“You know, I don't think I'm interested,” said Rachel Dunifon, but she said it as politely as any misunderstood researcher could.
This was just seconds into our phone conversation. I'd found her in her office at the University of Michigan, and asked if she had time to speak with me.
“For an interview, you mean?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. Then, trying for a jovially honest ice-breaker, I added: “I'm just another one of those media types who wants to trivialize your research.”
She laughed. But it was a very, very tight little laugh.
“Well, that's what I'm afraid of. There's been a lot of that lately,” said the woman whose findings have been written up this month in practically every newspaper and magazine.
So I leveled with her, then lost her: “Look, I don't want to mislead you. I definitely intend a light-hearted approach to your research.”
Well, gee. It must be maddening to be a serious academic whose work is glibly received by a mainstream media that reduces statistical analyses to nifty headlines. But, heck, even the UM's own PR people did that. Here's the headline and lead paragraph on their news release about Ms. Dunifon's research:
CLEAN HOMES CAN BOOST CHILDREN'S ADULT EDUCATION AND EARNINGS
Ann Arbor - Busy parents thinking about putting off spring cleaning may want to think again. A University of Michigan study shows that the cleanliness of the home children grow up in predicts their educational attainment and earnings more than 25 years later.
Spring cleaning? Are they being ironic? I'm still trying to get ready for the holidays. The ones that ended three months ago.
Serious research, schmerious research. People like me - helplessly disorganized, apologetically messy parents - read a snippet like that, and our instant shame makes us want to hide in the closet.
Except, of course, we can't, because it's so jammed that we couldn't add a scarf, let alone a human. It's one thing to live in, as we prefer to regard it, a “creative” household; but to learn these conditions can curse your child's future brings on a bad case of the guilts.
As it is, I live with a preteen who is annoyingly fond of pointing out how much tidier she is than her parents. Now I've got social science damning me, too. Yipee.
As the UM press release explains (I wanted to discuss it all with the study's author, but - well, you already know that story), Ms. Dunifon and two collaborators analyzed 25 years' worth of data to isolate the effect of home cleanliness on the education and earnings of nearly 3,400 young adults.
Even after adjusting for parental education and income, Ms. Dunifon et al found that young adults who'd been raised in clean homes racked up 13.6 years of schooling, compared with only 12 years of education for those who grew up in not very clean homes. Same thing for wages. On average, June Cleaver's kids earn $3,100 per year more than Roseanne's.
That's almost enough to make any well-intentioned parent spend Saturday morning in search of the vacuum cleaner.
Roberta de Boer's column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays,
and Saturdays. Email her at email@example.com or call 1-419-724-6086.