Parenting Policy: Are All Family Forms Equal?

( [email protected] ) Mar 19, 2004 02:45 PM EST

As in the culture at large, there is an ongoing discussion in the social sciences about the impact of father absence on children. Individuals such as David Blankenhorn, of the Institute for American Values advance the idea that children are best served by having a married mother and father in the home. However, on the other hand, some in academia, notably Louise Silverstein and Nancy Polikoff have argued that parental gender, especially the male gender, may be irrelevant to the rearing of children. For instance, in a 2003 paper concerning lesbian and straight single mothers, Dr. Polikoff of Santa Clara University wrote, “I start this paper with the premise that it is no tragedy, either on a national scale or in an individual family, for children to be raised without fathers.”

Those with any awareness of the social science research concerning father absence may wonder how such words are sensible. Scholars who set out to re-examine the need for fathers often point to discrimination against alternative “family forms” that may result from a straightforward reading of that research. For instance, Louise Silverstein and Carl Auerbach, in their American Psychologist article “Deconstructing the Essential Father” wrote, “The social policy emerging out of the neoconservative framework is of grave concern to us because it discriminates against cohabiting couples, single mothers, and gay and lesbian parents.” For them, any interpretation of research that makes fatherhood of essential importance to child rearing is considered unprogressive and discriminatory.

Are all family forms equal? In this essay, I cannot extensively examine the evidence concerning father absence, except to recommend Blankenhorn’s book, Fatherless America. However, I can review a relevant study not cited by Drs. Silverstein, Auerbach or Polikoff that significantly undermines their thesis. I have not seen this study quoted in any discussion of gay parenting, pro or con, but I believe the findings are quite important to the issue.

The research in question was conducted by Dr. Bruce Ellis and colleagues and published in a 1999 edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study investigated the lives of 173 girls and their families from pre-kindergarted to the girl's seventh grade year. The researchers wanted to examine the family's role in the timing of puberty for the girls in the study. Specifically, the authors sought an answer to the question: “Does a biological father’s investment in family influence the timing of puberty for his daughter?” As improbable as it may seem, biological fathers appear to have an impact upon the timing of a daughter’s entrance into womanhood.

Such a question is important because early maturation in girls is one of the leading factors associated with such negative outcomes as teenage pregnancy, alcohol and drug use, mental health disturbances and even breast cancer. But you may protest: Isn’t puberty biological? Why study the role of environment, especially parenting, on an event that is rooted in biology?

While pubertal timing does have a clear biological component, the onset of puberty is earlier now than in past decades. Environment and/or culture may be having some kind of impact. The Vanderbilt team wondered from an evolutionary viewpoint whether the investment of fathers in family was a sociological artifact or rather, some kind of biological deterrent to the early maturity of daughters.

So what is the influence? The researchers found that low paternal investment is associated with early puberty in girls. In other words, a biological father in the home providing emotional support to his daughter explains later onset of puberty better than any other variable studied.

Let this finding sink in for a moment. The study authors suggest that by some mechanism not understood, experience impacts biological development to retard or accelerate the onset of puberty and the subsequent entrance into adult sexuality. To quote Ellis’ report: “The present data highlight the importance of early paternal involvement in the development of “healthy” reproductive functioning in daughters.”

Talk about politically incorrect statements. By having a loving biological dad around, girls are at a lower risk for teen pregnancy, alcohol and drug use and depression. Extending this finding to family policy in general, the implications are provocative. Maybe President Bush’s marriage initiative is a pretty good idea after all. Lesbian and gay parents and single-moms-by-choice equivalent to mother-father pairs? Biologically speaking, it may not be so. Public policy cannot guarantee mother and father pairs for all children but to create situations that guarantee the impossibility of such an arrangement seems like a risky social experiment. Although confirming research is needed, policy initiatives supporting the traditional mom and dad dyad seem consistent not just with common sense but with the way we appear to be wired.

So is policy favoring moms and dads discriminatory? Yes, it may well favor the best interests of children over the convenience of adults.


Warren Throckmorton, PhD is Director of College Counseling and an Associate Professor of Psychology at Grove City College. Professor, counselor and columnist, Dr. Throckmorton is the producer of the Truth Comes Out, a spoken word CD geared to young adults concerning sexual orientation. His columns have been published in over 30 newspapers and numerous websites such as, and Contact him at [email protected] or via his website: