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A Critique of the Critiques: Regnerus’ Parenting Study and What is Really Best for Children

Last year, Sociologist Dr. Mark Regnerus published a large-sample study [1]which demonstrated that children flourish optimally when raised in the traditional family structure of a biological mother and father.  This finding itself was not new, as the Child Trend [2]report in 2002 described the very same thing.    However, Regnerus undertook a specific comparison between traditional families and families with a parent involved in a same-sex relationship, thus drawing increased attention to his results. 

His conclusion contradicted many studies [3] in the literature, especially those cited by activists lobbying for the right to gay ‘so-called’ marriage and adoption by same sex couples.  Those studies have uniformly had much smaller, biased samples which underrepresent the experiences of an average child raised by gay or lesbian parents.  Regnerus’ sample more appropriately represented the diversity of circumstances and situations of same-sex parents, broadening the understanding of child experiences beyond those of children raised by upper class women with resources to supplement their own parenting efforts.  Importantly, his study also utilized reports from the young adults themselves who had at least one parent involved in a same sex relationship during their childhood.  (Other studies have typically utilized the parents’ report of how a child was faring, obviously subject to self-serving and inflated reporting.) 

Regnerus’ Study Weaknesses Examined

Despite the methodological strengths and unique contribution of Regnerus’ effort, there were weaknesses that became the subject of much commentary.  Some of these critiques were legitimate and were subsequently addressed by Regnerus in a follow up article [4]which nevertheless continued to show the relative disadvantages for persons raised for part of their youth by a mother in a same-sex relationship.   (Insufficient numbers of fathers in same sex relationships were available for comparison, but similar outcomes would be expected).  Other critiques were reviewed by researchers [5] who concluded that the criticisms were “misplaced because nearly every methodological decision that was made has ample precedents in research published by many other credible and distinguished scholars.”

Still other critiques, however, lacked legitimacy, stemming not from scholarly challenges, but from efforts to defend predetermined ideologies.  The criticisms from those promoting same sex parenting as equivalent to that provided by traditional families are riddled with a variety of problems, including:
      • Vicious attacks [6]on the character of researchers;
      • Reliance on literature utilizing samples not representative of the overall population; and
      • Selective promotion of only those studies with the most favorable results. 

The reasons offered for tolerating the lack of generally-accepted scientific rigor are manifold, but belie the actual issues which I believe are at the heart of the matter. 

Weaknesses in the Critiques: Lowering Standards & Denying Realities

Lowering standards.  One common argument of Regnerus’ critics is that the comparison between traditional families and what we will call “disrupted families” i.e. those which are disrupted by one parent leaving to begin a same-sex liaison, are unfair because they differ with respect to relational stability [7].  The argument goes that the traditional family has a stability which the disrupted family does not and so it is somehow unfair to compare the two.  What this criticism fails to acknowledge, however, is the high rate of infidelity in same-sex unions generally.  In Regnerus’ study, it was the same sex parent that went outside the marital bond.  Same sex unions are prone to instability. 

In another study [8]in defense of such unions, the claim is made that the effect of this instability is similar to that of children of divorce [9].  Thus, same sex unions are just fine because the children in those structures suffer no more than the children of divorce.  How much comfort can that provide?  The challenges of children of divorce are well documented and manifold.  This same study also cites many other factors (e.g., parental education, earnings, mental health) that have some correlation with diminished child outcomes, as if these other challenges also somehow justify introducing yet another challenge. 

Denying Realities.  Regnerus is further criticized for failing to account for the “complexity of these non-traditional families” and the need for more research on “the nature and effects of gender fluidity [10].”  But again, that these so-called family structures are by their very nature complicated and fluid is precisely why they are not environments in which children thrive.  Other studies [11]suggesting that the societal challenges faced by gays and lesbians is the causative factor in their parenting problems, fail to acknowledge that even in cultures accepting of same sex relationships as normative, self-identified gay and lesbian persons have similar increases in psychological, physical, and interpersonal problems.  The hoped-for goal of a utopian society where couples incapable of procreating would somehow be on equal footing with those couples able to procreate continues to be elusive. 

Conclusion

Upon reasoned study, none of the critiques proffered diminishes the strength of the Regnerus study results.  Allegations of ethical violations and collusion with funding sources were investigated and dismissed by the University of Texas and his research methodology affirmed by ample precedents in research published by many other credible and distinguished scholars. The critiques appear to be a thinly veiled attempt to promote a political agenda rather than a logical, reasonable appraisal of the science.  Regnerus, among other things, validated that the benefits for children being raised in a traditional family are consistent, and superior to any other alternative structure.  The size, diversity, and randomness of his sample suggest that these findings are not going to shift and are not an artifact of his study (though if and when his findings are replicated in other studies, the credibility of the data will be strengthened).  Of course, we all know the single parent who has done an excellent job with his or her children, as well as children of divorce who have managed to heal from the wounds of family dissolution; no doubt there will be children raised by same-sex couples who defy the odds. But it is unjust to distort the truth of what is best and most likely to lead to children’s flourishing, for the sake of promoting an agenda or coercing societal changes to fit one’s view, and risking harm to any child. 

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Last year, Sociologist Dr. Mark Regnerus published a large-sample study which demonstrated that children flourish optimally when raised in the traditional family structure of a biological mother and father. This finding itself was not new, as the Child Trend report in 2002 described the very same thing.
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