Another Gay Parenting Study Finds Children Do Best With Mom and Dad; Will the Supreme Court Care?

Protesters against gay marriage shout slogans in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, March 26, 2013.
Protesters against gay marriage shout slogans in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, March 26, 2013. | (Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

The largest study so far on gay parenting, published this month, shows that children do best when raised by their mom and dad. While the U.S. Supreme Court has already signaled a willingness to redefine marriage to include same-sex unions for every state, it has also demonstrated a concern for how their decision will affect children.

The study, "Emotional Problems among Children with Same-Sex Parents: Difference by Definition," was conducted by sociologist Donald Sullins and published in the February issue of the British Journal of Education, Society & Behavioural Science.

Using several different data sets, including some from the U.S. government, Sullins compiled a representative sample of 207,007 children, including 512 with same-sex parents.

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Eight of 12 psychometric measures used in the study showed that children with same-sex parents experienced more distress than children of opposite-sex parents. The results were "clear, statistically significant," and "of substantial magnitude," after controlling for age, sex, race, education and income. For four of the measures of emotional and behavioral problems, children raised by same-sex parents were at least twice as likely to experience difficulties compared to children raised by opposite-sex parents.

Supporters of same-sex parenting might argue that the results are due to discrimination against gays, or that the children of the same-sex parents were likely adopted and were experiencing the same difficulties as all adopted children. The data, however, does not support these hypotheses.

The children of same-sex parents were not more likely to get picked on and bullied. In fact, contrary to conventional wisdom, they were slightly less likely to be picked on and bullied than the children of opposite-sex parents, though the difference was within the margin of error.

Additionally, most of the children of same-sex parents in the sample had a biological connection to at least one of the parents, and overall the children of same-sex parents fared worse than the children of other family arrangements that were not opposite-sex biological, such as single parents, step-parents and unmarried co-habiting parents.

Adopted children were at higher risk of emotional problems overall, but the risk was twice as high for same-sex adoptive parents as opposite-sex adoptive parents. However, the author cautioned against drawing conclusions from this result because there were few adopted children in the sample.

Sullins did find, though, that a biological parent-child connection helped explain the differences between same-sex and opposite-sex parents. Since two women or two men are incapable of having a child together, at least one parent will not be a biological parent. Opposite-sex households, on the other hand, can have both biological parents, one biological parent or no biological parent.

When controlling for a biological connection (along with the other control variables), there was no difference between children of same-sex parents and children in other family arrangements where both biological parents were present. This means that the connection with both biological parents is, in a sense, an explanatory variable for the health and well-being of children, even though it technically cannot be called an explanatory variable because it is assumed in the definition of same-sex parenting (all same-sex parents exclude at least one biological parent by design).

"The reduced risk of child emotional problems with opposite-sex married parents compared to same-sex parents," Sullins concluded, "is explained almost entirely by the fact that married opposite-sex parents tend to raise their own joint biological offspring, while same-sex parents never do this. The primary benefit of marriage for children, therefore, may not be that it tends to present them with improved parents (more stable, financially affluent, etc., although it does do this), but that it presents them with their own parents."

Same-sex parenting is central to the current public policy debate over gay marriage. While gay marriage supporters argue the debate is over equality, traditional marriage supporters argue it is about the rights of children. While many relationships of various number and gender composition can have positive personal and social goods, the only relationship that government has an interest in recognizing is marriage because of its connection to the raising of children, the argument goes. Understanding which parenting arrangement is best for children is, therefore, important for this argument.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, the likely swing vote in this Summer's Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, has already signaled that the well-being of children is an important consideration.

"There are some 40,000 children in California ... that live with same-sex parents, and they want their parents to have full recognition and full status. The voice of those children is important in this case, don't you think?" he said during oral arguments for a previous gay marriage case.

There have been previous studies showing either there is no difference between same-sex and opposite-sex parents, or that gay parents actually make better parents. Those studies, however, had numerous methodological issues, such as using small, non-probability samples, or measuring the well-being of the children by asking the parents.

In discussing the public policy implications of his study, Sullins wrote, "Whether or not same-sex families attain the legal right, as opposite-sex couples now have, to solemnize their relationship in civil marriage, the two family forms will continue to have fundamentally different, even contrasting, effects on the biological component of child well-being, to the relative detriment of children in same-sex families. Functionally, opposite-sex marriage is a social practice that, as much as possible, ensures to children the joint care of both biological parents, with the attendant benefits that brings; same-sex marriage ensures the opposite."

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