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The Nasty Politics of Parenting Research

A reporter from CitizenLink asked me late last week to comment on a story coming from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. It’s a straightforward family-research story; a helpful, but not surprising finding: the type of homes kids come from has a huge impact on their educational success. Larger even than type of school they attend. But findings like this have been understood since the celebrated 1966 Coleman Study and before.

So I commented that this finding “supports over three decades of consistent research showing that kids who grow up in a home with their married parents tend to do better in all measures of educational attainment than their peers being raised in single, divorced, and cohabiting-parent homes,” Then I concluded by explaining, “Moms and dads both matter here, as well as the type of relationship between them.”

Such a statement would not raise an eyebrow by nearly anyone, including most sociologists studying family form and child educational outcomes. But today such a statement is raising the hackles of a small but very vociferous group. The LGBT site of ThinkProgress had a fit on the story, saying I and the organization I work for are distorting the findings fueled by our blind opposition to “marriage equality” (a smooth euphemism for androgynizing marriage).

As ThinkProgress correctly points out, the Chicago study “did not, in fact, address same-sex parenting.” That is exactly right. Not everything is about same-sex families. But as Jennifer Roback Morse kindly and correctly points out at the Ruth Institute blog this week, “neither did Glenn Stanton [n]or the [Focus on the Family] editor. They just made the very sensible point” that the study speaks to children doing better educationally when raised by “intact families” (which the study defines on page 15 as those being raised by “two biological parents”).

You see, if you make a point that mothers and fathers matter for healthy child-development — something Focus on the Family and lots of others have been doing for quite some time — some assume that you must be speaking against them personally. It’s not always about them. But they assume that all family research would naturally include their new kinds of families. It doesn’t.

This is exactly the same kind of trickery that Sen. Al Franken pulled (and ThinkProgressive crowed about) with my friend and colleague Tom Minnery, when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July of last year. Mr. Minnery cited a major 2010 government study showing that children in “nuclear families” did better in a host of important well-being measures.

Senator Franken asked Minnery how the study defined “nuclear family”.

Minnery responded in a most reasonable and intelligent way, “I would think that the study, when it cites nuclear family, refers to a family headed by a husband and wife.”

Senator Franken responded,with chuckles from the gallery following, “It doesn’t.” And then read how the study defined the term: “a nuclear family consists of one or more children living with two parents who are married . . . and are each biological or adoptive parents of all the children in the family.”

So, would that include same-sex homes? The author of the government study, when asked by Politico after the Franken/Minnery ruckus, whether same-sex families were included in the study, interestingly explained same-sex couples “were not excluded” from the study” provided their family met the criteria. But in research, “not excluded” is quite different from “included and analyzed.” Do a word-search in the PDF of the study itself. See if it makes any conclusions or comments about same-sex, gay, lesbian, whatever families. You will only find that, on page 4, it defines “spouse” as “husband/wife”.

But the main point for Senator Franken, ThinkProgress and others who think “Franken eviscerated Minnery” must realize three facts.

One, no major government study to date has examined same-sex headed homes. None.

Two, since same-sex families are such a new and academically interesting development, it would be publishing malpractice (or just plain dumb) if your study included same-sex couples as part of the meaningful analysis, but the author did not tell the reader of the inclusion, which this study did not. Such a fact would add great value to the study.

Three, given the study sample was collected from 2001-2007 (which is explained in the title of the study), it would allow only married same-sex couples from Massachusetts (the only state allowing such marriages in those years) who had children in their home and in which both adults were either biological or adoptive parents. This was the stated criteria for inclusion in the study. But there are very few same-sex homes where both married parents are the adoptive parents. And confine that small number to only those in Massachusetts, and you could probably fit them in a mini van. As Greg Scott of the Alliance Defense Fund explains, that means Minnery was indeed correct about 99.9999 percent and Franken caught him on a snarky 0.00001 percent technicality that he turned into a laugh-line.

But that’s how some people operate. And for a topic as important as how different family forms either contribute to or distract from child well-being, we need a more serious national discussion than the political carping, name-calling, and cheap shots we are seeing far too much of today.

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