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Do Boys Need Dads? An IgnatiusInsight.com Interview with Maggie Gallagher, President of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy

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Do boys need Dads? Decades of sociological research support the common sense answer, "Yes!" But as the push for "same sex marriage" gains ground around the world and within the United States, the belief that both a Mom and a Dad are what’s best for children is becoming a politically incorrect notion in some circles.

A recent book, Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms Are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men by Peggy Drexler, has been widely praised book for making the case for raising boys without fathers. It has been received favorably in a wide range of magazines, from Harpers Bazaar, which labeled it a "Hot Summer Read" to a favorable interview in Parents magazine.

Drexler is also using her book to make the case for gay marriage, as a review in Gay Parent magazine summarized one point: "Sons of lesbians tend to be more empathetic to others as well as aware of the good and bad feelings within themselves." In a recent opinion piece published in the San Francisco Chronicle and in her book, Drexler claims her research provides strong arguments in favor of both same sex marriage and same sex parenting.

However, the Catholic Church (not to mention a host of other Christians, non-Christian religions, and many non-religious groups) strongly disagrees. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring…" (CCC, par. 1601). It adds that the "vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator" (par. 1603) and that "Holy Scripture affirms that man and woman were created for one another: ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’" (par. 1605).

Aside from the obvious moral problems with Drexler’s thesis, her research and conclusions are questionable. IgnatiusInsight.com interviewed Maggie Gallagher, noted marriage and family expert and President of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, about her newly released research, and about her criticism of Drexler's book. Gallagher talks about her survey (PDF file) of 23 recent studies on just one indicator, (fathers and crime) as well as her knowledge of several decades of research on whether and how family structure matters.

Gallagher is the co-author (with University of Chicago professor Linda J. Waite) of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better-off Financially. She said that children do better growing up in a home with a married mother and father, as a wide variety of indicators demonstrate: avoiding poverty, delinquency, drug abuse, mental illness, teen suicide, sexually transmitted diseases, unwed teen motherhood, dropping out of high school, or other signs of school failure.

IgnatiusInsight.com: First of all, does family structure matter to children? And are boys going to be fine–perhaps better off even–without dads, as Peggy Drexler contends? As you know, Drexler interviewed 124 parents of boys, most of who were single mothers or lesbian couples. She concluded, "Parenting is about the human heart, which has no gender" and that "Socioeconomic status is a stronger predictor of child welfare than almost any other index."

Maggie Gallagher:
Peggy Drexler concludes essentially that poverty matters, but fathers don’t. Boys, she says, are hard-wired to grow into men, and those raised by "maverick moms" may be even better off than boys who have fathers. People, she says, are confusing marital status with money. The reason children in single-parent families do worse, on a number of measures is only because single mothers are more likely to be poor.

First of all, this is really ill informed. She’s a Gender Studies scholar and she may be very expert in that field, but she really doesn’t seem to be aware of the larger social science literature on family structure and the large debate that has taken place over whether and how marriage matters to child well-being.

And, putting aside for a moment the question of children of same sex couples (of which there is relatively little evidence), a very large amount of research shows that even after controlling for income children do best when they are raised by their own mother and father in an intact marriage, provided that is not high conflict or violent.

And by the way, it’s kind of silly to say poverty matters but not marriage, because the retreat from marriage is one of the biggest reasons for child poverty in America today.

So yes, one of the reasons that marriage matters is that children are poorer and their standard of living goes down when mothers and fathers aren’t working together raising their children. But it is not the only reason.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What if the mother and father are fighting all the time, what about that?

Maggie Gallagher:
What does the social science literature say about parental conflict? It hurts kids. No doubt about it. One or both of you can conduct your marriage so badly that your kids would be better off if you separate or divorce. The very best thing you can do is figure out how to stop all that senseless fighting that is hurting your kids and build a more cooperative relationship so you can give your children the best thing and not the second or third best thing. (For resources on how to do this, go to SmartMarriages.com)

IgnatiusInsight.com: Peggy Drexler is promoting same sex, particularly lesbian, relationships raising boys. She says: "Boys raised by women show an innate and astonishing ability to establish a strong and resilient sense of their own masculinity. Good mothers can and do foster this awareness. Their boys exhibit what I call boy power: the pairing of healthy aggression with empathy in a way that sons in mom-and-dad families don't often manage." What is your take on that?

Maggie Gallagher:
She apparently believes boys are better off without fathers who might impair their moral development.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What do we know about children raised by same sex couples?

Maggie Gallagher
: In my opinion, judging by the standards of kinds of evidence that are used in the larger family structure debate, we know almost nothing about how the children fare. There’s been about 35 to 50 studies, but there’s not a single study based on nationally representative data that follows children from birth raised by same sex couples and can tell us how they do in adulthood.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What do we know about the other family structures that have been very well studied? What do we know about the advantages of a traditional two-parent family?

Maggie Gallagher:
We’ve had a lot of research on not just one parent vs. two parents, but co-habitating couples, remarried couples, as well as solo mother and to a lesser extent solo father families.

And what we know is that children who are raised outside of intact marriages are at risk for a large number of social, emotional, and other kinds of problems. Take for example what our research is about: the recent research on family structure and crime and delinquency.

Do married parents reduce crime? The answer seems to be pretty clearly, "Yes."

There are now eight large nationally representative studies that look at family structure and control for things like income and race and say: yes, the risk that an individual child will commit a crime, either a teen-ager or young adult, is much greater when parents don’t get and stay married. And this is true in a number of other areas as well: greater risk of poverty, dependency, substance abuse, mental illness, physical illness, infant mortality, school failure, more likely to be held back a grade, to be in special education, to have conduct disorders and drop out of high school. If you graduate from high school you’re less likely to go on to college; if you get into college you’re less likely to graduate from college, if your parents don’t get and stay married.

Other measures: if your parents aren’t married you’re more likely to launch into early and promiscuous sexual activity, which leads to higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases and a higher risk of a non marital relationship, an early unwed motherhood and fatherhood. You’re more likely to get divorced yourself and less likely to marry if your parents don’t get and stay married. There was a really excellent study that looked at life expectancy at age 40 among a sample of highly advantaged kids. These were kids who had high IQ’s and were white and middle class to start with. They found you were about three times more likely to die by age 40 if your parents didn’t get and stay married

There’s a very powerful body of social science evidence. What this body of evidence doesn’t say is the only thing that matters is one parent vs. two parents. No, remarriage and cohabitation don’t seem to do the same thing even though there are two adults in the household as a child’s own mother and father. What it doesn’t say is, "Well, it’s only poverty that matters." Of course poverty matters for children, but marriage matters too and it matters a lot.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What about when the father dies?

Maggie Gallagher:
Divorce and unmarried childbearing appear to have rather different effects on children than a parent’s death. Of course there is a drop in income and there’s grief and depression around the death of a father, but you don’t see the same syndrome of risk. And, I think that’s in part because, from a child’s point of view, the knowledge their parents didn’t love their child enough to stay together in one family, has a powerful impact on the child. Death is very different. Children may feel abandoned, but they know it is not because one of the parents has decided to leave the family or never to form the family, so it has really different impact on children.

IgnatiusInsight.com: One of the things about Peggy Drexler’s book–

Maggie Gallagher:
By the way, one of the things I want to say is the oldest child in her sample is still in junior high, and many are still in elementary school. This is a self-selected sample, and we don’t know, even if we accept her view, how representative these mothers’ experiences are. In the case of single mothers by choice she didn’t examine "many" of the children. And at one point she even says, "My own experience would serve as a one-woman control group representing married mothers." That may or may not be acceptable in qualitative research, but it’s certainly not typical in the kind of quantitative research I’m talking about.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Is her research at all credible from a scientific point of view? My understanding is her research is largely anecdotal, that is she talked to people and drew conclusions

Maggie Gallagher:
Let me put it this way: there are two basic kinds of studies. There are qualitative research and quantitative research.

Qualitative research is useful for generating hypotheses and understanding processes. But, I would say it is difficult to come to any firm conclusions based on that kind of sample.

The basic problem is that you don’t know if the people you are talking to are representative of anything. Right? The most you can say with firmness, if you trust the researcher, is that she has found thirty or so families with lesbian parents where the kids appear to her to be doing fine. But we don’t know if this is typical or atypical for families with lesbian parents because this sample is not representative of any larger group. In defense of this, the reason this is the kind of research that is mostly done on the children of gay parents is partly because this is a very small population group.

In the U.S. Census data there are less than 200,000 households headed by same sex couples with a child under 18 and most of those are probably children from previous relationships rather than children of the same sex couple (although we don’t know for sure). In a population of 300 million, you are trying to find a very tiny fraction. It’s very expensive and it’s just easier and cheaper to do this kind of "convenience" samples.

So I think that’s one of the reasons this body of research is very weak compared to other family structure research. It’s not necessarily the researchers’ fault. But it’s also important to not make large claims about what you know scientifically is fact based on this kind of evidence.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Drexler says that two parent monogamous relationships are a minority. She writes: "U.S. Census Bureau figures show that in 1970, 40 percent of all American households were married couples with children age 18 or under. Today, these ‘mom and dad’ families represent just 23 percent of all households, and that number is shrinking every year." Is that correct?

Maggie Gallagher:
The figure she is citing sounds like the proportion of households, not the proportion of families. There are a lot of older people living alone, there’s lot of younger adults before they get married, there’s a lot of married adults whose children have already passed through the home. So that’s the kind of figure that would radically exaggerate how rare it is for children to have married parents. The U.S. Census Bureau shows in 2003, 26 percent of families with children were headed by a single mother.

Nonetheless, rates of family fragmentation are very high and probably a majority of children will experience a single parent family at some point in their life or close to that.

She’s completely right that there are a large number of these single-parent families. But, using statistics to suggest to the lay reader that just a quarter of children live with married parents exaggerates the problem. The majority of kids right now live with both their married biological parents. In contrast, less than one half of one percent live in households headed by same sex couples.

IgnatiusInsight.com: One of the arguments used by proponents of "same sex marriage" is that by giving children a married couple they will get stability, aside from all the rights and ethical issues. How do you answer this one? If you say marriage is good, why shouldn’t you have marriage for same sex couples?

Maggie Gallagher:
From what we know from the social science literature the prime way marriage benefits kids is by holding together their own mother and father in single-family unions. Same-sex marriage is not going to provide that for any kids. Whether the tiny fraction of kids who have same-sex parents would benefit at all from marriage can’t really be known with certainty. My principal concern is what changing the definition of marriage into a unisex relationship is going to do to all children, especially in the middle of a crisis of fatherlessness in this country.

How are we going to raise the next generation of boys to be good family men in a society that, ala Peggy Drexler, argues men are unnecessary to children? We need to be strengthening our shared commitment to the idea that children need their moms and dads, and adults have a serious obligation to give that to their kids.

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