By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2008
Count this as another busted myth of modern times: In family life, the husband always wields the television remote.
Lately, the wife is just as likely to be changing the channels.
A poll released yesterday by the Pew Research Center showed that 21st century couples share decision making in many aspects of American family life, and nowhere is that equity greater than in front of the household television. The poll found that 27 percent of people say women control the remote; 26 percent say that men do; and 25 percent say the couple decides together.
This change in everyday life could be one small sign of a larger social shift in the last generation, experts say.
"I think the big story over time is the rise in shared decision making," said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University. "It's not the same as the '50s and '60s, where 'father knew best.' "
This was reflected in interviews yesterday with men and women across the region, many of whom noted that family life brings together a combination of lead-taking, choice-making and responsibilities. With much to do and little time, some things are divvied up, and others are shared, they said.
The poll includes the answers of 1,260 people who were married or living together as a couple; it has a margin of error of 3 percent. Overall, the poll reports that in 43 percent of couples, women had the most to say in a combination of four categories: decision making in finances, weekend activities, television choices and big-ticket purchases. Decision making was divided equally for 31 percent of couples, and men took the lead in 26 percent of couples.
Matt McCoy, 55, a machinist and father of two from Derwood, noted that his wife of 32 years keeps track of the checkbook, pays the bills and "did pick out everything for her kitchen." Still, he said, "other things we have decided together."
When it comes to television, though, there are differences. He likes sporting events and old movies. She likes "American Idol" and "Dateline," he said. Often, he will offer to relocate to the bedroom television when his wife wants to watch a program in the family room.
"I think we solve that problem with two televisions," McCoy said.
In Falls Church, Kristin Rodriguez, 42, said that with three young children and a part-time job as a social worker, she tends to have more say in choices of what to spend money on and where to spend weekend days as a family. Her husband works full time at an office.
When he comes home, he often defers to her and the children about television choices, though it helps that they have TiVo to record racing events and football games that he prefers. "I think he's learned to wait for us all to go to bed, and then he can watch what he wants," she said.
In prime-time hours, she handles the remote.
Pew researchers said that the television results could be affected by the fact that families have multiple televisions. They noted that a study by Nielsen Media Research showed that American homes, on average, included more televisions than people.
Cherlin, the Hopkins professor, said he was impressed that so many people who were polled said that their household decisions were jointly made, even though they were not given that choice as an answer to the poll's questions. They volunteered it.
"I'm struck by the fact that, overall, 31 percent of the people said the decision was shared, even though that option was not read to them," he said. "Clearly, there is more sharing than there used to be. There is more variation in who makes the decisions and less of a sense that the home is the man's castle."
One of the most notable results of the poll, he said, was on joint control of household finances. Among men, 37 percent said they controlled finances, with 30 percent saying their partner did and 28 percent saying finances were handled jointly. "I think that's a big change from 50 years ago," Cherlin said. Back then, he said, "some wives didn't even know what their husbands were making." Less surprising, he said, was that women took charge of weekend activities and major household purchases, many of which he said are related to home life.
Krista Atteberry, 41, a Hyattsville mother and city council member, said she sees many women take the initiative and step up as "household managers" amid the complexities of family life, but adds: "I wouldn't say decision maker. I would say decision guider."
But when it comes to television, Atteberry admits that she has turned her husband into a fan of "Project Runway." Many of her female friends also do not easily relinquish control of the remote, she said.
"I think women are just like, 'This is what I want to watch tonight. Give me a break.' "
Whatever a couple's approach to decision making, the Pew poll showed that a strong majority of people -- 80 percent -- are satisfied with their family situation.
For Pat Attridge, 51, a lawyer and father of four who lives in Ashton, that means a shared approach, mostly. But he noted, with some amusement, that there seemed to be one important omission in all of the talk about how decisions are made.
The poll, he said, "doesn't have a category for kids." In his experience, he said, "that's who call the shots."