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What Makes a Healthy Family

The Supreme Court rulings on gay marriage prompted much discussion about what kind of parents—gay, straight, single, married—can raise kids the best. It’s time to discard the hoary notion that any one structure produces the best outcomes for child development.


What's the best family structure for raising kids? That question came up again recently because of the Supreme Court's rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act, and California's Proposition 8. A debate erupted on Meet The Press after conservative Christian activist Ralph Reed and GOP Representative Tim Huelskamp cited research showing that married, heterosexual couples raise kids the best. Host David Gregory responded to their claims as many have, pointing out that, “Children tend to prosper in homes where there is a loving marriage. There is really not evidence to suggest that if you are a same-sex couple or a heterosexual couple that it makes one difference one way or the other.” But Gregory is underselling how wide a variety of unorthodox family structures can raise a well-adjusted kid, according to social science research. The number, gender, relationship status, and sexuality of parents are likely not as significant as the quality of the connections between children and the people raising them.

As we wrote in our recent look at the history of scientific analysis of homosexuality, most major health professional associations now agree on gay couples’ abilities to sustain happy, healthy families. But in one of the studies we cite, a 2012 survey of hundreds of studies by Cambridge professor of psychology Michael Lamb, “Mothers, Fathers, Families, and Circumstances: Factors Affecting Children's Adjustment” (discussed in several amicus briefs for the Supreme Court’s gay marriage cases), the author summarizes how decades of research debunks the idea that any one specific family arrangement is dramatically better than another when it comes to raising children.

Most major health professional associations now agree on gay couples’ abilities to sustain happy, healthy families.

Lamb identifies three areas of parenting that appear to most strongly correlate with well-adjusted kids: The quality of the relationship between the child and the people or individual raising them; the quality of the relationship between the child’s parents or single parent and their closest relations; and the economic and social resources available to the child. Evidence for the importance of the first factor, Lamb explains, “[is] amongst the most extensive and reliable in developmental psychology, and [is] consistent regardless of the ages of the children being studied.” Only recently have researchers expanded on this idea to conclude that, perhaps secondary to the parent-child relationship, the relationships between adults raising a child has important implications for a child’s wellbeing. So when David Gregory brought up the health of the “marriage,” he may have emphasized the wrong point, and translated the research about the most effective family structure too narrowly by implying that marriage was the key ingredient.

On the third factor, social and economic opportunities available to a child, Lamb echoes a major talking point for conservative legislators and voters (most recently stated by GOP rising star Rand Paul) when he highlights the financial stresses on many single-parent families that can have a negative impact on child development. According to a recent study from the City University of New York, 51 percent of single parents live on an annual income less than 50 percent of the national median—that’s including welfare support from the government.

The best evidence on the hard-to-quantify social ill of poverty among single-parent families indicates that single parenthood correlates with, but does not cause poverty—and the evidence that single parents cause maladjusted kids is even thinner. For their 2005 book, two researchers, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas followed 162 low-income single mothers in Philadelphia, and found that having a child out of wedlock did not cause poverty as much as poverty made "married with kids" seem like an unattainable luxury. Other researchers have identified poverty as a more important factor than family structure in kids’ education outcomes. Lamb explains that, despite their high rates of poverty, “the majority of children raised in single-parent or divorced families are well-adjusted,” even if outcomes are slightly more negative overall than for kids raised in “traditional” families. It’s an open question whether it’s the money or the family structure itself holding back that minority of children of single parents that turn out maladjusted.

And what about kids with more than two parent figures (no, not Big Love-style families), such as a foster-group setting where a child’s wellbeing is overseen by a team of adults and peers? (Watch for an upcoming story on one such school, in the September/October issue of Pacific Standard.) Researchers have trouble parsing such a groups’ effectiveness, because of the wide variety of group home models. But some early research indicates that certain types of group care might produce healthy outcomes for kids.

Beyond family, a child’s biology, his or her peers and teachers, the media a child consumes, and the communities in which he or she lives can all be influential in shaping that child’s adjustment. But to the extent that research on childhood development has come to safe assumptions about what positive influence a parent-figure can have, one point stands out from Lamb’s summary of existing research: A parent or parents projecting the right mix of warmth and compassion, combined with an appropriate balance of freedom for and control over a child, matters more than family structure. Even though David Gregory rebuts Representative Tim Huelskamp’s broad mischaracterization of the research, he partially reinforces the faulty notion that marriage itself is the main ingredient to craft a healthy child.