The assumption that children need both a mother and a father is widespread. It has been used by proponents of Proposition 8 to argue against same-sex marriage and to uphold a ban on same-sex adoption. In 2006, the New York Court of Appeals, ruling against same-sex marriage, found that ‘‘the Legislature could rationally believe that it is better, other things being equal, for children to grow up with both a mother and a father. Intuition and experience suggest that a child benefits from having before his or her eyes, every day, living models of what both a man and a woman are like'' (Justice Robert Smith in Hernandez v. Robles, 2006). To what extent do these rational beliefs, intuition, and experience match the findings from scientific studies?
This is the question addressed by the lead article in the February issue of Journal of Marriage and Family. Extending their prior work on gender and family, Dr. Biblarz and Dr. Stacey of New York University, analyzed relevant studies about parenting, including available research on single-mother and single-father households, gay male parents and lesbian parents. Their review included 30 studies that compared two-parent lesbian couples to heterosexual coparents, 1 compared gay male to heterosexual coparents, and 2 compared lesbian to gay male coparents. They also reviewed 48 studies of single male or female parents.
In their analysis, the researchers found no evidence of gender-based parenting abilities, with the "exception of lactation," noting that very little about the gender of the parent has significance for children's psychological adjustment and social success. They found there are far more similarities than differences among children of lesbian and heterosexual parents. On average, two mothers tended to play with their children more, were less likely to use physical discipline, and were less likely to raise children with chauvinistic attitudes. Studies of gay male families are still limited.
As the researchers write: "The social science research that is routinely cited does not actually speak to the questions of whether or not children need both a mother and a father at home. Instead proponents generally cite research that compares [heterosexual two-parent] families with single parents, thus conflating the number with the gender of parents." So the Court of Appeals was right in saying that children benefit in some ways from the resources that come from having two parents, but their intuition was wrong in believing that those parents had to be of different sexes. Hopefully the California court that is currently considering Prop 8 will follow in the footsteps of the Iowa Supreme Court in relying on scientific reason over intuition.
Biblarz, T. J. & Stacey, J. (2010). How does the gender of parents matter? Journal of Marriage and Family. 72, 3-22.
Photo credit: Stefano Bolognini, June 7 2008.