The Supreme Court recently heard arguments as to whether the Constitution requires states to allow same-sex marriages and to recognize same-sex marriages allowed in other states. In the arguments heard in the lower courts and the record-setting number of amici filed for this case, debate has often veered from whether same-sex couples should be able to marry and waded into the question of how they parent children. Social science research has been front and center in this debate, with a variety of studies examining whether families with two parents of a different sex provide better environments for raising children than two parents of the same sex.
In general, these studies have examined differences in children’s developmental outcomes to make inferences about differences in what is happening in the home, conflating how children do with the ways that people parent in same-sex and different-sex couples. The “no differences” conclusion refers to the fact that few studies have revealed significant differences in these outcomes between children raised by different-sex parents and same-sex parents. This conclusion about parenting based on data on children, however, may be biased in both directions. For example, same-sex couples are more likely to adopt “hard-to-place” children from the foster care system. They are also more likely to have children who have experienced family instability because they transitioned into new family settings after being in families headed by "straight" couples. Both of these factors are known to affect children’s well-being, but they are not as strongly tied to parenting.
In our new study in the June issue of Demography, we directly address the arguments being made about differences in parenting in two-parent families by examining parents’ actual behaviors. Using the nationally representative American Time Use Survey, we examine how much time parents in same-sex and different-sex couples spend in child-focused activities during a 24-hour period, controlling for a wide range of factors that are also associated with parenting, such as income, education, time spent at work, and the number and age of children in the family. By "child-focused" time, we mean time spent engaged with children in activities that support their physical and cognitive development, like reading to them, playing with them, or helping them with their homework.
Supporting a no differences conclusion, our study finds that women and men in same-sex relationships and women in different-sex relationships do not differ in the amount of time they spend in child-focused activities (about 100 minutes a day). We did find one difference, however, as men in different-sex relationships spend only half as much child-focused time as the other three types of parents. Averaging across mothers and fathers, we determined that children with same-sex parents received an hour more of child-focused parent time a day (3.5 hours) than children in different-sex families (2.5 hours).
A key implication of our study is that the focus on whether same-sex parents provide depreciably different family contexts for healthy child development is misplaced. If anything, the results show that same-sex couples are more likely to invest time in the types of parenting behaviors that support child development. In line with a recent study that has continued to highlight that poverty—more so than family structure—is the greatest detriment to parenting practices, it’s hard not to see how de-legitimizing same-sex families in ways that create both social and economic costs for them poses a greater source of disadvantage for children.