In our opinion: Family structure counts

Published: Saturday, June 9 2012 10:03 p.m. MDT

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Perhaps it seems intuitive, but it requires some fairly rigorous social science to show that the actual structure of families, and not just their processes, makes a significant difference for the well-being of children.

For years, social science research on the family has attempted to prove the hypothesis that, when it comes to child well-being, it is the internal dynamics and processes of a family that matter most. The argument has been that love, not family structure, is what makes a family.

That attempt seems to have begun as a response to dramatic changes in household structure. As divorce became both more acceptable and common in our society, researchers hoped to uncover the essential characteristics of successful families that were unrelated to structure. Researchers wanted to provide sound guidance to families where, for whatever reason, the traditional structure of the intact biological family did not exist.

Because of such research, we do know that household stability, the quality of relationships within a household and the economic resources available all make a difference in the long-term physical and emotional health of children. Family members in any household benefit when love is demonstrated through good processes.

Nevertheless, the mounting evidence in the social sciences continues to teach that, as important as processes and dynamics are, family structure is still strongly correlated with the well-being and flourishing of children. And the evidence is clear that the structure setting the standard for child well-being is the intact married biological family.

As reported in today's Deseret News, the respected peer-reviewed journal Social Science Research has just published the first research to come from the New Family Structures Study (NFSS) showing how different family structures correlate with different life outcomes.

By rigorously surveying a large and nationally representative sample of adults about social behaviors, health behaviors, relationships and the structure of their family of origin, the NFSS allows researchers to analyze the relationship, if any, between different family structures and important social, behavioral and health outcomes.

The first peer-reviewed paper from this well-designed data looked at eight family structures. The paper will undoubtedly capture significant attention and scrutiny because of what the findings say, in particular, about the structure of same-sex parenting. By analyzing the relationship between family structure and outcomes, Professor Mark Regnerus from the University of Texas has provided the first large-scale, replicable study of the social, emotional and physical outcomes for children of same-sex parents. And on at least 25 of the 40 outcomes studied, the adult children growing up in lesbian households appear to do worse than those growing up in intact married biological families, providing outcomes similar to what emerges from single-parent homes.

Those findings, if true, are significant because in the legal battles over same-sex marriage it has been largely accepted that there is no discernable difference between the outcomes for children of heterosexual parents and the children of gay parents. Indeed, the federal district court that first ruled that California's Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, made a finding of fact that read: "Children, raised by gay or lesbian parents are as likely as children raised by heterosexual parents to be healthy, successful and well-adjusted. The research supporting this conclusion is accepted beyond serious debate in the field of developmental psychology."

But it now appears that the research supporting that conclusion was merely accepted instead of debated. Although there have been dozens of papers produced by academics on the issue, until today, the vast majority of those studies have been based on small, unrepresentative non-random samples. Indeed, running alongside Regnerus' study in Social Science Research is a complementary meta-analysis of prior research on the topic of same-sex parenting that calls into serious question the rigor and methods of those previous studies.

Although its most original findings stem from what the study says about households led by women in same-sex relationships, the Regnerus study also provides insight into the challenges for children growing up in homes where parents divorce, in adoptive situations, single-parent homes or where there has been remarriage. And what emerges is that intact married biological families with two parents is the family structure that is most closely associated with positive social, emotional, physical and economic outcomes for children.

Because it tells us so much about the importance of family structure generally, it would be unfortunate if the Regnerus paper became merely a blunt instrument in the struggle over same-sex marriage. Noting limitations in the data, Regnerus readily admits that the NFSS cannot answer questions of causation, and that one should not infer from these findings alone answers to challenging contemporary ethical and legal issues.

Nevertheless, what today's edition of Social Science Research should teach us is some healthy skepticism for so-called consensus findings, especially with regard to hot-button social issues where the biases of researchers might influence design and interpretation. Sound science demands that findings be testable, replicable and falsifiable. The NFSS appears to provide researchers a framework for that kind of sound rigorous social science with regard to the vital issue of family structure and child well-being.

Undoubtedly its soundness and robustness will be challenged in coming months. But should they hold up, the Regnerus study points to what biology, sociology, custom and religion have long indicated: family structure counts and the intact married biological family is the healthiest structure for nurturing the next generation.

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