investigating the social context and community that a partner might be in; their family, church, whatever, because we live more atomized social lives, we’re more detached from these institutions of community support and community engagement. Instead, we deepen the level of inspection of the individual themselves by getting them in our house and in our bed.

Brett McKay: Well, related to this idea of deepening your inspection of a partner, people are dating longer before getting married. They’re playing the field longer. And even when they do find someone they commit to, they date them longer before they get married. So as a result has there been a shift in the age of first marriage in the United States?

Lyman Stone: Yeah, there’s been a huge shift. So today, according to the census, the median age of first marriage for women is I think 28 and a half, and for men it’s 30 and a half. That’s way up from the low 20s, like 20, 21, 22 in the ’50s and ’60s. Now, that low value in the ’50s and ’60s was anomalous. If you go back to the 19th century or the early 20th century, typical marriage was in the mid 20s, 25, 26. So getting back to a median age of marriage of 21, I don’t know that that’s necessarily good or desirable. Those marriages did have high divorce rates, and dissatisfaction with the state of gender relations in America in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, gave rise to the world we inhabit today. So just trying to recreate the world that gave us the world we have today is… I don’t know. It seems like a losing bet.

But today, having men marrying at 31 instead of in the past at 25 or 26, we don’t have to get back to 21, but maybe we could get back to 25 or 26. That was 2007. That wasn’t a hellscape. That was not that long ago that we were at that level.

Brett McKay: What are the downsides of delaying marriage. From your research, what happens to a person’s lifecycle if they put off marriage later and later in life?

Lyman Stone: Well, it depends on what you want in life. Let’s say you’re a man and you want career success, marriage is a take it or leave it offer. Marriage doesn’t have big effects on men’s career trajectories. Maybe slightly positive. It’s not a big effect. So if what you value in life is career success, getting married later probably doesn’t hurt you. Maybe what you value in life is leisure, having lots of leisure time. Their marriage is an interesting thing to calculate, because on the one hand you might have another person that you sometimes have to take care of if she’s sick or out of work or something, but also in principle, she can take care of you if you’re sick or out of work. And leisure is nice, but also most people like to have leisure with others.

Marriage is a good, pretty fairly secure way of ensuring that you’ve got somebody that you really, really like to hang around you with all the fun things you wanna do in life. So there are multiplicative benefits to the hedonic value of leisure, if you’ve got somebody you really care about to share it with, and marriage could be a vehicle to lock that in. So if what you care about is leisure or marriage, it might be good. There’s some trade offs but it might be good. But if what you care about is making a lasting impact on the world, leaving something behind when you die, marriage is you really wanna get married young. Because the main thing you’re gonna leave behind is your genetic material, your children, and beyond that, your cultural material; the traditions, ideas, values, behaviors, practices that you pass on to your children. And delayed marriage dramatically alters your odds of having any given number of children.

The later you get married, the… It’s almost a perfect correlation. The later you marry, the fewer children you end up having. And that’s true across many countries, across time. Late marriage, less kids. So if you want to leave something behind when you die; legacy, something that will carry on the life projects that you value, the traditions of meaning and substance that you contributed to, which personally that’s what I want, then you don’t want to dilly dally on getting married, because getting married tends to give you the high security relationship where you and your wife can have a more productive negotiation about specialization. You can say, “Look, okay, one of us is going to step back from work for a few years to focus on this other thing in our family,” maybe it’s kids, maybe it’s something else, care of a relative, I don’t know, “because we really value that and we’re gonna cross-subsidize each other here.” So marriage insofar as it enables specialization can enable you to really advance your dyadic contribution to valued life projects.

Brett McKay: Well, speaking of kids there’s been a lot of articles I’ve seen in the news about people having fewer kids. What’s going on with the reason why people are having fewer children these days?

Lyman Stone: Yeah, fertility’s fallen a lot in the US but it depends on the time horizon. So if you go back to… The baby boom fertility was, I don’t know, three kids per woman or something. It was quite high. I don’t have it on hand but it was quite high. And then it declined to 1.7 in the ’70s. People were like, “Oh, fertility’s super low. Population decline.” But then we had Immigration Reform and we got a lot of immigrants and two things happened with those immigrants. One, we got a lot of immigrants and that increases population. And two, they were largely from Latin America. And at that time fertility rates in Latin America were quite high. When people migrate, they tend to replicate a lot of the cultural forms of their place of origin. Women moved to the US and they had babies particularly because the US’s birthright citizenship also creates a pretty favorable calculus for having children here if you’re a non-citizen.

So what happened is in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, fertility rose. Also, it wasn’t just Hispanic immigrant fertility, native-born fertility rose, non-Hispanic white fertility rose somewhat. So we got this kinda little fertility boom in the ’80s, ’90s and into the mid 2000s. But then in 2007 when our fertility rates were 2.07 or something so right at “replacement rate”, replacement rate is basically how many kids you need to have for society to replace itself assuming its current level of mortality, which in the US replacement rate is like 2.03, 2.04. Though it also technically depends on the sex ratio of children. So that’s a whole different thing. But regardless, fertility rates started falling since 2007 and they were at 2.07 in 2007, I think, or 2008. One of those. Today, there are like 1.66. So we’ve lost about 0.4 children per woman which is to say basically every other woman is missing a child versus her 2007 counterfactual fertility in the last 16 years or something.

The thing to understand about this is that there’s multiple different things going on here. Explaining fertility decline from the baby boom to the 1980s, you’re gonna have a different set of factors than the decline from 2007 to today. So from the baby boom to the 1980s, you could tell a story of women’s rights, women’s entrance into the workforce, no-fault divorce. I don’t know. There’s all these stories you could tell that are the stories people are used to hearing about fertility. Like contraception was big, yada yada. But those stories don’t really apply to the last 15 years. Yes, contraceptive use did rise some and particularly of long acting removable contraceptives, which is the most effective form, but abortion rates fell over a lot of that window. And furthermore, although unintended fertility fell over that period intended fertility also fell.

So what’s going on there? Why did intended fertility fall? That’s not a contraceptive story. This declined from 2007, it’s not we all got tons more prosperous. We didn’t just have some… This story of development in women’s liberation. Women aren’t, what, 20% more liberated now than they were in 2007. I don’t know what that would mean to say that. But the reality is we just have lower fertility without a big change in a lot of these conceptual big drivers of the 20th century decline.

So what caused it? I’ve argued that most of the decline is due to postponed marriage. But if you look at marital fertility rates, so fertility rates of married people, they really have not declined very much. Virtually the whole decline is among… Is just fewer people being married. So really looking at a change in entrance into marriage and this feeling among young people of preparedness for marriage. And so you really need to explore, “Okay, well why did that happen?” It’s a complicated question with a lot of different elements, but suffice to say the biggest component of the decline in fertility is lack of entrance into marriage.

Brett McKay: All right, so fewer people are getting married or they’re waiting too long to get married, so they don’t have kids.

Lyman Stone: Yeah. Exactly.

Brett McKay: So I know you said there’s a lot of factors going into why people are choosing to postpone marriage, but what are some of them? What have you found? You don’t have to get too into the weeds with this but I’m curious.

Lyman Stone: So when we think about these timing issues, number of children is something that people plausibly choose. They choose to have more or fewer, conditional on some other factors. But when you get married or when you do something is less a matter of choice, strangely enough. Because in principle a woman can just go and have children, assuming she’s fertile. Through IVF or sperm donors or just unprotected promiscuous sex. This can happen. But the timing is a bit more complicated for something like marriage because first of all, it takes two to tango, so you need somebody else to agree. But second of all, timing decisions are really, really strongly socially normed. So if you think about the life course. If I were to ask when should you graduate high school? Well, you’d probably say around 18 but why would you say around 18? Is it because we have some research that suggests that 18 is the optimal age to finish high school? No, we’d say, “Well, you just should because that’s when you usually do.” If you finish it at 16 because you dropped out that’s bad. If you finish it at 16 because you’re a super genius, I guess that’s maybe good. If you finish it at 20, that’s maybe better than not finishing it. But it’s not great. But ultimately all we’re really saying is the norm is to do it at 18. It’s not like we have great reasons to believe that this is the perfect age to end high school. So it’s just a norm.

Likewise if we say what age should you finish college? Well, most of us are gonna be like, “I don’t know. 22.” Why? Because 18 plus four. It’s not we have some deep methodical consideration of the optimal duration of college education. No. But a BA takes about four years. And if somebody was like, “Well, would you prefer to choose a three-year BA program?” It’s like, “Well, there aren’t many three-year BA programs. Maybe I’d choose it if I could but this isn’t a choice I really have.

And then if you think about, okay, people don’t usually wanna get married when they’re in school. It’s just they don’t. There’s a big spike in marriage the summer after graduation. And so as people spend more years in school, college, graduate, PhD, whatever, all those are rising, everything is pushed later. And as educated people have their norms pushed later, it also filters down to other people. We all inhabit a society and to some extent we share norms. And then there’s other things, because you’re much later in life when you are done with school and “ready for marriage”, you also have more adult habits formed. You’re not founding a life with someone else. You’re merging lives with somebody else. And so coordinating two fully fleshed out adult lives is a lot harder than coordinating two wet behind the ears young people who haven’t figured out life yet. You have the two-body problem. If you get married and graduate college together, figuring out where to move to get jobs is a lot easier than if you’re in your mid 20s and one of you, or late 20s and one of you gets a job offer somewhere, because you’re just more flexible early in life.

And so education, social norms, norms about how long you should date and be engaged. It used to be… Six months was a very reasonable length of engagement. But now people do two-year engagements. It’s insane. So these are just social norms about timing that emerge. And why do they emerge? We could get all into stuff about why they emerge and underlying economic factors, but at the end of the day, everything in our society is motivating towards extended adolescence. And if you wanna find an deep underlying factor of this, though, it both explains too much and too little. You could point to basically the fact that we’re becoming a human capital-intensive economy, where you get ahead by acquiring a lot of human capital for yourself, which means education, experience, skills.

And what that means is peak income comes later in life and income is a way that people signal mate fitness. And then beyond that, because we’re a human capital-intensive economy, people are more discriminatory in their mating. There’s been some shift in assortative mating, though this is somewhat debated, but I believe it. This suggests that people may be more aggressively trying to sort on the observable characteristics of their partner. Now, the joke is on us, because it turns out if you care about anything genetic, you really shouldn’t look at your partner’s genetic characteristics. You should look at their parent’s genetic character… Well, you should look at your partner, but you should look at their parents’ genetic characteristics and their cousins and stuff, ’cause that gives you a way better proxy for the latent traits of your partner than what they choose to reveal to you when they want to be in your pants.

So again, this is the second time I’ve done this pitch, but we should really bring back getting to know people’s families. But regardless, all these factors work together to push marriage and everything in life later. If you look at age of first home ownership, that’s later. Age of first anything is later. People are getting their driver’s license later in life than 20 years ago.

Brett McKay: Right. And then because they’re pushing marriage back so far might mean they don’t have the number of kids that they want. And that’s the interesting thing.

Lyman Stone: Exactly.

Brett McKay: You’ve done studies on this that people are having fewer kids. But then when you ask women how many kids they want, it’s actually, more. It’s quite a bit more than they’re having.

Yeah. Men and women a both say they want to have about 2.5 kids-ish. Depends on how you word the question. If you word the question instead you ask, “How many kids do you intend to have?” You’ll get answers around two, 2.1. But intentions aren’t really desires. Intentions are a compromise between desires and reality. If you ask any desire question, what people want, what they think would make them happiest, what their ideal is, yada yada, they give you between 2.2 and 2.7 as their answer on average. That’s true for men and women. There’s not much difference between the two on this particular question. And so, yeah, people want to have more kids and that’s been true for a while now. Fertility desires did fall in the 1950s and ’60s. People used to say they wanted about 3.5 kids. Now they want about 2.5. And that fall happened around the same time that fertility fell after the baby boom. And so yeah, people want about 2.5-ish, but they are going to have in the US currently about 1.6, 1.7, which means the average woman will have 0.8 fewer children than she wants. Which means if you take 10 women, that eight of them will be missing a child that they wanted to have.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for you a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show.

So we talked about the reason why that’s happening or one of the reasons why that’s happening is, well, people are pushing marriage back. So you might not have the time you need to have the kids you want or desire. But then also people talk about, “Well, maybe I want three kids, but kids are so expensive so I’m only gonna have two.” Is that a reason? Is the cost of raising a kid a reason that’s holding people back from having the kids they want?

Lyman Stone: Yeah, both in empirical studies and in surveys. In surveys, tons of people report child cost factors as reasons they’re not having more kids. And we have dozens of empirical studies showing that if you reduce the cost of having children, people have more children. Which that suggests that, yes, the cost of child rearing is a factor that’s reducing fertility. If we can find ways to reduce the cost of child rearing, we will have more babies. But that is not as simple as it sounds.

So think of it this way. Let’s say that we decide we wanna reduce the cost of child rearing and the way we do it is by making free childcare. Now childcare is free, everybody can have it. Well, now, because it’s free, everybody can have it, which means lots of people will have it, which means everybody will take it for granted that they should have it. The norm of what you need to have for people to feel like they have enough to have kids will rise. And that extra money that you have on hand… Well, actually, there won’t be that much ’cause it’ll be tax finance, your tax will go up. Whatever. Some people will have extra money on hand. Where will it go? Before they were spending it on childcare for their kid? Are they now not going to spend it on their kid? No. Children are a bottomless pit of money. You can always find something else to spend money on for your kids. This is ridiculous. The idea that giving people childcare means they’re gonna now just squire it away. No, they’re going to spend it on their kids. They’re just going to spend it on something else. Now, something else might be good, but the point is they’re gonna spend it on something else. The consumption norm will rise.

The point is you can just have children and raise them like the Amish, and it’s really cheap. But you don’t want to do that. And the reason we don’t want to do that is because people assess their wellbeing by comparison to others. And of course we do it this way. It’s totally reasonable that we would assess our wellbeing by comparing to others because we don’t have… It’s not in our brains we have some intrinsic measure that just knows that we are well off.

So in practice, yes, we define our happiness by comparison to others. That’s okay, to an extent. There’s an extreme version of that that’s not. But it’s reasonable to look around at others and be, “Okay, how am I doing?” And at the end of the day, if the norm for spending on children is so high that you have to forego a lot of goodies that your comparison group is not foregoing, you’re not gonna have kids. There’s a fascinating line of research that looks at fertility contagion, and they find that if you’re… The great study, this looked at workplaces, large offices with lots of workers, and they found that when a coworker who sits close to you has a baby, you become more likely to have a baby than when a coworker who sits on a different floor or farther away from you. There’s a bunch of studies looking at contagion showing that people’s fertility behavior is sensitive to the fertility behavior of others in their life. As they see other people having kids, they go, “Okay, maybe I will too.” And the reason is as other people start to give up some of those goodies to have kids and put money into kids, you don’t face the same relative losses, because now you can give it up, ’cause you’re ahead now so you can afford to give it up.

Brett McKay: Okay, so it sounds the absolute cost of raising a kid is holding people back from having more, but there’s also just… It’s a matter of how people think they’re faring compared to other people who maybe don’t have kids. So if society wants to encourage people to have more kids, maybe their fertility rate has fallen below the replacement level and they want to encourage people to have more kids, they need to work on both of those things.

Lyman Stone: Yeah. So cost factors matter, but the important thing to understand is that there’s a relative component to them, and it’s a component that’s intensely normative. And so that means to reduce the cost of child rearing and have more kids, yes, we should do things to financially support families. Yes, absolutely. We should. I want to be clear that that’s good. The research suggests that giving families more money does get you more babies, and the price tag on it is not that high compared to other things the government does. If all you care about… If you’re a super utilitarian man and you want to do quality-adjusted life years, the public cost per quality-adjusted life year added from pronatal policy, that is birth subsidies, it’s way cheaper than trying to increase quality-adjusted life years than expanding Medicare or Medicaid or something like that. Pronatal policy is cheap on utilitarian grounds, though. Whether you should trust utilitarian grounds is a debate.

But, although we should throw money at this, that’s not all we need to do. We also need to discipline consumption norms. Now, one way you could do this would just be to set off a large electromagnetic weapon near all of the Instagram servers, because what’s going on is it’s not a coincidence that fertility started falling after 2007 and never came back. It wasn’t just the recession. It was the advent of social media, I think. That created a supercharged comparison. And that’s why this decline has happened all over the world. It’s not just in the US. So basically everywhere that has a cell phone, fertility starts declining around this time. And so what we want to do is we want to find ways to nudge algorithms to show people more babies, less solo vacations to Tahiti.

And we need to be promoting parenting norms of… Well, I just heard a great example recently. Somebody was like, “When I was growing up, I always ate canned peaches.” They were like, “That was the fruit that my parents gave me, canned peaches.” Well, recently I was in the grocery store and I was in this section where it’s all fruit for kids and there weren’t canned peaches, they were not there. Instead, what fruit are parents giving their kids at the parks where I live? Berries. Blackberries, blueberries, strawberries. If you’re a middle class family at the park, you don’t get a preserved peach cup out. You get a thing of fresh raspberries and it’s four times as expensive.

And so the norm changed. So we really need… It’s hard to know what our government would have on this. Maybe there’s some, I’m open to that, but really it’s a cultural thing. We need to push back on this. We need to defend lazy parenting. Not negligent. I don’t want to go too far. But I’m very in favor of okay parents. I’ll admit I am an okay parent. I am not parent of the year. My wife is. But in general, I’m very… I think we should be much more favorable to middling parents and super high intense parents. We should socially stigmatize this. It’s just partly because also we know it doesn’t actually do much to help children. There’s a real benefit when you shift from negligent to middle third or 75th percentile of parental intensity. But the shift from 75th percentile to 99th is not helping kids very much. So we should really stigmatize this. Send your kids outside and close the door. Give them cheap fruit cups. We need to have clear norms that if you spend a lot of time and money on your kids, it’s taboo.

Brett McKay: Okay, I love this. This is really interesting. So people’s increased, we can call it desired consumption level has gone up as standard of living has gone up, and it’s a social contagion. You see everyone else is doing this. “I need to have that. Well, kids might put a hamper on that vacation, so I’m not going to have kids so I can go on the vacation.” But then also there is this idea of intensive parenting. You think, “Well, man, if I wanna be a good parent, I got to give the berries, I got to take them to the baseball coach and get them the Kumon tutor, and we’re gonna have all these fantastic parties inspired by Pinterest.” And because people see that, they’re like, “Yeah, it’s a lot of work. I’m just gonna have two kids instead of four kids because I can’t do that for four kids.”

Lyman Stone: Exactly. Yeah. This hyper-intensive parenting is a huge factor. And I should say, I run these surveys and agreement with statements related to high intensity parenting is associated with way, way lower fertility.

Brett McKay: Yeah, the high-intensity parenting is really interesting because you’d think those parenting norms won’t affect you, but they do affect you. I think all parenting norms affect you, and that can be used for good or for ill. Here’s an example that I’m seeing in my own life with my kids. So I got a son who’s in middle school, and a lot of his friends are starting to get cell phones. And so there’s this social pressure. My kid wants a cell phone. And if I don’t get him a cell phone, then he’ll be out of the loop with his friends. And so you have to band together with other parents and be like, “Hey, how about we all not let our kids get cell phones until high school?” It has to be this collective thing.

Lyman Stone: Exactly. Yeah. This is the thing, is that parenting is a collective project. And this is what we often don’t get in our atomized modern societies, that parents can’t do it themselves. They engage in combinations with other parents to do collective projects because a lot of parenting is very collective. Kids develop these norms among them based on what they allow, and you do want to find parents who do things similarly because, again, kids judge their own wellbeing by comparison just like we do. So we want to give them comparisons that don’t put us in a rough spot. You want your kid to be at a similar level of subjective consumption assessment as their peers. And so that means you really want to, yeah, create these collaborations.

Brett McKay: So I think the takeaway there, kids don’t have to be high intense… They don’t have to take a lot of time. Like you said, you can just be like, “All right, here’s the fruit cocktail, kid. You get your one cherry.” I haven’t had one of those. I don’t think my kids have ever had a fruit cocktail. I’m going to have to go get them a can of fruit cocktail and then have the birthday party at McDonald’s. You don’t need to go to the Jump Zone.

Lyman Stone: Yeah. Oh my gosh. My kids love McDonald’s so much. I think actually two of them may be at McDonald’s right now with my wife. I don’t want to make this sound like… We’re two dudes talking about this. It’s easy for this opposition to intensive parenting to sound like saying, “Oh, those crazy moms.” That’s not what I’m saying. Parenting, it does take time. There is a certain level of money that it does take. The work that parents do, particularly parents or primary caretakers do, is incredibly valuable and important. But what I wish we understood better as a society is that most of the value and importance of what parents do is explained by the shift from bottom percentile parental investment to 60th percentile parental investment. So not 85th to 99th percentile investment. What I wish we’d do a better job is really speaking value and appreciation into the average parent who’s done most of the work that needs to be doing and we would do less valorizing of the super parent who does 36 hours of homemade craft decorations for their two-year-old’s birthday party. And I’m like, “No, no. No.”

We made a cardboard cutout of… I think we bought a pinata and that was it. So I want to try and thread the needle of excessively intensive parenting, not good, makes all of us worse off.

Brett McKay: I work from home. And so I’m really involved in my kids’ lives. I’m taking them to school, picking them up from school. I’ve taken them to practices, taken them to activities. And because of that I’m always looking for ways. It’s just like, “Okay, what can we do to make this easier for everybody?” And that means saying no a lot. We’re not going to do traveling teams, we’re not going to go to this activity. And I always tell… I always do this thing when I’m trying to figure out what to do with my kids. I’m like, “Imagine it’s 1985. What would my mom tell me?” And I’d be like, “Well, okay, you can go do that. Go outside. Go shoot the basketball.” Just you’re fine. You don’t have to be holding their hand the entire time.

Let’s shift over to another topic. Because you’ve done some research on declining religiosity in the United States. And the common narrative on this subject is that people leave religion as adults because of the increasing secularization of society or because they became disillusioned with faith because of scandals in churches. But your research shows that the decline in religiosity starts when you’re a child and still living with your parents. Walk us through those findings.

Lyman Stone: Yeah. So I’m a religious guy. My wife and I are church workers as well. And so you hear this story a lot. “Oh, yeah, we had all of our good Christian kids and they went to college and those liberal professors contaminated them and they left the faith.” But as a sociologist, I was always a little skeptical of this because my impression had always been that the research suggested that religious ideas were socialized fairly young. And so recently I there was this book that came out, The Great Dechurching. It was really interesting. It’s an interesting read. I enjoyed it. But it made this really strong argument that there was a dechurching that happened basically to 20-somethings and to some extent 30-somethings. That they were religious kids and then they grew up and they stopped going to church because of all these different things that happened; science or change in life circumstances or whatever.

And just reading it, I was just very skeptical of this. So I put together all the data I could find on child religion. So usually when we do surveys, we survey adults because it’s easy to survey. Well, comparatively easy to survey adults. Kids, we don’t survey very much. Their contact info cannot be distributed as freely as adults legally. They’re just part of the survey. Very young kids can’t take surveys. They don’t have their own phones. They don’t have their own email address. How do you get kids… Although, increasingly, they do have phones and email addresses. But there are some surveys. Some of them are in schools. Some of them are really high-quality scientific research surveys that were able to get a bunch of kids.

And what I show is across three or four different surveys, all the evidence suggests by age 13, children are already way more secular than their parents are, they continue to secularize until maybe age 21, and there is virtually… There’s very little net loss of faith after age 21. Yes, there are people who leave the church after age 21, but there are also people who convert after age 21 and on net it approximately balances out. Whereas under age 21, and really particularly under age 18, you just have this really dramatic rise in secularization. I show this in cross-sectional data and in longitudinal data in multiple different sources, taken at different times, using different methods. And what I’m able to show is that child secularization has moved younger and has gotten more intense. So in 1993, about 12% of eighth graders said religion was not at all important to them. About 13% of 10th graders said religion was not at all important to them, and about 15% of 12th graders. So 12, 13, 15 from 8th, 10th to 12th grade. In 2005 or so, it was still about 13% for 8th and 10th graders, but it was about 17% for 12th graders. So 12th graders started secularized, but eighth and 10th graders did not. They stayed the way they were.

In 2013, about 15% of eighth graders were not at all religious, so it had risen a bit, but not a lot, 20% of 10th graders were not at all religious, and about 23% of 12th graders, which means 12th graders secularized a lot more, 10th graders secularized a lot more, and crucially, the gap between 10th and 8th graders grew a lot, which means secularization was happening in 9th and 10th grade.

And then if you look at today, or the most recent data, which is, I think, 2021, about 29% of 12th graders are not at all religious, about 27% of 10th graders, and about 23% or 24% of 8th graders, which means now tons of the secularization is happening before 8th grade. That’s really striking. To me that says that secularization of children is moving earlier and earlier and earlier. Why is that happening? Well, I think social media is a big part of that story. That kids now inhabit these totally adult unsupervised online spaces where they interact with much older people and where their life is more contaminated by these adult things. So I think that that’s one of the factors. But in general, I think this is just a case of American parents not trying very hard to pass on religion.

Brett McKay: Okay. So we oftentimes think that society is becoming less religious because adults undergo a faith deconstruction, faith crisis and then leave religion. But the data actually shows that faith loss largely happens in childhood. And that’s because the baby boomer, Gen X, millennial parents, they aren’t religious themselves. And then they’re not passing on religion to their kids.

Lyman Stone: Well, yeah, but no. I’m saying seeing even among religious parents are pretty lazy. There’s a nice book called Handing Down the Faith, I reviewed it a couple years back for Christianity Today, where they do this really comprehensive qualitative and quantitative study of religious parents in the US. And they show that most religious parents in the US believe what I would call the backlash myth. And the backlash myth is this. If you do too much overt explicit religious instruction in your house, your children will react against your religion and they’ll end up less religious than if you’d done nothing at all. This is the backlash myth. There’s no empirical support for this idea. This is totally wrong. Every shred of empirical evidence we have, including some that’s I think plausibly causal, suggests that the more effort that society, parents, schools, whatever, the more effort you put into passing on the faith to your children, the likelier they are to share your faith. It’s very straightforward. Try hard, get better results.

But parents don’t believe this. American parents deeply believe in the backlash myth. It’s hard to persuade them against it. They think that if they do something that their kids don’t like that their kids will hate everything they stand for. And this is just totally untrue. There’s no serious, high-quality research to support this model, and yet it’s widely believed. And the result of this is that American parents really forego a lot of their influence. They don’t do a lot of explicit teaching to their children about the faith at home. They don’t lead a lot of religious activities at home. They don’t lean on their kids to be involved in religious communities. People just assume that their kids are gonna absorb the religion. It doesn’t matter what environment they surround their kid with.

So yeah, religiosity is declining, not because adults are converting, for the most part, but because children are never absorbing their parents’ faith at considerable rates. And that’s largely because parents are not making great efforts to pass it on.

And I should say… I’ll say something in defense of American parents. And not just American parents. This is everywhere. 80 years ago, parents didn’t need to do that much because our society was so suffused with religion that parents could just do a bit to give some extra firepower and a relatively religious society would do most of the work socializing the child into the faith. That is no longer the case but parents haven’t caught up. They haven’t realized that they now have to substitute for all that stuff society used to be doing.

And this is a place where… I just said all this stuff against intensive parenting. And this is one place where I think we should be way more intense. Do less intensive parenting at making sure your kid has 57 different talents and goes to all these activities and you don’t need to monitor every moment of their play and stuff. But intentionally, concretely lead everyday religious activities in your household, every single day. The day should not pass where your child does not see you leading the family in practices of faith, if you want your religion to be passed on to your child.

Brett McKay: Well, Lyman, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?

Lyman Stone: You can follow me on Twitter @lymanstoneky, or you can always just find me at various places online, the Institute for Family Studies, and some other places.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think you got some articles in the Atlantic. Correct?

Lyman Stone: Yeah, I’m all over the place.

Brett McKay: You’re all over the place. All right, well, Lyman Stone, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Lyman Stone: Good talking to you.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Lyman Stone. He is a sociologist and demographer. You will find more information about his work on his Twitter or X site, whatever you want to call it, @lymanstoneky. Also check out our show notes at, where you find links to resources. We delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at, where you find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think could get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continuous support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay; reminding you to not only listen to the AoM podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.

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