Study: Sex of Parent not Important When it Comes to Parenting Skills

As I promised in my piece about Pamela Paul’s article in The Atlantic Monthly, here is what I have to say about the analysis that made up the basis for much of her piece. As I said, Paul didn’t hesitate to leave out major caveats about the analysis and draw vastly illogical conclusions from the rest. But the study itself is fascinating for its own misandric concepts and assumptions. Here it is (Journal of Marriage and the Family, February, 2010).

It’s by Timothy Biblarz and Judith Stacey. They announce their intention to fill in gaps in existing research.

[Previous] research, however, did not compare children in married-couple homes with children raised by same-sex couples. Moreover, too often it compared children inmarried-couple and single parent families, thereby confounding the effects of number of parents with those of their marital history. None of this research investigated whether the gender of the absent parent was responsible for different child outcomes in single- versus two-parent families. Nonetheless, consequential policy decisions rest on the view that ‘‘[f]ew propositions have more empirical support in the social sciences than this one: Compared to all other family forms, families headed by married, biological parents are best for children”” (Popenoe, quoted in Center for Marriage and Families, 2006, p. 1).


Surprisingly few studies examined how the gender, as distinct from the number, marital status, sexual orientation, or biogenetic relationship of parents, affects children. No study attempted to isolate the variable of parental gender by holding constant these other factors. No research compared planned parenting by couples composed of women only, men only, or a woman and a man.

So they embark on attempting to figure out, from existing research, whether any conclusions can be drawn about the sex of the parent and that parent’s effectiveness as a parent. The answer is that they can’t. Toward the end of their analysis, they quote two researchers as saying that generally, the sex of the parent isn’t important when it comes to parental skills.

To get to that point, they spend most of their time looking at research on lesbian mothers and conclude that they do a good job of parenting – perhaps better than heterosexual couples. I’m all for gay men and lesbian women being parents, but Biblarz and Stacey both admit and then overlook certain factors that militate against the conclusion they want to draw.

First, there’s precious little research into lesbian parents and even less into gay male parents. For example, truly longitudinal studies that follow lesbian-raised children well into adulthood are, to my knowledge, nonexistant. The research just hasn’t been going on that long.

Second, as the authors admit, the lesbian couples studied were mostly white and relatively affluent. So the fact that couples were studied (not single parents), and that they tended to bring high levels of financial resources to the job means that they can’t be compared to studies of representative samples of straight couples. That alone renders the authors’ conclusion that lesbians make as good or better parents as straight couples questionable at best. Again, they admit the problem with the samples and then forget about it.

What they likewise admit and then forget is that the lesbian couples studied had markedly higher rates of “marital” dissolution than did the straight couples. In one British study, for example, six out of 14 lesbian couples had split up by the end of the study period while only five of 38 heterosexual couples had. Surely Biblarz and Stacey understand the deliterious effects that parental breakup can have on children. But they skip over that.

And they also admit and then forget findings that show that lesbian couples tend to have higher levels of parental conflict than do heterosexual couples. As we well know, conflict within marriage can effect children badly and children of lesbian couples are likely not exempt from the phenomenon. But Biblarz and Stacey look past that. Again, that’s probably because there aren’t any long-term studies of large groups of children that can throw any light on the subject. Still, that’s no reason to ignore the obvious possibilities, which the authors do.

In order to reach their preferred conclusion about lesbian parents, Biblarz and Stacey resort to an interesting tactic. They ignore child welfare and focus on parental behavior. Therefore, we’re told that lesbian parents tend to share parenting more equally than do heterosexual parents, that they score higher on tests of parenting awareness skills, that they were less likely to use corporal punishment, set strict limits on their children or try to elicit social (and gender) conformity.

Again, the women studied are not a representative sample. They’re all in couples and have more financial resources than the couples they’re being compared to. But equally important is the question “while lesbian parents may behave well toward their children, how does that affect child wellbeing?” The answer is that neither we, nor the authors can answer that most pertinent of questions. Their approach is to assume that the parental behaviors described do create good results in children. But they don’t know, because there’s little-to-no data on the subject. The gold standard of parenting is what works for children, and when it comes to lesbian and gay parents, we just don’t have much information on the long term effects of their parenting.

That brings us to the truly loony part of their analysis.

It seems that, for example, gay male parents do a pretty good job of caring for children, although there’s not a lot of data on the matter. It also seems that straight single fathers do much more parenting than married fathers do, are more involved with their children’s daily lives, are less remote, more knowledgeable, etc. (That’s probably because the maternal gatekeeper phenomenon doesn’t exist for single dads.)

The kicker is that Biblarz and Stacey describe male parenting of the sort done by single fathers and gay fathers as “maternal.” In other words, when men take an active parenting role, they cease to be fathers and become mothers. The blatant misandry of that seems lost on them, but it’s not on the rest of us.

The fact that, in their worldview, the word ‘father’ not only doesn’t connote but cannot connote a hands-on, nurturing parent is more than just bizarre, though it’s certainly that. It’s also misandric; it refuses to admit that any but a mother can be a good parent. I wonder what they’d call an abusive, neglectful mother. To be consistent with their own biases, I guess they’d have to call her ‘dad.’

Adding to the strangeness of the whole thing is the authors’ insistence throughout their article on criticizing “gender chauvinism” and lauding parents (such as lesbian parents) who teach their children to embrace non-traditional notions of the sexes and sex roles. Having done that for page after page, Biblarz and Stacey then reverse course and refuse to do exactly that when it comes to dads. The simple concept that males are capable of great nurturing, tenderness and caring for children, not because they’re women but because they’re men, escapes them entirely.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *