Against Our Cultural Bias Towards the Adults

A recent study on parents who have had same-sex relationships purports to show that their children have measurably worse outcomes than the children of married, stable biological parents.  The study has come in for a lot of wrath, as well as some legitimate criticisms of its methodology and conclusions.

One of the critics is E. J. Graff, a writer who is an advocate of same-sex marriage.  I've generally been impressed with her writing even though she and I are on opposite sides of this issue.  She is raising a point about the methodology and conclusions that I agree with -- that the study doesn't actually prove what the author claims it proves -- but in a way that makes my head spin.
Those aren’t the children of same-sex parents. Those are the children of different-sex parents, one of whom later has some sexual relationship with someone of the same sex, however brief or sustained. The gay dads he’s writing about? Those are men who finally get an adolscence, late in life, after they’ve lied to themselves or others to try to fit in socially because people like Mark Regnerus told them being gay is bad. In our world, those men should never have married women. A healthy society would let them come out young and, if they wanted children, have children with a male partner with whom they could happily remain. 
Emphasis in the original.

I have a serious problem with this way she has framed her point here.  All children are children of different-sex parents.  There is no such thing as a man having children with a male partner.  Whatever else a healthy society may do, a healthy society does not lie to itself about reality.

What happens when a male-male couple 'has children' is that the mother of the child is somehow excluded from the child's life.  She may be involved to some degree, or she may not, but the child doesn't have the day-to-day relationship with his or her mother that a child would have in a household with married biological parents.

It seems to me that the child has a very strong interest in having a loving relationship with both of its biological parents.  They are the two people in the world who are most like the child, after all:  so much of who we are is passed genetically that knowing your parents is an advantage in and of itself.  The better you understand them, and  how they deal with the difficulties they encounter in life, the better prepared you will be to engage in the difficulties life is most likely to throw you.  Even if you don't like your parents, you benefit from knowing them well.

Thus we can see a ranking, from the perspective of the child's interests:  the ideal thing for a child is to be born into a loving, stable heterosexual family in which the child can have a good relationship with both biological parents.  Every other option is less ideal, though we can disagree about whether a family with happy gay partners -- not "parents," though one of them might be -- is better or worse for the child than living in a marriage between unhappy biological parents.  That's the kind of thing that a study might usefully inform, if one is ever done; but it will be a while before it can be done well, since right now the data set is limited.  (I would think you would need to control for a lot of other things to get useful data, though:  income levels, for example, surely affect the outcomes for a family's children.)

Now having children isn't one of those things that you shouldn't do if you can't do it perfectly.  Perfection of the end is the proper way to aim, but it's still better to partially achieve the end than to entirely fail.  Many argue that it is better for children to spend time with their parents than in day care centers, for example, but even if that were conclusively proven it wouldn't mean that no family should have children if they can't avoid using day care.  That would be absurd:  clearly the child obtains a benefit from being born, and more benefits from every day of life.  To deny the child birth is to deny the child every good it will ever have.

That would be like telling a poor family that, since they can't eat steak, they shouldn't eat at all.  It's a ridiculous and absurd notion.  It's better for the child to be born, and have the chance for some happiness.  Besides, the odds aren't everything:  maybe the child will figure out a way to do better than the odds suggest.

For a long time, though, we've been talking about this issue as if the happiness of the parents was the paramount issue in how we think about questions of marriage and divorce.  Whatever else the study did, it at least put the focus back where it belongs.  Families are about kinship bonds across generations:  the children's interest is at least as important as the parents' interests, even if the child is powerless to defend its interests.  I would argue that the interests of the earlier set of parents is also relevant -- that there is a continuing set of mutual duties between all the involved generations -- but that seems to be an unpopular position these days.  If we can get people to at least change focus to favor the interests of the next generation over the current one, I'll take that as a good start.


tyree said...

Thanks for that. I once mentioned happiness in marriage to my father and he snapped back "What has happiness got to do with it? We hope for happiness for the parents but the happiness of the children is what it paramount."

Grim said...

Hooah, Tyree. My respects to your father, as well.

Anonymous said...

My parents warned sibling and spouse that when Junior arrived, sib needed to remember that the marriage began before the child, and if the marriage was to continue past the child, they needed to take time for themselves and to beware of all the trendy pressure to do "attachment parenting." (Context: spouse-in-law got all sorts of very well-meaning and very bad advice from co-workers about being a "real parent.") Perhaps keeping the marriage happy and tranquil is a good first step towards having happy and emotionally healthy offspring.


Dad29 said...

...clearly the child obtains a benefit from being born, and more benefits from every day of life....

To quote the third answer from the Baltimore Catechism: "God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven."

It is often forgotten, but nonetheless true: GOD made us, in partnership with our biological parents. "Happiness" is not (properly) defined in 'human' terms.

Do not allow others to frame the argument incorrectly!

Texan99 said...

I don't know any children who were raised by gay parents. I do know many who were raised by stepparents, though, including myself, and although that relationship obviously doesn't always have to be a disaster, I would say that it always adds a layer of considerable difficulty. It's not just that the biological parents are more similar to a biological child, but that there's a strong instinct that promotes bonding with a biological child and that is partially if not wholly absent with a step-child. Can the difficulty be overcome? Sure, there are exceptional people who make very fine adoptive parents or step-parents. But it's not a trivial difficulty.

In a gay couple, at least one parent, if not both, is guaranteed to be a step-parent. It's one reason I often look at gay-marriage issues in the same light that I view divorce controversies. It's been fashionable for many decades now to pretend that you can change out parents like electronic components, without facing the real difficulties that ensue.

Parents die, and sometimes we have to face huge challenges in finding substitute parents for the kids. But it's not such a great idea to set things up so that we face that task a whole lot more often than we have to.

tyree said...

Texan 99 - "It's been fashionable for many decades now to pretend that you can change out parents like electronic components, without facing the real difficulties that ensue."
In a world where "family" can be redefined weekly, some people are forever tinkering with who the "family" is and isn't instead of learning how to make one work.
Little Red 1 - Agreed. In our case "attachment parenting" was definitely not a problem. My father's remarks were focused more on people who ended their marriages when the road got bumpy. We knew plenty of families back then who dealt with really difficult problems for decades, but stayed together for the children and thus focused on the well being of the innocents. In most of those cases, the couples stayed together and in many of them, they grew closer than ever before. We had an exceptional childhood and my parents and their friends worked hard to make it that way. My father expected my wife and I should make the same effort. My children have told me that my wife and I succeeded.

Grim said...

LR1 --

One thing the study does appear to show is that children from families that remained together did better than other kinds of children studied. But "remained together" doesn't just mean 'while the kids were there' -- families that separated after the children left home had offspring that also suffered.

Thus, the two ends are quite compatible in this case. It's good for the children that you find a way to be happy with their other parent.

Anonymous said...

I think E J Graff's point is that the group being studied is skewed toward adulterers who have inflicted enormous emotional damage on both the mothers and the children before they (allegedly) settled down with a male partner.

If the family histories were limited to a less harmful scenario, if for example these gay dads became dads by adopting needy children, so that the family is not burdened with harsh lessons of betrayal by the father, then it will have been fewer horrible memories for the children.


Grim said...

Right. That is the point I agree with -- she seems to be quite correct about that. It's the way she framed her point that strikes me as being problematic; in fact, it may be as big a conceptual problem as the one she's trying to correct.