And then there’s media coverage of studies……

I wrote a recent post about studies–social science studies about parenting, etc.   I sort of feel like I’m in a “can’t live with them, can’t live without them” sort of spot–they frustrate me in many ways, but I’m not prepared to say we don’t need them or shouldn’t consider them.

Perhaps the point I’d make (though you can just go read that post) is that we need to view them critically–all of them, even the ones with conclusions we like.   There are, after all, better and worse studies.  What makes them better or worse is the methodology, not the conclusions.   Methodology is, I think, neutral–not inherently supportive of any position.   And while I (and many of us) aren’t social scientists and so probably don’t fully appreciate the methodological issues, we can still be intelligent consumers and critics.

Now since I think our obligation is to be intelligent and critical consumers of studies, I get really annoyed when I come across popular press stuff that completely fails on this account.   And so perhaps this post is little more than an expression of that annoyance with one particular article.  But maybe this is exemplary and so has some greater value.   (Ultimately this is for you to judge, of course.)

Behold this article from the Atlantic.     It’s called “Why Dads Matter.”   The title taken with the  subtitle (“A third of American children are growing up in homes without their biological fathers”) suggests to me that this is going to be an article about why it is harmful to children to grow up without their biological fathers.   And I think that is a fair description of what the perspective taken by the authors.  some of it studies.

So for example, we start with a little anecdotal evidence–the story of Jordan Ott.     (I don’t blame the authors for starting with an anecdote.   Anecdotes are much more likely to grab you than data is.)

By age 8, he’d had two step-dads; his brothers and sisters had more or fewer based on birth order. Each child also had different numbers of siblings, depending on whether their own dads fathered other children. Ott has one full sister, four half-siblings and at one point had three step-siblings “that I know of,” he said. His own father has mostly lived far away.

Now if you want to tell me that this child’s experience is not optimal I’m very likely to agree.  Indeed, I wonder if many people would disagree.   But it seems to me that this story is about much more than just not being raised by your biological father.   It’s about years of instability.

Imagine instead you’d started with an anecdote about Jane, whose genetic father died before she was born but whose mother formed a stable relationship with a new partner when she was six months old and who has grown up in that household for her entire life.   That would also be a story of a child growing up without a biological father but it would be one that was not about years of instability.

The reason I think this matters is that if you read through the story I think this really is a story about the effect of unstable family structures on children.   Growing up with serial father figures (or serial parental figures, I would guess) or in foster care (the second example) is problematic.  But why is it problematic?  Is it because you’re not being raised by your genetic father or is it because you are not being raised in a stable setting?  It’s important to know, right?

It’s clear that Andrew Cherlin, the first quoted expert, is concerned about family instability.   Indeed, he coined the term “family churn.”    But if you don’t have family churn is the absence of the genetic father itself harmful?

The second expert, Warren Farrell, is very much concerned with the role male parents play in a child’s life.   I have not read his book but it appears to me that his point is that children need a male parent–and he means social/psychological parent here.   This is, of course, a debatable point overall (and I’ll come back to it in just a moment).  But I’m also not seeing that he says children need their male parent to be genetically related.  I think he’s more about the role a male parent figure plays in a child’s life.   So a male adoptive parent would be OK.   This is important because the article subhead seemed to promise some focus on genetic fathers.   I’m just not seeing that yet.

Now to asses the more general point that children need fathers, we should look at the evidence the authors present here.   And again, I think what they really show is that unstable families are less good than stable ones.   Paula Fomby studied children and sequential parent figures, for instance.  Elaine Kamarck compared children from single parent homes to children from two-parent homes.

I’ll stop here, because I’ve gone on long enough.  Perhaps there are studies out there that actually show that children do better when raised with their biological parents.  It’s just that the studies invoked here don’t seem to me to get to that point.  And the invocation of the studies, therefore, seems to me either sloppy or lazy or both.    So much for a critical approach to science.

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11 responses to “And then there’s media coverage of studies……

  1. I don’t know if there is a study that says kids do better raised in their biological family, but there are many adoption studies that strive to show adopted kids do as well as kids raised in biological families. Biological family structures similar to the adoptive family structure. You always have to test same basic background conditions with same not same with skewed – unless you want that outcome…and many do what that outcome.

    What I will say is that while an adoptive mother, or father, may indeed be equal to a biological mother, or father, and you can show them equal in the study. The child will still have the additional challenges of being adopted (7 defined core issues) to work through, that the biological child will not. That must be factored in somehow or at least acknowledged and currently I don’t know if it is.

    I do think it is important to have mentors of the opposite sex for the kids in a same sex family – just like it is important to have mentors of color for the kids in transracial adoptive families where the parents are white. (probably muddled that)…

  2. The Atlantic usually publishes better quality articles. I would expect this sort of thing to be published in Slate.

  3. The studies seem so totally pointless to me because biological family tells me nothing about the family other than they owe it to the kid and to society to be taking care of their kid because they caused them to exist. Their children have the right to depend upon them and then to depend on the state if their bio parents fail. It’s best if people take care of the kids they made because they owe it to them and to society, but it may not be best if the kid is unsafe so then its not best. You see? A stable calm set of gay men dedicated to the job of raising a child may be much more stable than a couple of married straight alcoholic abusive jerks. I mean being biologically related only means they are first in the line of responsibility not that they can’t fail.

    Its better if every child receives what they are owed from their bio parents and never has to be separated from them that is best. If they have to be separated then you go with next best thing but you don’t start with the next best thing its not fair to the kid

    • “The studies seem so totally pointless to me because biological family tells me nothing about the family ”

      They only seem pointless to you because it doesn’t say that biological families are superior to non biological families as you believe.

    • I think the studies seem pointless to you because you think you already know the answer–as the first sentence in your second paragraph suggests. But that answer isn’t obviously true–at least, it is not a truth that is obvious to everyone.

      One could say that the point of the studies is to examine the truth of your assumption. And I think one could say that the studies are inconclusive–that the assumption hasn’t been proved yet.

      Other people make different assumptions–me, for example. And other studies try to prove/disprove those assumptions, too.

  4. “Don’t act like you have not been a prolific poster on other boards over the years. You have been quite spirited actually.”

    Is it irrational for me to be freaked out by this? Is this fixation/imagination potentially dangerous?

    I started commenting on this blog sometime last spring (last April perhaps?) I’ve seen Marilynn on two other blogs, rarely, this Fall and Winter. I no longer post on any other blog.

    She thinks I’ve been engaging in a relationship with her for years.

    People do shoot up abortion clinics. And IVF clinics have security for a reason.

    Is she dangerous? Should the handle of “Tess” vanish because she is fixated on me?

  5. Julie I apologize to have to ask this of you after all you are a university professor not a second grade teacher but there are some posts recently that contain only immature bickering without even including anything related to the discussion. it tarnishes the quality of your blog and is getting very unpleasant to read. So i ask you if you wouldn’t mind deleting those posts. I know its extra work but hopefully just temporarily and things will quiet down back to normal.

    • Kisarita,
      It’s a serious question.

      I left the first time because I was worried about her fixation on me, and because she got increasingly personal. I know the chances are slight, but I am not truly anonymous on this blog.

      She thinks she has been in a relationship with me for years. This scares me.

  6. I agree about the tone–in fact, I’ve stopped reading a lot of comments myself. I worry about exercising powers of a censor, though. I’ll have a look and see if it feels okay to me. I do care about participation and don’t want to discourage that.

    In the meantime, maybe everyone could take a deep breathe, step back and try to be your best self.

  7. About the best interests thing again won’t that result constantly in different results for different people and is that not inherently unequal? I’ve seen it written about before papers from different universities about this topic and you touched on it early on in your blog more to the point of there will always be someone in a better financial situation. On what basis is it generally reconciled that it best interests is preferred over an outcome that is based on consistent rules where consequences of actions are clear and expectations are clear.

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