Are The Kids Really All Right?
An overview of current research on mom/dad families as compared to same-sex homes.
There has been quite a bit dust kicked up lately about whether boys and girls really need mothers and fathers. We have this silly Annette Benning/Julianne Moore movie of the two quirky lesbians raising two emerging adult children, then Judge Vaugh Walker in striking down California's Prop 8 pronounces with absolute confidence that "studies…show conclusively that having parents of different genders is irrelevant to child outcomes" and now Hollywood starlet turned child development specialist Jennifer Anniston says women "don't have to fiddle with a man to have that child." Anyone over 12 want to field that one?
And much of the mainstream media – who get paid to ask the tough questions - just seems to take it all in without the slightest question. But is human biology and experience changing right under our feet? Is it really true that mothers and fathers are really merely optional and only sentimental for children? If these folks are to be believed, mothering and father really ends in any practical sense at egg or sperm donation, thus reducing men and woman as parents to their reproductive material.
But rest assure, if you want to base your conclusions in such matters on biological, social science, psychological and even anthropological research, nothing could be further from the truth. Let's take a brief tour through some of the highlights of this literature.
<!--[if I. Lesbian Parenting Studies Ignore the Larger Body of Research
First, the existing research on kids being raised in same-sex homes centers solely on lesbian headed homes and this research is plagued by serious methodological problems which we address next. But none of the lesbian studies published to date make any reference or use of the immense body of existing research conducted over the last three decades on how family change and formation impacts the vast array of child outcomes.
The leading and non-partisan child advocacy organization, Child Trends, examining the question of how family structure impacts child wellbeing, concludes:
An extensive body of research tells us that children do best when they grow up with both biological parents in a low-conflict marriage… Thus, it is not simply the presence of two parents, as some have assumed, but the presence of two biological parents that seem to support child development.1 (emphasis in original)
The more center-left Center for Law and Social Policy examined the same question on family status and child wellbeing, including same-sex families. They report:
Over the past 20 years, a body of research has developed on how changes in patterns of family structure affect children. Most researchers now agree that together these studies support the notion that, on average, children do better when raised by two married, biological parents who have low-conflict relationships. 2
A diverse team of family scholars working collectively from the Universities of Texas, Virginia, Minnesota, Chicago, Maryland, Washington, California at Berkeley, and Rutgers University recently reviewed the existing literature and report that children who live with their married parents live longer, healthier lives, both physically and mentally, do better in school, are more likely to graduate and attend college. They are less likely to live in poverty, be in trouble with the law, drink or do drugs, be violent or sexually active, or be victims of sexual or physical violence. These children are also more likely to have successful marriage when they are older compared to children who don't live with both married, biological parents.3
<!--[if II. Current Research on Same-Sex Parenting is Too Weak To Draw Reliable Conclusions
William Meezan and Jonathan Rauch, two strong supporters of same-sex marriage, have provided perhaps the most recent review of the research on how same-sex parenting could impact children. In their fair and careful article — published jointly by Princeton University and the Brookings Institute — they could only recommend four studies out of the total body of current research examining same-sex parenting as "methodologically rigorous." Elsewhere in their article, they conclude, "In other words, virtually no empirical evidence exists on how same-sex parents' marriage might affect their children."4
The research published since their review of the literature has not improved the situation at all really. As stated earlier, nearly all the research published to date on same-sex child-rearing is conducted on lesbian homes of largely white, middle-class moms in larger urban areas, using mothers who have volunteered to participate in such studies or were gained through their use of sperm banks.5
Two studies were published in 2010 in respectable research journals merit close examination. This first study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family belittles the topic itself as a baseless political devise to incite division.
The entrenched conviction that children need both a mother and a father inflames culture wars…Research to date, however, does not support this claim. Contrary to popular belief, studies have not shown that 'compared to all other family forms, families headed by married, biological parents are best for children.' Research has not identified gender-exclusive parenting abilities (with the partial exception of lactation). …At this point, no research supports the widely held conviction that the gender of parents matters for child well-being. 6
This study compares the literature on children raised in same-sex homes with a small fraction of the literature of those raised in heterosexual two-parent homes. They admit that the studies on the heterosexual homes are methodologically "relatively stronger" national representative samples, while those on lesbian parenting are "somewhat weaker" snowball samples.7
This in itself should cause anyone with a cursory knowledge of research methodology to conclude that nearly nothing can be concluded by comparing the two types of samples. Professor Mark Regnarus, a research sociologist at University of Texas at Austin explains the qualitative difference between these two methods:
The bottom line is that snowball samples are nice for undergrads to learn about data collection, but hardly high-quality when you're a professional sociologist working on a complex research question with significant public ramifications. It's not fair, not even close, to compare parenting and child outcomes from a national probability sample of hetero parents and a snowball sample of lesbian parents.8
The key problem with snowball is you're more likely to get your friends/peers (who are like you) involved. They won't therefore be "average" parents which is what the national probability sample delivers and reliable research requires.
But this doesn't prevent the authors from dampening the claims they say their research uncovered.
<!--[if III. The Biblarz/Stacey Journal of Marriage and Family (2010) Study
Not only does this study claim that children raised by two mothers do just as well as children raised by a mother and father, they go much further. The claim,
In fact, based strictly on the social science, one could argue that two women parent better on average than a man and a woman, or at least a woman and man with a traditional division of labor.9
Just try to take such a statement seriously. Nature and nature's God has had us settle for these sub-par mother/family families all these millennia. The authors claim this superior value in lesbian families is because two mothers provide "a double dose of caretaking, communication, and intimacy."10 Reading it twice doesn't make it sound any more intelligent.
Greater Volatility Between Two Moms - But this "double-dose" of mother care which is supposedly so good for children can be, the authors admit, toxic to the relationship causing these homes to break-up at disturbingly high rates.
"…a double-dose of maternal investment sometimes fostered jealousy and competition between comothers which the asymmetry of the women's genetic, reproductive, and breast-feeding ties to their infant could exacerbate."11
They cite one major comparative study between hetero and lesbian homes where, in the 5-year period of the study, 6 of the 14 lesbian-mother-headed homes had broken up compared to only 5 of the 38 mom/dad headed homes. This is explained because the "comparatively high standards lesbians bring to their intimate unions correlate with higher dissolution rates." 12 So these moms have trouble maintaining relationships simply because they love too much.
But these scholars fail to make any mention of how the break-up of a parental relationship profoundly impacts children in negative ways.
<!--[if IV. The Gartrell/Bos Pediatrics Study
The second study was appeared June 2010 in the journal Pediatrics – published by the American Academy of Pediatrics – found as well that kids do better with two moms:
"According to their mothers' reports, the 17-year-old daughters and sons of lesbian mothers were rated significantly higher in social, school/academic, and total competence and significantly lower in social problems, rule-breaking, aggressive and externalizing problem behavior than their age-matched counterparts in [a] normative sample of American Youth." 13 (emphasis added)
And that when their moms broke up, it has no effect on the children whatsoever:
"Within the lesbian family sample, no…differences were found among adolescent offspring…whose mothers were still together and offspring whose mothers had separated." 14
If this data is to be believed, this means that lesbian homes are now the new super-homes for kids!
First, apparently children raised by two lesbian moms do better than kids in heterosexual parents at receiving the good and avoiding the bad in life. Wow!
Second, even if a child's two moms split, these kids seem to be completely unaffected, Teflon-like, by this dramatic family change! This is in dramatic contrast to what mountains of research has consistently found when children's mothers and fathers end their relationships; the negative impact upon children is significant both in degree and duration.
Are we really to believe that we disadvantage children by giving them fathers as active participants in their lives, rather than minimally as sperm-donors?
More Serious Methodology Problems - The methodological problems in this second study are also clear to the casual reader. In this latest study, the data was collected on only 78 children through the mothers' self-reporting on their child's welfare. The study explains it used snowball samples also - mothers recruited by volunteering for the study (rather than randomly selected) via announcements at "lesbian events, women's bookstores, and in lesbian newspapers throughout metropolitan areas of Boston, Washington DC and San Francisco."15
So these were mothers from more urban and suburban areas, participants in ideological lesbian-thought culture and therefore, likely highly motivated study participants, evidenced by a remarkable and very uncommon 93% retention rate over the life of the study.
Is it possible these mothers, knowing they were participating in something called the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS) could have felt inclined to be overly positive in their self-reporting? That could be one explanation for the startling and incongruent finding that children with lesbian parents face no negative impact when their mothers' break-up.
These two recent studies cannot be relied for any trustworthy conclusion, and therefore contribute nothing helpful to the current body of weak literature on same-sex parenting.
<!--[if V. Fathers Do Matter
There has been an absolute wealth of research on how important fathers are for healthy child development over the past 40 years.
In an analysis of over 100 studies on parent-child relationships, it was found that having a loving and nurturing father was as important for a child's happiness, well-being, and social and academic success as having a loving and nurturing mother. These authors explain:
Much of this evidence suggests that the influence of father love on offspring's development is as a great as and occasionally greater than the influence of mother love. …Overall, father love appears to be as heavily implicated as mother love in offsprings' psychological well-being and health, as well as in an array of psychological and behavioral problems.16
Confident Problem Solvers - Another study, published in the journal Child Development, looking at "Fatherhood in the Twenty-First Century" speaks to important and unique contributions fathers make to their children such as encouraging children to become more confident, safe risk-takers, more empathetic and better problem-solvers concludes that father's "absence from their families will have dire consequences for their children's development."17
Empathy Development - Probably the most sophisticated study on how empathy is developed in children, initiated in the mid-1950s and the conclusions published in 1990 found the strong influence fathers have on children developing a sense of concern and compassion was "quite astonishing." The research found that the strongest factor in impacting whether or not children demonstrated greater levels of empathic concern in their 30s and beyond was father's participation in child-care. The study's authors explain that this factor of paternal child-care was in fact stronger than the three strongest maternal factors combined. The 26-year-long study concludes with the recognition, "These results appear to fit with previous findings indicating that pro-social behaviors such as altruism and generosity in children were related to active involvement in child care by fathers."18
Language and Smarts- Another 2004 study on the effect of father ‘s play involvement on 2- and 3-year olds' language and cognitive development found "direct and indirect effects of fathering on child development" in these important areas.19
General Well-Being- In a review of studies on father involvement and child well-being published since 1980, it is explained that 82% of these studies found "significant associations between positive father involvement and offspring well-being…"20
Educational Development- Data published in the European Journal of Psychology of Education, in looking that the role fathers and mothers play in the educational developmental of children finds that "fathers in two-parent households indeed affect their children's development in diverse and significant ways."21
Early Infancy Development- Michael Yogman conducted a study of the role fathering plays in overcoming the effects of prematurity in Latino, African-American and other inner-city populations. When he followed up with these preemies at three years of age, Yogman found that kids with highly involved fathers had substantially higher cognitive skills than those children who didn't have involved fathers. 22
"Children with an involved father are exposed to more varied social experiences and are more intellectually advanced than those who only have regular contact with their mother. Well-fathered children have a greater breadth of positive social experiences than those exclusively reared by mothers."
Pioneering child development scholar
Henry B. Biller,
Fathers and Families: Paternal Factors in Child Development
<!--[if VI. Brain Research Shows Big Mother/Father Differences
The past two decades have been remarkably rich and fruitful decades in the study of the complexity of the human brain. And the more sophisticated this brain research becomes, the more we continue to learn that men and women are very different in very deep and meaningful ways. Their brains are different from before birth.
One of the first more popular books on the subject is Dr. Anne Moir and David Jessel's Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men & Women. They explain in the first line of their book that men and woman are indeed different, equal only in their dual membership in humankind warning that "to maintain that they are the same in aptitude, skill or behavior is to build a society based on a biological and scientific lie." 23
They wisely warn,
[T]he truth is that virtually every professional scientist and research into the subject has concluded that that brains of men and women are different. There has seldom been a greater divide between what intelligent, enlightened opinion presumes – that men and women have the same brain – and what science knows – that they do not. [So], it is time cease the vain contention that men and women are created the same. They were not, and no amount of idealism or Utopian fantasy can alter the fact. It can only strain the relationships between the sexes. 24
Other books like Deborah Blum's Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences Between Men & Woman (Penguin, 1997) and Doreen Kimura's Sex and Cognition, (MIT Press, 2000) delve deep in explaining what science is still discovering in brain, neural and hormonal differences in the genders. Kimura opens her book with a quote by Kenneth H.W. Hilborn, Professor Emeritus at the University of Western Ontario:
When science ignores facts in favour of ideology…it ceases to be science and becomes propaganda for a dogma.
And the most significant recent contribution to this area of knowledge is in the work of Louann Brizendine M.D. a neurobiologist from the University of California, San Francisco. She has written two excellent and well-researched books, The Female Brain (Broadway, 2007, translated into 14 languages) and her new The Male Brain (Broadway, 2010). In the Female Brain, Brizendine tells the experience of a mom determined to raise her daughter in a gender-neutral way,
One of my patients gave her three-and-a-half old daughter many unisex toys, including a bright red fire truck instead of a doll. She walked into her daughter's room one afternoon to find her cuddling the truck in a baby blanket, rocking it back and forth saying, "Don't worry little truckie, everything will be all right."
This isn't socialization. This little girl didn't cuddle her "truckie" because her environment molded her unisex brain. There is no unisex brain. She was born with a female brain, which came complete with its own impulses. Girls arrive already wired as girls, and boys arrive already wired as boys. Their brains are different by the time they are born, and their brains are what drive their impulses, values and their very reality. 25
What this growing body of research teaches us is that, in human experience and cultures, there really is something distinct and important called womanhood. There is also something important and distinct called manhood. And the two, as two halves of humanity, have much in common. But they also have much that is different, and so in important ways. And Alice Rossi told the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in 1983 in her Presidential Address to their annual convention:
"Men bring their maleness to parenting, as women bring their femaleness."26
And children have always needed the parenting of both, and they always will.
<!--[if VII. Anthropology
Anthropology, the study of how humans develop, form and live their lives together has long examined how family forms develop in various cultures throughout history. They find that motherhood and fatherhood – the participation of married male and female parents in the lives of their children – are parts of all human cultures, primitive and developed, ancient and modern.
In her book, Male and Female, anthropologist Margaret Mead explains the fundamental nature of husbandry and fatherhood in human cultures. She explains,
When we survey all known human societies, we find everywhere some form of the family, some set of permanent arrangements by which males assist females in caring for children while they are young… In every known human society, everywhere in the world, the young male learns that when he grows up, one of the things he must do in order to be a full member of society is to provide food for some female and her young. [E]very know human society rests firmly on the learned nurturing behavior of men.27
Celebrated anthropologist Ward H. Goodenough, in his Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures at the University of Rochester, explained:
"Thus seen, marriage is a contractual union of a man and a woman and involves sexual privilege, economic cooperation, cohabitation, the production of children, and responsibility for the children's care, socialization, and education. Marriage…a union of a man and woman in which they are the jural father and mother of the children.. [M]arriage establishes the jural basis for a group consisting of a man, a woman, and their children…"28
"All known human societies recognize the existence of the sexual pair-bond and give it formal sanction in the form of marriage. With only a handful of exceptions presently to be examined, married pairs are not only expected to copulate with each other, but to cooperate in the raising of offspring and to extend to each other material help. …[M]arriage is nevertheless the cultural codification of a biological program."29
Donald Brown, a leading anthropologist in the area of human universals, found:
The universality of kinship terminologies provides a further case of cultural reflection or recognition of cultural fact. A kinship terminology is…found among every people, in which domain most or all terms are translatable by the terms required for sexual reproduction, or combinations of them: father, mother, son, daughter… Accordingly, the father and mother of an individual are normally husband and wife.30
<!--[if VIII. Conclusion
It is either dishonest or badly uninformed to say that married mothers and fathers don't matter for children. The emerging research lesbian do not prove this in any way. The social sciences and the brain research shows that men and women are different in very meaningful and profound ways. And these differences are not only needed in creating new life, but raising that new life to healthy maturity as young men and women.
And this is also shown in the rich and diverse experience of human cultures throughout history. Husbands and wives becoming mothers and fathers and raising their children in committed marital relationships transcends culture, race and religion. It is a human ideal.
And those intellectual, legal and political activists who seek to explain it away have only their wishes and twisting of fact and experience to stand on.
Originally published June 2010
© 2010 Focus on the Family.