So sang Whitney Houston in 1986. The song, “The Greatest Love of All” is actually about self-actualization: Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.
But I want to stay with the opening refrain. Not just that it is tautological — children will be future adults and the absence of any children means that the race has no future. But that we jump through hoops in social policy to ask “But what about the children?“
Or sometimes we ask. About some children.
In light of the Supreme Court’s decision on the unconstitutionality of DOMA, many critics have suggested that we are no longer caring for the children. They point out that “research” shows that children are healthier when raised in homes with two parents: the biological mother and father.
There is good social science literature that supports such claims. A quick Google search led me to a nice summary article written last year. But that article, like most of the research on two-parent families, has nothing to do with same-sex marriage or adoption by gay couples or single adults. It contrasts intact families — that is, still in the initial marriage — with single parents, reconstituted families, or cohabiting parents. When we make that comparison, the two parent families provide better support.
There are economic factors in play here, of course. Not all two-parent intact families are equal. Some struggle financially, live in bad neighborhoods, and have limited opportunities for advancement. It stands to reason that families in those circumstances might not be as beneficial as a reconstituted family with more monetary resources.
There are historical factors in play here as well. Children in the first part of the 20th century were an important part of the labor force. Women were treated as an appendage of the husband (read Ibsen’s A Doll’s House) and were legally property. Men were distant and followed the prevailing thought that showing emotion wasn’t manly. The first time I saw Rachel Held Evans was a video of a presentation she’d made a Fuller Seminary as her Year of Biblical Womanhood was coming out. It was clear that the “Biblical version of family” had far more to do with June Cleaver and Margaret Anderson — Father Knows Best — than timeless traditions. (These also reinforced the economic lessons — the Cleavers and Andersons were homes of professionals that quickly became normative within society).
There are also psychological limitations. I’ve been reading the late Brennan Manning’s memoir. It wasn’t a happy home. His mother was impossible to please and his father was distant. In other families, you could have a father who was overly controlling (or, heaven forbid, abusive) and withheld love to maintain the control over the household. I’ve had far too many conversations with young evangelicals to know that there are a lot of stories out there just like what I’ve suggested.
So here’s what I think we’re really saying. It’s best for children to grow up in middle-class, emotionally stable, affirming homes with parents who are loving and psychologically healthy. Start switching out those variables and you get different outcomes.
What does this have to do with children growing up in same-sex households? First, it’s too soon to tell. Recent research, even the controversial stuff that came out last year, doesn’t disentangle the same-sex relationship from any social stigma that might have attached. Furthermore, we’d really need to be able to disentangle the various dynamics described above.
There’s reason to suspect that Modern Family’s Cameron and Mitchell provide at least the same level of support as the Cleavers. On the other hand, Jay Pritchard’s first show, Married with Children was as dysfunctional as they come (which was the joke). Roseanne and Dan Conner fell somewhere in the middle.
One more thing. Children are resilient. While the advantages of “growing up Cleaver” are many, there are also millions of stories of children growing up in homes without those advantages. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, LeBron James. And those are just some famous examples.
The number of children growing up in poverty line single-parent households continues to grow. That is a real concern and we need to find ways of guaranteeing those children a future as well.
But simply wishing they were all like the Cleavers isn’t the point. And suggesting that because we aren’t celebrating the Cleavers that society is doomed is not just short-sighted — it’s sociological cherry-picking.