The Research So Far: Mom + Dad Still Best For Kids

By William C. Duncan

In past decades, a large body of research has developed focused on the question of what family structures are most likely to promote child well-being. The basic consensus — based on comparisons of children raised by married biological parents, single parents, divorced parents, stepparents, etc. — is that children fare best, on average, when raised by their own biological parents in a stable marriage.

More recently, a different body of research suggests that this consensus would not apply if the population being compared were children raised by same-sex couples. In other words, the claim is that children raised by same-sex couples fare no differently than children raised by a biological mother and father. If true, this would be an important finding since the research on stepparenting (the situation most analogous to same-sex couples parenting a child, since at most one member of the couple would be biologically related) would seem to point in a different direction.

Of course, the importance of this finding, if established, would extend beyond the academy since the claim of “no differences” has been relied on by courts that have found that the U.S. or state constitutions require same-sex marriage. Indeed, the Supreme Court’s DOMA opinion seems to rely on this literature by implication in suggesting that children being raised by same-sex couples are harmed by the inability of the couple to claim the status of marriage, rather than inquiring whether any difficulties these children experience may come from separation from one or both biological parents or from a lack of relationship with either a mother or father.

Discordant notes

There has been some serious criticism of the same-sex parenting studies, however, because a number of analysts, representing diverse views on the political implications, have noted problems with sample sizes, non-random samples, poor or nonexistent comparison groups, etc. (See here, here, here, here and here.)

In 2012, Dr. Loren Marks at Louisiana State University published a detailed analysis of the studies relied on by the American Psychological Association for its support of same-sex marriage and found that the flaws in that research were so significant as to seriously call into question the validity of any conclusions derived from it.

Far more interesting was a new study released in the same journal as Dr. Marks’ report which attempted to correct the shortcomings of the previous literature by drawing on a much larger, representative sample, comparing child outcomes on more significant measures, and avoiding the problem of relying on reports of the adults raising the child. This study (and a follow-up study, using different comparison groups in response to critics of the initial research) demonstrated significant increases in problems for children raised by same-sex couples as compared to children raised by married biological or adoptive mothers and fathers.

This study, and to a lesser extent similar studies (here and here and here) suggesting children raised by same-sex couples don’t fare as well as children raised by married mothers and fathers, have been subjected to a firestorm of attacks (see also here, here, and here), including much ad hominem rhetoric and an apparently unprecedented and certainly highly unusual campaign of harassment and intimidation.

New studies

Now, three new studies by sociologist Paul Sullins, who teaches at the Catholic University of America, add to the data that seem to undermine the claim of “no differences.”

The first article sets out to explain the discrepancy in the results reported by the studies finding “no difference” (the elite orthodoxy) and the studies demonstrating differences. To do this, Dr. Sullins compares two studies that used the same questionnaire to determine whether children of same-sex couples show increased emotional problems compared to children raised by opposite-sex parents. One of the studies, a study from Australia (highly promoted in the media) used a sample who were recruited as volunteers to participate. The other study, based on the U.S. National Health Interview Survey, had a sample that was representative of the population. The result: “On the NHIS, SS [same-sex couple] children have higher emotional problems than do OS [opposite-sex couple] children on every measure, a difference that is statistically significant for five of the six domains. On ACHESS [Australian study], SS children have lower emotional problems than do OS children on every measure except one; the difference is statistically significant for emotional problems.” The study seems to suggest that the discrepancy can be explained by the bias introduced by using volunteer data. “Since all of the unambiguously random sample data on emotional problems was examined in the course of this analysis, the findings also make a strong substantive point: to date, no representative population data have found lower emotional problems among children with same sex parents. Every random sample has observed higher emotional problems among such children; where the sample was large enough, those differences were statistically significant.”

The second study uses a representative sample of 207,007 children (which includes 512 children raised by same-sex couples) to examine how children raised by same-sex couples compare on experiencing emotional problems. He finds:

Emotional problems were over twice as prevalent (minimum risk ratio (RR) 2.4, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.7-3.0) for children with same-sex parents than for children with opposite-sex parents. Risk was elevated in the presence of parent psychological distress (RR 2.7, CI 1.8-4.3, p (t) < .001), moderated by family instability (RR 1.3, CI 1.2-1.4) and unaffected by stigmatization (RR 2.4, CI 1.4-4.2), though these all had significant direct effects on emotional problems. However, biological parentage nullified risk alone and in combination with any iteration of factors. Joint biological parents are associated with the lowest rate of child emotional problems by a factor of 4 relative to same-sex parents, accounting for the bulk of the overall same-sex/opposite-sex difference.

Dr. Sullins concludes:

Joint biological parentage, the modal condition for opposite-sex parents but not possible for same-sex parents, sharply differentiates between the two groups on child emotional problem outcomes. The two groups are different by definition. Intact opposite sex marriage ensures children of the persistent presence of their joint biological parents; same-sex marriage ensures the opposite.

The final study uses the same sample and looks specifically at the prevalence of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. It found:

ADHD was more than twice (OR 2.4, 95% CL 1.6-3.4) as prevalent among children with same-sex parents than in the general population, after controlling for age, sex, ethnicity and parent SES [socioeconomic status]. Comorbidities with general emotional problems and defiance behavior were standard. ADHD risk with same-sex parents was reduced among adopted children (OR 0.54 95% CL .27-1.1), null in the presence of parent psychological distress, and substantially elevated in the presence of stigmatization (OR 7.3 95% CL 1.4-38.1). In same-sex families, children with ADHD were over seven times (OR 7.5 95% CL 1.2-46.8) more likely to suffer stigmatization due to impaired interpersonal coping skills.[*]

Of course, sociological data won’t tell us everything and we will surely learn more from many more studies conducted over a long period of time (assuming they are allowed to occur). But for now, the previous consensus — that children benefit from being raised by their own mother and father — still seems pretty secure.

[*] This last point is crucial and points to the need to address the serious problems bullying causes for children. On this, the study notes: “The strongest finding was that stigmatization (or perceived stigmatization) was associated with substantially increased risk of ADHD, which independently added to the risk due to having same-sex parents. Children with same-sex parents are not bullied more often than those with opposite-sex parents (OS = 19.2%, CL 19-20; SS = 15.1%, CL 8-26), but the bullying they experience is much more likely (OR 3.6 CL 2-7) to be associated with ADHD. Almost six in ten (59%, 95% CL 28-84) children in same-sex families who are bullied have been diagnosed with ADHD.”


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