FactCheck: is having a mum and a dad the very best thing for a child?

Cory Bernardi is a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, saying children do best when they are raised by both a mother and a father. AAP/Alan Porritt

“If you ask the Australian people whether you think a child has a right to have a mother and a father, 75% or more will say that is right. If you ask individuals whether a mother is the most important nurturing relationship a child can have, over 90% of mothers say the same. So who are we to deny a child the right of having a mother or a father?… We also know that in the development of a child, the very best thing that can happen is for them to have a mum and a dad who play a complementary role in the raising of that child.” – Liberal senator Cory Bernardi, interview with Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast, July 2, 2015.

A cross-party bill aimed at legalising same-sex marriage and scheduled for parliamentary debate in August has come under a new round of criticism from some politicians, including Liberal senator Cory Bernardi.

Many have argued that children need not be brought into debates about marriage equality, but nonetheless it is worth examining how well Bernardi’s assertions hold up against the research.

The evidence

When asked for a source to substantiate his statement, Bernardi’s spokesperson referred to a 2015 poll commissioned by the Australian Marriage Forum (self-described as “an organisation that has been set up to encourage Australians to discuss the issue of same-sex marriage with some discernment and caution”). The online survey of 1242 people found that 76% of Australians agree that:

… where possible, as a society, we should try to ensure that children are raised by their own mother and father.

Bernardi’s spokesman also pointed to a 2005 study, published on the Institute of American Values website that involved a survey of more than 2000 US mothers (complemented by interviews and focus groups), that found that:

… nearly 93% agreed that a mother’s contribution to the care of her children is so unique that no one else can replace it.

While both these sources give an indication of attitudes towards parenting, neither used questionnaires that had been scientifically developed and tested in a range of settings. For example, when measuring child health the Child Behaviour Checklist might be used. In addition, neither of the sources underwent peer review to ensure academic robustness.

Further, it is important to consider that these sources describe the attitudes of heterosexuals to parenting, and in one case only heterosexual mothers.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child goes only so far as to state that a child has “the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents”. There is no mention of whether these parents must include both male and female biological parents or that these parents must be married. Furthermore, neither of Bernardi’s sources give a quantifiable measure of how children actually fare in different family contexts.

This goes to Bernardi’s last and most important point:

We also know that in the development of a child, the very best thing that can happen is for them to have a mum and a dad who play a complementary role in the raising of that child.

To support this point, Bernardi’s spokesperson directed The Conversation to a 2011 report commissioned by the Australian Christian Lobby and researched by University of Sydney law professor Patrick Parkinson, specifically a section that said:

… children do best of all growing up with two happily married biological parents.

This particular quote is actually a citation from a paper by US researcher Paul Amato. His paper does not discuss same-sex parents at all. He instead highlights the importance of happily married parents. The focus of Parkinson’s argument is not that biological opposite-sex parents are essential – rather, it is that stable, conflict-free families that are important.

Like Amato, Parkinson goes on to state that children should be raised in the context of marriage. More than 6000 children in Australia are currently being raised in same-sex couple households. Same-sex marriage would provide access to marriage for the parents of these families.

Reviewing the literature

There is rigorous research on the question of how children of same-sex parented families develop. The Australian Institute of Family Studies has taken a thorough and locally relevant approach.

In their 2013 report on same-sex parent families in Australia they examined and synthesised Australian and international literature on same-sex parented families. The report found that:

… overall, research to date considerably challenges the point of view that same-sex parented families are harmful to children. Children in such families do as well emotionally, socially and educationally as their peers from heterosexual couple families.

This has recently been supported by the largest study in the world to look at child health in same-sex families. This Australian research considered the health and well-being of 500 children from 315 families. It found that, on average, children with same-sex-attracted parents scored pretty much the same as the average Australian child. However, it also showed that in some areas, including how child health is affected by how families get along, children with same-sex attracted parents are doing better.

Research suggests that same-sex parent families function more equitably by sharing parenting tasks. Far from needing a “mum and a dad who play a complementary role in the raising of that child”, as Bernardi suggests, it is same-sex families where complementarity is really proving beneficial.

Verdict

Bernardi, some of his Liberal colleagues, and others, suggest that children need both a mother and father. In terms of actual health and well-being outcomes, the overwhelming body of scientific research suggests that children develop well when growing up with same-sex attracted parents.

More work is required from the academic community to bring this scientific reality to the minds of the community.


Review

This is a fair and academically robust analysis of Bernardi’s statements.

With regard to children’s well-being, there is now a substantial body of international peer-reviewed research in the social sciences on how children are faring when raised in families that do not conform to the married, two biological parent norm.

A comprehensive review I authored for the Australian Institute of Family Studies in 2013 revealed that children raised in same-sex parented families do at least as well as their peers raised in heterosexual couple families when compared on a comprehensive range of social, psychological, health and educational characteristics.

We know that family processes such as levels of conflict between the parents and the relative equity of their divisions of paid and household labour are more influential than the gender, sexuality or number of parents when it comes to children’s well-being. Same-sex couples are known to share parental care and paid work more equitably than heterosexual couples, and this tendency towards greater equity is beneficial for children.

It should also be noted that what people think children need is not necessarily commensurate with “children’s rights”.

When children raised in same-sex parented families are not faring so well, this is often because of their fears or experiences of bullying and discrimination in schools due to the continuing stigma attached to same-sex relationships in some community settings. In the Netherlands, which was the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage, children raised in same-sex parented families have higher well-being scores than their peers in the United States, where same-sex marriage has only recently been obtained. – Deborah Dempsey


Have you ever seen a “fact” that doesn’t look quite right? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.