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Fathers? Mothers? What Really Matters in Child Development

Nancy D. Polikoff is the author of Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law. She is professor of law at American University. This post originally appeared on her blog: beyondstraightandgaymarriage.blogspot.com.

Bigstock-Child-on-the-road-18703625Cambridge University Professor Michael E. Lamb has impeccable credentials as one of the world's leading experts on child development. Among other things, he was Chief of the Section on Social and Emotional Development of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development for 17 years. His list of publications is about 50 pages long (that is not a typo!  check it out here). He is credited with, among other things, determining that fathers, as well as mothers, matter to child development. It is no doubt that early finding of his that endeared him to the "father's rights" movement and the fatherhood movement that sought to pathologize women raising children without father involvement.

Perhaps because of the mischaracterization of his research, Dr. Lamb was drawn into the public conversation about the relationship of family structure to child outcome. Turns out that his research supported the findings that when fathers are there, they matter; in other words that there is more to child adjustment than the mother-child bond.  What his research did not support was the assertion that optimal child adjustment demands that every child have a father in the home.

In 2004, the ACLU, in a case litigated brilliantly by LGBT Rights Project attorney Leslie Cooper, called Dr. Lamb as a witness in a lawsuit in Arkansas state court successfully challenging the social services agency regulation against placing children with lesbian and gay foster parents. The trial judge referred to Dr. Lamb as the "most outstanding" expert witness in the case (coming close to saying he was the most outstanding expert witness he had ever heard), who answered questions fully with no "animus or bias" to any parties.  He testified about what did (quality of relationships, available resources), and did not (gender or sexual orientation of parents), matter to the well-being of children. Since then, Michael Lamb has participated in other litigation, most notably the Perry case challenging the constitutionality of Prop 8.

Last month, Dr. Lamb published in the journal Applied Development Science a summary of many hundreds of studies over the last four decades elucidating the factors that contribute to child adjustmentThe article, Mothers, Fathers, Families, and Circumstances: Factors Affecting Children's Adjustment is available online here. This means that Dr. Lamb's professional opinion is now widely available for anyone who needs support for the following propositions:

*Social scientists have reached consensus that the following factors matter most to healthy child development: the quality of relationships with parents; the quality of relationships between the parents and other significant adults; and the availability of adequate economic, social, and physical resources.

*Family structure explains a "small (or even insignificant) portion" of differences in child outcomes

*Children in one-parent families have greater adjustment problems than children in two-parent families, but the primary causes of this increased maladjustment are disturbed relationships with one or both parents, reduced resources when there is only one wage-earner and care-giver, and unstable living arrangments and conflict around parental separation.  "The mere fact that the majority of children raised in single-parent or divorced families are well-adjusted," writes Dr. Lamb, "undercuts the argument that children 'need' to be raised in traditional families."

*Mothers and fathers are important to their children "as parents";  "father absence" is not itself important to adjustment.  (emphases in original)

*There is no support for the notion that both male and female role models in the home enhance child adjustment.

*The same factors affect child adjustment whatever the sexual orientation of parents; children with same-sex parents suffer no developmental disadvantages when compared with children of different-sex parents.

*Arguments from "some politicians and advocacy groups, especially those who oppose divorce and same-sex parenthood" that children need to be raised by "biological" parents have no empirical support.

4433Dr. Lamb concludes that discrimination against individuals and families on the basis of sexual orientation, gender, and marital status -- which he refers to as "outmoded beliefs in the superiority of traditional families" -- are harmful to individuals, families, and children.

To me, this is what is most important about this article. It places single-mother and same-sex couple families together and debunks the myths about both. Too often, advocates for LGBT families (especially for same-sex marriage) distance themselves from single-mother families. Those families, they say, are pathological, but not ours. I despise such arguments. The Lamb article makes clear that circumstances often associated with single motherhood, such as exposure of the child to parental conflict and lack of resources, can lead to child maladjustment. But it is not the structure of a family with children raised by a single mother that's the problem.

Time for Michael Lamb to get an "allies" award from some gay rights group....