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What Same-Sex Marriage and Immigration Reform Ballot Questions Have in Common

The “Defense of Marriage Act” is going to get a Supreme Court hearing soon, and in Maryland, same-sex marriage is being put to a referendum on November 6. There is also a referendum question in Maryland on the Dream Act, which would allow “illegal” immigrant children to pay in-state tuition in Maryland if their parents have paid income taxes and they’ve attended Maryland schools.

In both cases, Maryland would become the first state in the country to decide by popular vote that same-sex couples have the civil right to marry, and to approve a version of the Dream Act.

I hope that both questions pass, and think they have a few things in common.

Both concern basic social institutions—the institutions of marriage and citizenship.

Arguably, both of those institutions are under considerable stress in the 21st century.

Marriage’s woe’s don’t need to be rehashed here. Divorce rates have stabilized (perhaps owing to the aging of America), but they remain high, at just under half of first marriages. A Pew survey from last year found that half of younger Americans, and 40% of Americans overall, feel that the institution is “becoming obsolete.” More women opt for single motherhood, or just the single life. In Baltimore, fewer than 10% of households conform to the “traditional” model of a married, heterosexual couple with children in the house. And in typical "Smalltimore" fashion, I think I know them all.

While affluent, well-educated, Blue State couples (with modern ideas about marriage) manage to get and stay married more than their less educated or affluent Red State peers—including the white working class—there is little doubt that the institution of marriage is struggling.

 Likewise the institution of American citizenship is under stress. Our civic and political life is more hostile and niched than ever. There is political disillusionment and disengagement, and cynicism that America can solve big problems or accomplish anything beyond the advance of petty self-interest and perpetual balkanization and hatred.  

Basic knowledge of our political system is appallingly low. A recent survey finds that two-thirds of Americans can’t name even one Supreme Court justice; only a fraction can name all nine.

That’s why it’s important to expand access to marriage and to the privileges of citizenship: Both institutions need a shot in the arm of fresh, impassioned, vigorous, and even naïve energy.

Historically, immigrant populations have infused new life into American society, economy, and culture. If nothing else, immigrant populations remind us that America still has something—we have something—that other people covet and are yearning to become part of.

The same argument could be made for marriage. At a time when heterosexual couples are, if anything, fleeing from the institution of marriage, same-sex couples are clamoring for entry. They remind us that marriage is worth something-- it’s a coveted status that, even if it’s in a confusing brainstorming phase, as I say in Marriage Confidential, is an enduringly valued institution.

Another similarity between immigration reform and same-sex marriage is that both institutions are barring entry to the undocumented and the homosexual, respectively, on the logic that these groups, rather than fortify the ideals of each institution, would weaken and cheapen them in their time of distress.

These ballot questions, and others like it, ask the very basic question:  who belongs? Opponents feel that the institutions are better protected by blocking access, and by limiting “who belongs.”

I don’t agree with their arguments, but I can understand them. With marriage, the logic goes, how much can you change the timeless definitions before it just stops being marriage anymore? What makes marriage marriage—what’s its Ur quality, or mission?

With immigration, opponents ask, can you value citizenship if your parents broke the rules and entered the country illegally (and there’s no doubt that we need a saner immigration policy in this country that makes legal citizenship more streamlined and less laborious to obtain).

But I can’t agree that the extension of civil law marriage or citizenship privileges to same-sex couples or to immigrant students who have worked hard and whose parents have “paid in” to the system constitutes a threat to these institutions.

Instead, these questions force us to clarify and re-center the core values of each institution. Some opponents of Maryland’s marriage equality ballot question feel that marriage’s core value is that it binds a MAN and a WOMAN together, and that this biological essentialism is suggested by nature and procreation, and decreed by God.

I don’t agree that this is the core purpose of marriage in the 21st century.

To me the core value of marriage as a civil institution is that it provides for what is ideally a lifetime companionship, trust, faithfulness to each other, variously defined, and mutual caring. It may also create family units.  Its social utility has largely to do with the labor-intensive work of childrearing. It creates an ideally stable and more resource-rich environment for children, where they have access to more than one parent. Maryland’s Question 6 makes abundantly clear that religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriages as matters of creed and sacrament will never be forced to recognize, sanction or perform them, which is a crucial legal firewall to protect religious liberty and to maintain church-state boundaries.

A core value of American citizenship is the ethic of working hard, paying into the system through taxes and other social contributions, and striving to support yourself, educate yourself, and better yourself. The Dream Act supports these core values, too.

There is an instinct to batten down the hatches when a social institution is under stress.

But at precisely these moments, expanding access to the most enthusiastic, impassioned and zealous arrivistes infuses new life and clarity into the institutions. 

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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