How Does the Gender of Parents Matter?

By Biblarz, Timothy J.; Stacey, Judith | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 2010 | Go to article overview

How Does the Gender of Parents Matter?


Biblarz, Timothy J., Stacey, Judith, Journal of Marriage and Family


Claims that children need both a mother and father presume that women and men parent differently in ways crucial to development but generally rely on studies that conflate gender with other family structure variables. We analyze findings from studies with designs that mitigate these problems by comparing 2-parent families with same or different sex coparents and single-mother with single-father families. Strengths typically associated with married mother-father families appear to the same extent in families with 2 mothers and potentially in those with 2 fathers. Average differences favor women over men, but parenting skills are not dichotomous or exclusive. The gender of parents correlates in novel ways with parent-child relationships but has minor significance for children's psychological adjustment and social success.

Key Words: bisexual, development or outcomes, family structure, fathering, gay, gender, lesbian, parenting and parenthood, transgender.

Fathers and mothers differ, just as males and females differ.

- David Popenoe

We know the statistics - that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and twenty times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves.

- Barack Obama

In 1999 American Psychologist unleashed a public furor when it published an article that challenged a popular discourse on the dangers of fatherlessness. "Deconstructing the Essential Father" (Silverstein & Auerbach, 1999) contended that successful parenting is not gender specific and that children do not need fathers, or mothers either, for that matter. Rather, any gender configuration of adults could parent well. The implication that fathers were expendable incited an uproar. Wade Horn (1999), soon to become Secretary for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services, labeled the article "Lunacy 101: Questioning the Need for Fathers," and other critics were more vitriolic (e.g., Jacoby, 1999).

Complex scholarly questions about the significance of parental gender were lost in the firestorm, and the view that Silverstein and Auerbach (1999) challenged continues to dominate public policy. Thus, the 2006 New York Court of Appeals ruling against same-sex marriage found that "the Legislature could rationally believe that it is better, other things being equal, for children to grow up with both a mother and a father. Intuition and experience suggest that a child benefits from having before his or her eyes, every day, living models of what both a man and a woman are like" (Justice Robert Smith in Hernandez v. Robles, 2006). Presidents from both political parties concur. Former President Bush defended Florida's ban on gay adoption rights contending that "studies have shown that the ideal is where a child is raised in a married family with a man and a woman" (quoted in Bumiller, Sanger, & Stevenson, 2005). President Obama endorsed stereotypical views about fathers in 2008: "Of all the rocks upon which we build our lives, we are reminded today that family is the most important. And we are called to recognize and honor how critical every father is to that foundation. They are teachers and coaches. They are mentors and role models. They are examples of success and the men who constantly push us toward it" (New York Times, 2008).

The argument that children need both a mother and father presumes that mothering and fathering involve gender-exclusive capacities. The "essential father" is a disciplinarian, problem solver, and playmate who provides crucially masculine parenting. Boys need fathers, proponents claim (Blankenhorn, 1995; Popenoe, 1996; Wilson, 2002), to develop appropriate masculine identity and to inhibit antisocial behaviors like violence, criminality, and substance abuse; in contrast, fathers foster heterosexual femininity in daughters and help deter promiscuity, teen pregnancy, and welfare dependency. …

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