Based on a recent study in the American Sociological Review, the media and the gay-lesbian community are celebrating the exciting new evidence that you don’t need biological parents to raise children well. Here’s the beginning of a typical story, this one from ABC News, based on the AP press release:
Adoptive parents invest more time and financial resources in their children than biological parents, according to a new national study challenging arguments that have been used to oppose same-sex marriage and gay adoption.
The study, published in the new issue of the American Sociological Review, found that couples who adopt spend more money on their children and invest more time on such activities as reading to them, eating together and talking with them about their problems.
The story actually tells us more about AP’s agenda than about the findings of the study. While hailed as a victory for the enemies of traditional marriage, the amazing thing about this story is what the media chooses to leave out: the essence of the study points to the advantages of raising children under the traditional system of two married different-sex parents, a man legally married to a woman, free from the challenges associated with step families (could it be that divorce is harmful for kids?) or single-parenthood. Single-parent families and step-families get bad scores in the study (isn’t that worth discussing?), while children raised by an adoptive male-female married couple or by the child’s male-female biological parents both do similarly well, with an edge for adoptive parents (see discussion below). Importantly, while the authors of the study seem anxious to view their results as relevant to the same-sex marriage debate, the 161 adoptive couples in their study did not include same-sex couples.
The study is published in the Feb. 2007 issue of American Sociological Review as “Adoptive Parents, Adaptive Parents: Evaluating the Importance of Biological Ties for Parental Investment” by Laura Hamilton, Simon Cheng, and Brian Powell (vol. 72, pp. 95–116). While you can read it for yourself, here is an excerpt from the study, discussing the results:
Several predominant social scientific theories predict that the absence of biological parents or the presence of a nonbiological parent is detrimental to the normative functioning of families and the well-being of children. This prediction has public policy implications: recent court decisions rely in part on the presumed irreplaceable bond between biological parents and their children to uphold the constitutionality of laws banning same-sex marriage. Nearly all of the research supporting this claim, however, refers to differences between two-biological parent and step- or single-parent families. Here, we demonstrate that the absence of a biological tie between parents and their children does not unequivocally constitute a disadvantage in at least one key family process–the allocation of resources to young children. We find that the two-adoptive-parent family structure is remarkably similar to the two-biological-parent family structure in that it provides adoptive children an advantage over children in other alternative family structures.
Our analyses indicate that adoptive parents allocate more economic, cultural, social, and interactional resources to their children than do parents in all other family types. Their high levels of investment are due, in part, to their greater levels of income, education, and older maternal age. When these sociodemographic characteristics are controlled for, an adoptive advantage still remains. Two-adoptive-parent families invest as much and, in some cases of marginal significance, more in their children than do two-biological-parent families, holding all else equal. The adoptive advantage becomes more apparent in comparison with children from other alternative family types. Net of sociodemographic characteristics, adoptive families invest significantly more than at least one alternative family type for most resources included in our analyses. Regardless of the family types to which they are compared, two-adoptive-parents’ higher levels of investment are spread across all four types of resources.
The study is helpful for adoptive parents, and should show what ought to be common sense: love and parental commitment is far more importance than shared DNA. Further, children raised by loving father and a mother in a family based on traditional marriage, without the disadvantages of step families (sorry, but several studies confirm more difficulties from step-families than families in which both biological parents are present) or single-parent families fare better in the measures explored by this study. That’s not to say that single parents or step-families cannot compensate and be wonderful parents, but that statistically they face a disadvantage on some measures. So don’t despair!
As for the edge that the 161 adoptive families had, the authors note that a significant part of that edge came from the higher socioeconomic status of adoptive families. But even when that was accounted for, they still had an edge. I think that can be explained by the additional selective factors that limit who can adopt. Most male-female couples can have children, and quite a few do without really being ready for them or capable of being decent parents. You can create biological offspring regardless of your education, criminal record, ability to hold a job, personal hygiene habits, and anger management skills. But the standards for adoptive parents are so high and demanding that you almost need to have superhuman endurance and commitment. Adoptive parents have to want children so much that they are willing to pay many thousands of dollars, wait for years, tolerate snoopy bureaucrats investigating their lives and their worthiness to adopt, and jump through numerous other hoops. Adoptive parents belong to an elite slice of humanity with positive attributes that cannot be accounted for by simply looking at their socioeconomic status. OF COURSE adoptive parents are going to score higher on average than the rest of us.
The study of Hamilton et al. is not news – it simply provides some statistics around what ought to be common sense. And both statistics and common sense point to the benefits of having a father and a mother in a stable traditional family, whether DNA is shared or not. And most certainly the actual data of the study says nothing to justify relaxing legal definitions of marriage. The fact that most legally married male-female adoptive parents are saints provides no justification for the gay-lesbian agenda. (I would venture, though, that gay-lesbian couples who really want children and go through the adoptive process would also score highly and do a great job raising their kids, at least in terms of the metrics explored in this study – but that was not addressed due to the paucity of subjects to work with.)