Studies challenge widely held assumptions about same-sex parenting

Published: Saturday, June 9 2012 10:01 p.m. MDT

Regnerus used data from the New Family Structure Study (NFSS) to see how adults ages 18 to 39 who were raised by same-sex parents do on various outcomes compared to those raised by married biological parents, co-habiting adults, a single parent, step-parents or adoptive parents, among others. NFSS has data from more than 3,000 adults, including 175 who said their mother had a same-sex romantic relationship and 73 who said their father did.

Regnerus said his findings were more valid on lesbian-mom households than gay-father households because they included more families and also because those studied were far less likely to have actually lived in gay-dad households. A cursory look might lead some to conclude incorrectly the study found gay dads were better parents than lesbian moms. The sample wasn't large enough to draw strong conclusions about the men.

Data on display

Regnerus plans to make his data public. "In a piece like this that is overturning conventional wisdom, the onus is on me to be very up-front about how I reached my findings." He said he will post the research design, codebook and statistical analyses online Monday.

The study said lesbian mothers compare most favorably to step-families and single parents, not to intact biological families. He noted the step-, single and lesbian mom families structures all clearly included some upheaval.

The study does not say same-sex parenting is responsible for the outcome differences. "Causality would mean I ruled out other plausible explanations. I didn't. I can't say something about being a lesbian is particularly pernicious for young adult outcomes." But if he can't explain the outcomes he found, he said, neither can earlier studies, which were less robust and found the opposite.

He eliminated socioeconomics, age, politics, gender, geography, race and bullying as explanations for the gaps he found between family structure types.

Is it the stigma the parents felt? He doesn't know. "We didn't talk to parents, and I can't measure stigma." Single-parent and step-families have, much like same-sex parents, "a higher degree of instability" compared to intact biological families, he said. It's probably not just having a man and woman, either, since step-families have those and the kids don't fare as well.

Stability matters

"I think what good research does is open the door to replication and explanation," said Cynthia Osborne, associate professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, who wrote one of the commentaries for the journal. "We're going to need to see if what we're finding here in his study will be replicated through lots of robustness checks, looking from various angles, cutting the data in different ways and coming up with the same thing. That's the next step."

Social science research seldom explains causation, said Osborne. And finding differences takes a back seat to understanding their cause and importance. A mom in a same-sex relationship may have had lots of different family structures, from a failed marriage to same-sex dating and cohabitation. "We know that change in family structure matters a lot in children's outcomes," Osborne said. With the variations, "comparison of family structure to partnership choice is an interesting comparison, but it doesn't take us far enough."

Another commentator, David Eggebeen, associate professor of human development and sociology at Pennsylvania State University, said data are never perfect. They range from not yielding any conclusion through data that beg caution to "really good data where you can be a lot more confident." The NFSS data, he said, "get us closer to being a representative population."

He called the Marks paper a "little disquieting" because of the disconnect between imperfect data and claims that same-sex parents are equal or superior to other parents.

Replication

Studies consistently say kids in a biological married family with both parents "are advantaged compared to any other kind of family," Osborne said. That alone raises a "conundrum" with the previous finding that same-sex couples have equal outcomes, "since that almost always implies a step-parent, a cohabiting partner — what we call a social father or social mother — divorce, adoption, at least one of those things." Some studies say those things don't disadvantage same-sex parent families.

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