Constable: What New Yorker cartoons say about parenting
We sometimes explain laughter by noting, "It's funny because it's true." For a sociologist with suburban roots and a college professor researching attitudes about parenting and children, the search for truth took them to a funny place -- cartoons that appeared in the New Yorker from 1925 to 2006.
"I had a lot of fun going through them," says Jaclyn Tabor, 28, a former resident of Wheeling and Arlington Heights, and current Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Indiana University. "The cartoons are a reflection of the values of the times."
In their study, "The Parent Trap: What New Yorker Cartoons Reveal About Competing Trends in Childrearing," Tabor and I.U. assistant professor Jessica Calarco looked at 70,439 cartoons to identify and index about 6,000 cartoons that related to children or parenting.
"Cartoons are a good barometer of social attitudes, especially taboo attitudes," Calarco says.
The pair classified the cartoons into seven themes: benefits of children for parents, costs of children for parents, benefits of children for society, costs of children for society, uncritical depictions of parenting, critical depictions of parenting and child-rearing as just a normal part of life.
Some cartoons from the 1920s and '30s touched on many of the same financial concerns shared by today's parents. Tabor points to one 1928 cartoon showing a new mother talking to her husband: "Darling, here's the bill from the hospital. One more installment and the baby's ours!"
The most negative portrayals of children were found in the '20s and '30s, but also in the 1990s and first decade of the new millennium, the pair discovered. Some of the drawbacks focused on the financial burdens caused by children. Others noted how parents sacrificed much of their own lives to make things better for their children.
"Now that our last is off to college, could you tell me who the hell you are?" a father asks his wife in a cartoon from 2000.
In a 1996 cartoon, a dad tells his son, "Your mother and I think it's time you got a place of your own. We'd like a little time alone before we die."
Cartoons extolling the benefits of having kids appeared in every decade, but peaked during the Baby Boom years following World War II.
"You'll see the least-critical cartoons in the '40s and '50s," Tabor says. Those decades showed lots of cartoons featuring parents proud of children's accomplishments, such as playing a musical instrument or getting good grades in school. The 1970s and '80s also saw an uptick in cartoons that were more positive about child rearing. The 1960s featured cartoons showing the positives and negatives for parents.
"The way we conceptualized teenagers changes in the late 1950s," Tabor says, noting that movies such as the 1955 classic, "Rebel Without a Cause" starring James Dean, focused on society's changing view of those turbulent teenage years.
The way we perceive parenthood is reflected in fertility rates.
"Our data suggest that when cultural standards increase child-rearing's degree of difficulty, and especially when parents are judged harshly for failing to meet those cultural standards, the decision to become a parent becomes a much more difficult one," the study concludes. "Faced with these mounting pressures, would-be parents feel compelled to either keep up or opt out. And as more parents opt out, society sees an increase in the number of individuals and families who decide to be 'child-free.'"
But every decade's cartoons depicted the good along with the bad. Calarco, 32, and her husband, Dan McCrory, are parents to an 18-month-old daughter named Layla. Tabor and her husband, Grey Lyman, are parents to a 2-year-old son, Beau, and a 5-month-old daughter, Rose. Their study gives them a better perspective on their own families.
"It's reassuring to know all the joys and challenges are not unique to our situation," Calarco says. And Tabor notes, "I think I get a lot of the jokes on a deeper level now."