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“The kids are all right”? Think again

There have been no robust academic studies of gay parenting which prove that it is every bit as good as the traditional family.
Michael Cook | 15 June 2012
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Kids thrive in families with same-sex parents. This is beyond serious debate. The science says so. Get over it.

Denying this self-evident truth has become tantamount to homophobia. In 2010 a Florida court, the Third District Court of Appeal, was certain enough to state complacently that: “based on the robust nature of the evidence available in the field, this Court is satisfied that the issue is so far beyond dispute that it would be irrational to hold otherwise”.

The Big Bertha of the artillery defending gay parenting is the 2005 official brief on same-sex parenting by the American Psychological Association (APA). It declares that “there is no scientific evidence that parenting effectiveness is related to parental sexual orientation”. This is a bold claim. There is no more question about gay parenting, the APA implies, than there is about the earth revolving around the sun. It summarises its findings with pontifical aplomb:

“Not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents. Indeed, the evidence to date suggests that home environments provided by lesbian and gay parents are as likely as those provided by heterosexual parents to support and enable children's psychosocial growth.”

In fact, a rigorous analysis of the evidence to date suggests nothing of the kind. The APA views on the beneficent effects of same-sex parenting are poorly researched, according to a blistering report released this week. Loren Marks, of Louisiana State University, finds that much of the science that forms the basis for the highly regarded report does not stand up to scrutiny.

"The jury is still out on whether being raised by same-sex parents disadvantages children," explains Marks. "However, the available data on which the APA draws its conclusions, derived primarily from small convenience [non-random] samples, are insufficient to support a strong generalized claim either way."

In his study, published in a leading peer-reviewed journal, Social Science Research, he found numerous shortcoming in the 59 studies which the APA brief used as  the basis for its assertions.

What were these shortcomings? Marks writes in the detached, sober voice of an academic, but his analysis of a study which has been one of the main props of the “the kids are all right” argument is devastating.

Most of the studies looked at short-term outcomes. There have been numerous in-depth studies about cohabiting, divorced, step, and single-parent families. Researchers have looked at adult outcomes of childhood experiences in tens of thousands of families. They assessed these different family structures with respect to health, mortality, and suicide risks, drug and alcohol abuse, criminality and incarceration, intergenerational poverty, education and/or labor force contribution, early sexual activity and early childbearing, and divorce rates as adults.

Research on gay parenting is in a completely different class. None of the 59 studies in the APA report examined these outcomes – even though these are desperately important as background knowledge in a national policy debate.  Instead they looked at “gender-related outcomes” like sexual preference and gender identity.

Social science research into other kinds of family structures shows that the differences in outcomes for children increase with age. A major study published in 2001, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, by Judith Wallerstein, found that the impact upon children really kicked in when they became adults and tried to form their own families. But none of the 59 studies in the APA Brief tracked “societally significant long-term outcomes into adulthood”.

Most of the studies involved fewer than 100 participants and were biased toward well-educated white lesbians with high incomes. This is a problem that researchers have known for years. But, incredibly, the APA report insisted that its conclusions were “extraordinarily clear” despite the lack of diversity.

Furthermore, the 59 studies failed to examine parenting by male homosexuals. Of the 59, only 8 focused on male couples. Of these 8, only 4 had a heterosexual comparison group. Of these 4, only 1 (one) focused on outcomes for children. This is an example, says Marks, of “a recurring tendency in the same-sex parenting literature to focus on the parent rather than the child”.

Many of the studies compared homosexual couples with single mothers, not intact families. Instead of comparing gay and lesbian parents to marriage-based, intact families as heterosexual representatives, many of the researchers studied single mothers. This is called stacking the deck. Social science research shows that “children in single-parent families are more likely to have problems than are children who live in intact families headed by two biological parents”. It's entirely possible that two well-organised, well-heeled women in a leafy inner-city suburb will do a better job than a single mother in a housing commission flat. But that's not the question. 

Of the 59 studies, only 33 involved comparisons with heterosexuals. Of these 33, 13 explicitly involved single mothers. Of the remaining 20, it was impossible to determine whether the “heterosexual parents” were single mothers, cohabiting mothers and couples, remarried mothers, or continuously married mothers and couples.

In the light of this, the APA’s pompous claim that “Not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents” may have been phrased very artfully. What the APA really meant is that “Not a single study is relevant to the public debate over same-sex parenting”. Perhaps it should stick with statistically irreproachable assertions like: “Not a single study has found that gay parenting is the cause of the melting of the polar icecaps."

Not a single study? Not even one? There was one study -- and the APA trashed it. In 1996 an Australian researcher, Sotirios Sarantakos, did a comparative study of 58 children of heterosexual married parents, 58 children of heterosexual cohabiting couples, and 58 children living with homosexual couples. The combined sample size of 174, says Marks, made Sarantakos’s study the largest one to examine children’s developmental outcomes rather than adults’ feelings. In fact, it was probably the strongest of all the studies mentioned in the APA report. However, its finding undermined the conventional wisdom. Sarantakos found that “children of married couples are more likely to do well at school in academic and social terms, than children of cohabiting and homosexual couples”.

So what did the APA do with this report? Nothing. In the annotated bibliography, its entry says “No abstract available”.

This single dissenting voice was relegated to the ignominy of a footnote: “Children Australia, the journal where the article was published, cannot be considered a source upon which one should rely for understanding the state of scientific knowledge in this field, particularly when the results contradict those that have been repeatedly replicated in studies published in better known scientific journals.” In other words, “your results undermine our consensus, you live in a grass hut, and none of Us thinks you fit in. Thanks for coming and next time use some deodorant”.

A consensus based upon poorly-designed studies which have been “repeatedly replicated” is probably not reliable. Replication is a pillar of scientific method. If a scientist’s findings cannot be replicated by colleagues, they are deemed suspect. But if a number of researchers use the same small sample sizes drawn from the same biased population samples, the same results are likely to emerge. This does “not seem to constitute valid scientific replication”, Marks observes drily.

Furthermore, most of the studies cited in the APA’s brief were very small, which, in combination with other statistical shortcomings, weakens their conclusions. As a kind of benchmark, Marks lists 15 large studies which contrast children’s outcomes in various kinds of heterosexual family formations. The average sample size in these studies is 9,911, while all 59 same-sex parenting studies combined only reached 7,800.

Asserting the emergence of a new kind of family which is every bit as good as the traditional one is a big claim. Proving it requires big data. But not one of the 59 studies referenced in the APA brief is based on a large survey.

From a social science point of view, Marks concludes, the jury is still out on gay parenting. There are simply no solid studies which prove or disprove whether gays and lesbians make good parents. Fans of the traditional family can rest easy: a stable family with a married mother and father is still the best place to raise kids.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

This article is published by Michael Cook and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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