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.