Normally I’d avoid linking to something so potentially partisan, but this incident – which has been well-popularized around the Internet since it happened – seems to be a prime opportunity to take a look at a very complicated issue: that of what families should look like, what children’s needs are, and what parenting really is all about.
First, it almost goes without saying that this is a fine example of how research findings can easily be abused and misused. But second, and arguably more interestingly, this incident also highlights how swiftly ‘parenting’ can be co-opted by cultural beliefs and dogma – and, getting to the heart of the matter, how far our society’s concepts and public discussions of ‘parenting’ and ‘families’ have been removed from where I believe they should really lie: with children themselves. Ideally, I believe we should view ‘Parenting’ as as a responsibility taken on by an adult, whether through the birth or adoption of a child, to meet and provide for that child’s needs; while ‘Families’ can be viewed simply as whoever comes together around children to help in that task of meeting their needs. Unfortunately, such a focus on children themselves and their needs is often far from the true center of public discussions about families – so if I may, I’d like to try to reframe things here, in these different terms.
Reconsidering Families and Parenting through the Lens of Children’s Needs
Parenting can be seen through several different frames of reference. First there is a societal perspective – where parenting can be seen as a way to either perpetuate current social traditions and ways of life, or to prepare ‘future members of society’ for continued adaptation and the ability to meet the challenges of the future. Parenting can also be seen from a parent’s perspective – where the act of parenting provides some sort of meaning, gratification or change in the life of the parent. Finally, we can view parenting from the child’s perspective – where a parent is typically the primary person in their lives through whom that child’s needs are met.
It’s likely fair to say that all these frames of reference are valid, and can potentially be complementary to each other. Yet often, Western cultures like ours get too wrapped up in the first two perspectives, at the neglect or even exploitation of the third.
Yes, parenting is largely a cultural and philosophical act: how you interact with your children, and the environments and experiences you establish for them, is I think a profound statement on the way you see the world and how you want it to be. And Mr. Minnery and the Focus on the Family organization have every right to work toward a family subculture of their own, that matches their vision of the world. But, first, it is a problem when you try to press this subculture on others; second, and more disturbing, it is malicious and exploitative to intentionally misuse the researched evidence around children’s lives – to in essence use children themselves – to justify your own way of life, while persecuting others for theirs.
In this particular case, the research around children and their well-being proves that children are undeniably resilient and accommodating of many different family structures – and contrary to Mr. Minnery’s fervent belief, can absolutely still thrive while having two parents of the same sex, so long as their needs are still being met.
The Real Needs of Children
Since we raise the topic of children’s needs – and since we bandy about the term so freely in our discussions, often using it to justify our own prejudices and beliefs – it stands to question: what are these actual needs of children? Interestingly, they appear to be fewer and far more basic than one might imagine, according to eminent psychologist Jerome Kagan. After conducting decades of longitudinal studies globally, Kagan established that children, across all cultures, have only four essential, universal needs that have to be met in order for them to grow up emotionally and physically strong and socially well-adapted. They are:
- Environmental variability;
- Caretaking by adult(s) (as opposed to other children);
- Opportunity to practice their motor skills.1
Both history and cultural anthropology bear out that children can and have had these needs met in an infinitely rich and diverse number of ways. And everything else surrounding children and childrearing, everything outside of these needs, is either ultimately unnecessary or some culturally defined variant of these needs.
What the study by the Health and Human Services department (link goes to full PDF of the study), which Minnery unsuccessfully tried to use, clearly shows – and any number of other recent studies can corroborate – is that children need to grow up in a predictable family structure, where they are reassured that their needs will be met… but how and by whom those needs are met simply just doesn’t matter that much, provided that predictability is there.
To quote another important study which examined the significance of gender in parenting: “The family type that is best for children is one that has responsible, committed, stable parenting… The gender of parents only matters in ways that don’t matter.”
What about Single Parent Families?
An inevitable question soon arises about whether two-parent (or ‘nuclear’) households are better for children than single-parent households, and can offer more stability, commitment, and so on. To continue to quote the same study from earlier, though: “One really good parent is better than two not-so-good ones.” Predictability also comes in an emotional form, and one committed parent can provide this relationally to children just as well as two might.
One area where single parents do have the deck stacked against them, though, is the simple matter of practicalities. With single parents raising children on their own, you can statistically expect for their household’s family income (in a North American context) to be half, or often less than half, that of a typical two-parent (usually dual-earning) household’s family income. You can also generally expect for a single parent to have far fewer available hours in the week to devote to childcare and to attending to children’s needs, compared to two parents in a household who together can have more hours to devote to the children. So the question isn’t whether single parents are inherently worse parents, or whether children inherently need two parents, but whether a single parent has as equal an ability as a two-parent household practically and financially to meet the children’s needs. This is not to say that single parents can’t make it all work out, just that statistically it is simply harder for them, at least without an established social network of help.
But I don’t see this as an argument against single-parent family arrangements – or any type of other family arrangement. I simply see this as a sign that we as a society should increase the support we offer to all parents and families – politically, with better family leave policies, universal healthcare, and more accommodating employers and work schedules; and culturally, with supportive neighborhoods and community programs, a positive and caring collective attitude toward children, and a better understanding and openness in our culture of the struggles parents face every day.
Nuclear families, mothers and fathers, homosexual parents… It’s too easy to fall into the trap of blindly upholding and believing in particular family and social structures around children. What we need to realize are that these structures are cultural and, ultimately, don’t matter as much as we think they do. Meanwhile, the one thing that is truly important – making sure children’s needs are met – can be realized in any number of infinitely rich and diverse ways.
For kids, at least, there is no one right way to have a ‘family’.
Kagan, J. (1978). The Growth of the Child: Reflections on Human Development. W. W. Norton & Company Limited.