June 30, 2017

A study first appearing online in the Journal of Family Issues last year continues a predictable line of research on outcomes in children being raised by same-sex parents. Its first author is also the lead investigator of another widely-cited study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family in May 2012, that evaluated the same data source and came to the same conclusions—namely, there are clear between-group differences between same-sex and opposite sex parents that disappear after controlling for family instability. Indeed, compare the abstracts’ descriptions of the two studies’ key findings:

  1. The results indicated that children in same-sex parent families scored lower than their peers in married, 2-biological parent households, but the difference was nonsignificant net of family transitions.
  2. Results indicate that nontraditional family structures are associated with poorer psychosocial well-being, but this is largely accounted for by changes and transitions experienced in the creation of new families.

They’re virtually identical. Not that that’s a problem.

As with other population-based datasets, the actual number of children living in same-sex households (72) is a tiny fraction of that found in married, two-biological parent families (11,314). Adult respondents were not asked their sexual orientation. But the problem is not the data—its sample or its measures. Indeed, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Kindergarten cohort is high-quality data. It is up to the task of assessing between-group differences on a variety of outcomes, including psychosocial well-being, externalizing behavior, and interpersonal (social) skills—all of it based on teacher reports. The authors employ a “life course perspective,” meaning they pay explicit attention to the “linked lives” of family members and the role of transition “timing” in the lives of children. Here, too: nothing wrong. They not only pay attention to “cumulative number of family transitions,” but also the timing of them—including the child’s family structure when entering kindergarten.

The children of same-sex couples, they found, consistently fare less well on these counts than those in biologically intact households, but only before controlling for “family change and early childhood transitions.” In other words, the problem lies not with the children but with their parents’ proclivity for decoupling. This is consistent with data from the New Family Structure Study (Regnerus, 2012). The difference is in presentation. They controlled for instability, a standard move that nevertheless functions to cause readers to ignore it. In my previous study, I elected to highlight it, noting—as did the present study’s authors—the overwhelming instability in same-sex households.

How overwhelming is it in the new study? Sixty-nine (69) percent of children from same-sex households had experienced a transition by fifth grade. (The overall average is 56 percent.) Moreover, almost half witnessed a household transition between first and third grades—in two years. That’s a sobering observation.

The point of singling out this study is less to assert that it got something wrong, but rather to mull over its demonstration of the robust tendency of such studies to control for—in reality, ignore—endemic instability rather than wrestle with its sources, and pose the question of whether there may be a persistent difference in household tranquility that is not a function of social strain or stress, or lack of access to marriage. I don’t fault the authors for not going there. The problem is that no one goes there, despite just how robust the tendency to break up is.  The authors noted:

Family transitions may be particularly salient to consider, when examining the outcomes of children in same-sex parent households, as recent evidence suggests that these children are at a higher risk of experiencing more of them….In general, same-sex relationships dissolve more often than different-sex relationships, which prior scholars have posited reflects a lack of cultural definitions and (until very recently) the absence of legal protections associated with marriage.

A few, following claims made by social theorist Anthony Giddens in The Transformation of Intimacy, concur, but elect to put a positive spin on this observation, calling it the emergence of “confluent love,” the malleable backbone of a “pure relationship” system unencumbered by expectations of permanence or obligations. 

Most, however, think it’s mean-spirited to pay any of this extended attention. It is, in this perspective, akin to insisting on documenting—then dwelling on the meaning of—elevated African-American breakup rates. If a social fact exists, especially in a domain so widely evaluated as marriage and childrearing, it’s worth understanding and acknowledging, all the more given the comparative novelty of same-sex households with children. In other words, it’s a cop-out to say it isn’t worth understanding the facts, in lieu of shielding a “vulnerable” population from scrutiny. Unfortunately, the authors do this very thing, strangely claiming that problematic outcomes imply nothing whatsoever about problematic input:

…children from divorced and single-parent families may do worse than their peers from married, two-biological parent households on an array of developmental outcomes, but such evidence does not imply that these nontraditional families are inferior for raising children.

Alternatively, an admission of challenges is safer to make today, given that new access to same-sex marriage may fix the sticky problem of instability:

…if recent changes in the legal status of same-sex marriage in the United States provide institutionalizing forces that champion stability in these families, then the (Supreme Court) ruling would seem poised to only improve the developmental outcomes of children.

They may be right. (I guess we’ll find out.) Or they could be ignoring sociologists of the family who have long been unconvinced that marriage displays distinctive effects on household stability but instead reflects self-selectivity. That is, it’s the commitment that causes marriage and subsequent stability, not marriage that reinforces commitment and maintains stability. We’re not going to solve that one here. I simply highlight it to note that claims about selectivity and marriage seem more readily made about opposite-sex couples than same-sex ones.

In the end, what this new study offers the social science of marriage and family here is more of the same—one more study noting elevated challenges facing children in same-sex households and yet refusing to wrestle with the question of endemic instability witnessed in population studies of same-sex households with children.

About the Author

Mark Regnerus is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and a senior fellow at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. His research is in the areas of sexual behavior, family, marriage, and religion. Mark is the author of over 40 published articles and book chapters, and three books.

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