Q: Some friends and I recently discussed having children. One expressed sympathy for my single, childless (and very carefree!) way of life while the other seemed envious. She said that years ago “Dear Abby” asked her readers whether they would have children if they could do it all over again. According to her, the kids didn’t fare too well. I seem to remember something about this — but I’ll leave the definitive answer to you.
C.S., of Belleville
A: I’m sure you’ve heard the age-old adage: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
Nobody knows who said it first. (It probably wasn’t Benjamin Disraeli and it certainly wasn’t Mark Twain, who once credited Disraeli.) But this is yet another example that proves whoever did coin the saying was a wise person.
So kids, if your parents ever try to take you on a guilt trip using this survey, just say “la-la-la, I can’t hear you” and turn up your Beyonce. Why? Because this survey was about as reliable as the 1936 Literary Digest poll that claimed Alf Landon would win in a landslide over FDR. But first, some background:
In 1975, Ann Landers did indeed ask readers whether they would have children if they could start their marriages over. For several months, she tallied responses before revealing the stunning results in the June 1976 issue of Good Housekeeping. To Landers’ surprise, 70 percent of respondents said they would not, which apparently meant an awful lot of kids had to be grateful their parents couldn’t have a do-over.
On the surface, the survey looked solid. It was easy to understand and easy to participate, which people did in droves. At least 10,000 readers who had seen Landers’ column responded. With all that going for it, the survey should have been accurate to within 1 percentage point 19 times out of 20, according to some statisticians.
But guess what? When Good Housekeeping asked readers for their reaction to the findings, the October issue reported that 95 percent of people who responded to this new poll said they still would have had children.
So why the polar-opposite results? After all, the same basic question was asked, and the same method of polling was used. But when you dig beneath the surface, you find subtle and not-so-subtle differences that should serve as a lesson to any pollster hoping to produce reliable, predictive results.
For starters, the question was posed in two different ways. In the original Nov. 3, 1975, column, Landers was responding to a letter that read in part:
“My husband and I have been married for a year and are undecided as to whether or not we should have children. Do people in their 50s, 60s and 70s regret not having had children when they were young? ... I’ve heard some couples say they wish they had never had children — that their lives were beautiful until the kids came along and ruined everything.”
In response, Landers wrote, “I can tell you right now you’re going to get six of one and half a dozen of the other. Some parents will tell you their children have brought them nothing but grief. Others will say their children have been life’s greatest blessing.”
But that wasn’t the case. A large majority recommended a childless life. Why? Monday morning quarterbacks say that the letter from Landers’ reader painted a largely negative picture of parents burdened by kids. In turn, this encouraged the submission of similar war stories by like-minded parents who longed for your carefree life. In another column, even Landers realized this prejudice:
“I believe the logical explanation for this phenomenon is that the hurt, angry and disenchanted tend to write more readily than the contented. ... “
On the other hand, the opening of the Good Housekeeping article included this: “To (Landers’) horror, seventy percent said that if they had known then what they know now, they would not have children.” Some would argue this introduction in a sense begged those who adored their children to reaffirm the joys of parenthood, which they did. Framing the question in two different ways likely elicited two completely different sets of results.
But there were other differences as well. The Landers column was targeted at both men and women roughly 50 to 80 years old. Good Housekeeping asked for responses from mothers of any age only. Landers’ poll reached readers of more than 1,200 newspapers throughout the United States and Canada. The Good Housekeeping survey was for its readers only. Like that 1936 Literary Digest poll that helped lead to the magazine’s demise, these differences could have influenced the results greatly.
In the end, both surveys were fatally flawed for one central reason: Both were based on voluntary participation by those who felt strongly enough to write rather than a true random cross-section of the population needed for a reliable poll.
So what is the true picture? Apparently your carefree lifestyle doesn’t appeal to most of the married-with-children crowd. Despite the expense, the work and the potential troubles and heartbreak, a national survey by Newsday based on a truly random sample of 1,373 respondents found that 91 percent said they would have children if they had it to do over again.
Despite the occasional fights and frustrations, it appears a vast majority of children are both wanted and cherished. And it should remind you to look closely at a survey’s methodology to determine whether the conclusions are worth the paper on which they’re written.
The name of which musical instrument means “wood sound” in Greek?
Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Guthrie, Okla., likes to brag that it has the country’s smallest national park — so small, in fact, that if you blink you might miss it if you’re jogging past it. In 1889, the U.S. government built a land office in Guthrie to handle claims by a wave of new settlers rushing to Oklahoma to stake out a new homestead. When the land rush died down, the land office building was moved across the street. But realizing the historic importance of the site, city fathers wanted to set aside a 100-foot-square plot of ground the building originally sat on as a national park. Unfortunately when Guthrie was designated a historic town in 1974, it was discovered that instead of setting aside a 100-foot-square plot, officials had written down 100 square feet. So today you’ll find an 8-foot by 12 1/2-foot piece of land surrounding a large oak tree, which the city calls the smallest national park.