Gendering Parenthood Studies

03/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Who parents "best"? This post follows up on Exemplary parenting, same-sex style.

A new review of several dozen parenting studies attempts to assess the popular claims that married, biological, two-parent families are "best" for children. This conclusion is a familiar mantra, repeated by pundits, politicians and scholars alike. And it is based on evidence. But that evidence is mostly from comparisons of married-couple families with single-mother families. The authors of the new review, sociologists Timothy Biblarz and Judith Stacey, examine outcomes such as behavioral problems, psychological adjustment, and closeness of parents and children.

Or, why is the baby really crying?

They argue:

Current claims that children need both a mother and father are spurious because they attribute to the gender of parents benefits that correlate primarily with the number and marital status of a child's parents since infancy. At this point no research supports the widely held conviction that the gender of parents matters for child well-being. To ascertain whether any particular form of family is ideal would demand sorting a formidable array of often inextricable family and social variables. We predict that even "ideal" research designs will find instead that ideal parenting comes in many different genres and genders.

For example, have any studies actually compared parenting among stably married, two-parent families who had planned biological births, to see whether same-sex couples produce different outcomes than male-female couples? In the absence of such studies, the common assumption remains untested.

After combing through the studies - many of them small, based on convenience samples, some larger and including legally-married gay couples (in the Netherlands) - they report that more than three-quarters of the studies find no significant differences in genuine apples-to-apples comparisons of parent gender composition. That is probably the most important conclusion - differences in children's outcomes result more from factors such as economics, relationship history and family disruption than from the gender of parents. Still, they identity some patterns, albeit tentatively:

Evaluating the importance of being parented by both a female and a male parent requires research on families with the same number and status but a different gender mix of parents. Our review of research closest to this design suggests that strengths typically associated with mother-father families appear at least to the same degree in families with two women parents.

That said, two-parent families seem to confer benefits over one-parent families in some indicators. But beyond that, most of the differences have to do with gender, rather than sexual orientation:

Based strictly on the published science, one could argue that two women parent better on average than a woman and a man, or at least than a woman and man with a traditional division of family labor. Lesbian coparents seem to outperform comparable married heterosexual, biological parents on several measures, even while being denied the substantial privileges of marriage. This seems to be attributable partly to selection effects and partly to women on average exceeding men in parenting investment and skills.

Note that they included only studies of lesbian couples who planned to have children together, not the more common cases of women with biological children from straight marriages now parenting with another woman. In the end, they conclude:

Every family form provides distinct advantages and risks for children. Married heterosexual parents confer social legitimacy and relative privilege but often with less paternal involvement. Comothers typically bestow a double dose of caretaking, communication, and intimacy. ... Gay male-parent families remain underresearched, but their daunting routes to parenthood seem likely to select more for strengths than limitations.

The new research follows up on an analysis I have been using in class for years, "(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?" by these authors in 2001. Without reviewing them, I should also note that the Journal of Marriage and Family, which published the study, also published several critical commentaries and a response in the same issue.

One of those responses juxtaposes Biblarz and Stacey's approach with true meta-analyses, which actually aggregate the data from previous small studies to draw more robust statistical inferences. One of these has found, for example, that "No differences were found between children raised by heterosexual or same-sex parents in the following four areas: cognitive development, psychological adjustment, gender identity, or sexual partner preference." The only clear difference that did emerge was positive for gay couples: "nonheterosexual parents on average indicated significantly better relationships with their children than did heterosexual parents."

Good news? Sure. But -- tempting as it is to consider the possibility that "God and nature actually short-changed children by giving them biological parents" (wait, how is it "God and nature"?) -- we should not rush to apply such results to current political and legal debates. Straight male-female couples do not (usually) have to prove to anyone that they are good parents - or that their "kind" are good parents - before being allowed to produce children (adoption is a different story). Which is good. It is better to devote energy and resources to supporting parents and children in whatever kind of family they have than it is to police the type of person or couple that is allowed to raise children. That doesn't mean ignore bad or dangerous parents, but treat those as individual cases rather than impose proscriptive blocks to parenting based on family category.

Cross-posted from the Family Inequality blog.