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Do Boys Need Dads? An IgnatiusInsight.com Interview with Maggie Gallagher,
President of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy
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 whats 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"
Aside from the obvious moral problems with Drexlers thesis, her
research and conclusions are questionable. IgnatiusInsight.com interviewed
Gallagher, noted marriage and family expert and President of the Institute
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 fineperhaps better off evenwithout
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 dont. 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. Shes a Gender Studies
scholar and she may be very expert in that field, but she really doesnt
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, its 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
arent working together raising their children. But it is not the
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
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. Theres been about 35
to 50 studies, but theres 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: Weve 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 dont 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 youre less likely to go on to college;
if you get into college youre less likely to graduate from college,
if your parents dont get and stay married.
Other measures: if your parents arent married youre 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. Youre more
likely to get divorced yourself and less likely to marry if your parents
dont 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 IQs 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 didnt get and stay married
Theres a very powerful body of social science evidence. What this
body of evidence doesnt say is the only thing that matters is one
parent vs. two parents. No, remarriage and cohabitation dont seem
to do the same thing even though there are two adults in the household
as a childs own mother and father. What it doesnt say is,
"Well, its 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 parents death. Of course
there is a drop in income and theres grief and depression around
the death of a father, but you dont see the same syndrome of risk.
And, I think thats in part because, from a childs point of
view, the knowledge their parents didnt 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 Drexlers 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 dont
know, even if we accept her view, how representative these mothers
experiences are. In the case of single mothers by choice she didnt
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 its certainly not typical in the kind of quantitative
research Im 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 dont 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 dont 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
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 dont know for sure). In a population of
300 million, you are trying to find a very tiny fraction. Its very
expensive and its just easier and cheaper to do this kind of "convenience"
So I think thats one of the reasons this body of research is very
weak compared to other family structure research. Its not necessarily
the researchers fault. But its 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, theres lot of younger adults before they get
married, theres a lot of married adults whose children have already
passed through the home. So thats 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.
Shes 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 shouldnt 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 cant 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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