It doesn’t matter who raises children as long as they have money and basic parenting skills. That’s the gist of Emily Badger’s article at the Washington Post, “Children with married parents are better off—but marriage isn’t the reason why.”
Badger admits that children raised by “two parents tend to be more successful—at school, in the future labor market, in their own marriages—than children raised by a single mom or dad.” But it’s not because their own parents are raising them, it’s because of economics and parenting skills among the type of people who marry.
Let’s cut to the chase. This is just another attempt to attack the traditional family and undermine the importance of marriage. If all that matters for children “to thrive” (which Badger defines in basically materialistic and economic terms) is decent parenting skills—such as reading to and eating meals with the kids—and a healthy bank account, then most anyone could successfully raise a child. A single dad. Or not a dad. A single mom. Or not. Two men. Two women. How about a nanny? Would that work? Sounds like it.
A glaring omission from Badger’s analysis is the biological, psychological, and spiritual dimension of a child. The researchers she cites—who coldly call marriage a “commitment device”—seem oblivious to what it means to be a complete human being. We don’t come into the world isolated and alone. We are born into a social framework, a family. We are born to two parents—a father and a mother—and this is deeply significant to the well-being of the whole child.
Dads Bring More than Bacon
As the Heritage Foundation has noted, fathers in the home make all the difference as both parents raise their child together. Yes, economics is a part of it: “Being raised in a married family reduces a child’s probability of living in poverty by about 82 percent.” But money is not all that matters:
Some of this difference in poverty is due to the fact that single parents tend to have less education than married couples, but even when married couples are compared to single parents with the same level of education, the married poverty rate will still be more than 75 percent lower. Marriage is a powerful weapon in fighting poverty. In fact, being married has the same effect in reducing poverty that adding five to six years to a parent’s level of education has.
Having a father in the home—not just a cohabiting male—has a positive effect on children that goes far beyond reducing poverty. While many behavioral problems can be associated with the higher poverty rates of single mothers, not all can:
In many cases the improvements in child well-being that are associated with marriage persist even after adjusting for differences in family income. This indicates that the father brings more to his home than just a paycheck.
The effect of married fathers on child outcomes can be quite pronounced. For example, examination of families with the same race and same parental education shows that, when compared to intact married families, children from single-parent homes are
- More than twice as likely to be arrested for a juvenile crime;
- Twice as likely to be treated for emotional and behavioral problems;
- Roughly twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from school; and
- A third more likely to drop out before completing high school.”
The effects of being raised in a single-parent home continue into adulthood. Comparing families of the same race and similar incomes, children from broken and single-parent homes are three times more likely to end up in jail by the time they reach age 30 than are children raised in intact married families. Compared to girls raised in similar married families, girls from single-parent homes are more than twice as likely to have a child without being married, thereby repeating the negative cycle for another generation.
So, contrary to the researchers cited in Badger’s article, who say parenting skills and economics “explain most of the better outcomes for the children of married couples” than marriage, many other researchers come to a different conclusion: that marriage is fundamental to a child’s well-being.
Longing for Their Real Parents
Despite the evidence, many in our culture don’t want to believe that marriage between a man and woman gives something to children no other arrangement can. This does not mean that adopted children, or children whose parent has died, or even the children of sperm donors can’t have successful lives, but these are not the norm and neither should they be.
There is a reason it is almost legendary that adoptive children long to know their “real parents.” There is a reason men who were raised without a father weep when they watch “A Field of Dreams.” Nothing can compare to the pure, simple joy that comes from a boy playing catch with his dad. There is a reason a woman—with tears in her eyes—told author Sue Monk Kidd at a book tour stop in Charlotte, North Carolina, that her depiction of Lily’s search to know her mother in “The Secret Life of Bees” accurately reflected, in the most tender ways, the ache of a little girl who grew up without her mom—an ache that could only be soothed by connecting with her mother’s past.
There is something unique to the relationship with a dad and a mom that is irreplaceable. A child needs both parents—and most of the time it’s dad who is being left out of the picture. But his presence is integral to a child’s healthy development. As noted sociologist Dr. David Popenoe has said, “Fathers are far more than just ‘second adults’ in the home. Involved fathers bring positive benefits to their children that no other person is as likely to bring.”
A study done for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on “The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children” outlines the necessity of having a father in the home—listing reasons that go beyond economics and mere parenting skills—but there are deeper psychological reasons children need their dad and mom, together. It has to do with biology and identity formation—essential aspects to human nature materialistic-focused studies like those cited by Badger do not consider.
Knowledge of self is essential to human flourishing. In fact, it is lack of knowing one’s self that causes us to act out and seek identity through external means in a desperate effort to define who we are. Aside from merely modeling bad behavior, children engage in deviant behavior because they are searching for significance or meaning.
A girl looking for love through sex and getting pregnant outside of marriage is the behavior of someone not fully aware of who she is. She is searching for meaning and identity in the arms of someone who claims to love her. She is looking for someone to fill the emptiness left by her absent father—emptiness defined by lack of love and self-understanding.
‘I Am Your Father’
“Who am I?” is the foundational question every human being asks, whether they verbalize it or not, whether they’re consciously aware of it or not. This question cannot be fully answered outside the family because children are not dropped into this word, disconnected from everyone around them. They come into this world, born to a man and a woman, connected to a history, a genealogy, the building blocks of who they are as individuals.
How many times do you hear, “You look just like your mom!” Or “You have your grandfather’s stubborn disposition.” Or, “You have a fiery Irish temper.” “Or, “You get your brains from your dad”? Our family connections are born of biology, and no artificially imposed relationship or socially engineered construct can replace them. They can serve as adequate and even satisfying substitutes—for where there is great love, much can be overcome (just ask any adoptive parent who fiercely loves his or her adopted child)—but there is still something fundamental to biology that cannot be denied. Even an adoptive parent will admit this.
J. David Velleman wrote a wonderful philosophical paper, “Family History,” in which he argues that meaning in life is importantly influenced by biological connections. “When people deny the importance of biological ties, I wonder how they can read world literature with any comprehension. How do they make any sense of Telemachus, who goes in search of a father he cannot remember? What do they think is the dramatic engine of the Oedipus story? When the adoptive grandson of Pharaoh says, ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land,’ do they take him to be speaking merely as an Egyptian in the land of Midian? How can they even understand the colloquy between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker? Surely, the revelation ‘I am your father’ should strike them as a bit of dramatic stupidity—a remark to be answered ‘So, what?’” This the kind of response you get from shallow materialists who see children as isolated biological units who are “okay” as long as someone reads to them and provides them with a stable income. “I am your father” has no meaning.
But it does have meaning. Deep meaning. Seeing ourselves in the context of our family informs us of ourselves, and that information can never come from any other source. Never. No matter how much love might be shown.
“When adoptees go in search of their biological parents and siblings, there is a literal sense in which they are searching for themselves,” Velleman says. “They are searching for the closest thing to a mirror in which to catch an external and candid view of what they are like in more than mere appearance. Not knowing any biological relatives must be like wandering in a world without reflective surfaces, permanently self-blind.”
The Hole in Harry Potter’s Heart
“Children denied of knowledge of only one biological parent are not entirely cut off from this view of themselves, but they are cut off from one half of it,” he continues. “Their estrangement even from one parent . . . must still be a deprivation, because it estranges them from people who would be familiar without any prior acquaintance, people with whom they would enjoy that natural familiarity which would be so revealing about themselves.”
Who can’t read that and not think of Harry Potter sitting before the Mirror of Erised? He sits in the murky shadows, cross-legged on the floor, gazing at the image of himself with his mom and dad—his mom with whom he shares his green eyes, and his dad whose unruly dark hair mirrors his own. How many times had he been told how much he looks like his parents—the eyes, the hair, the magic, the mischievousness of his father, the kindness of his mother? But he didn’t know them, and because he didn’t know them, he didn’t really know himself. And Harry desperately needed to know himself. We all do.
To intentionally raise children without their biological parents cruelly deprives them of much-needed self-knowledge. It also leaves adoptive parents or stepparents without an immediate, organic knowledge of how to guide their children—those parenting skills Badger cites. Ask any stepparent how difficult it is to instinctively understand what a child needs. “I just don’t get them like I do my own kids,” many a stepparent has said. That’s natural. There is an inherent understanding—of the good and the bad—that comes with biology.
Children are a blend of their parents, and they need to know—intimately know—both parents to truly know themselves, be secure, feel connected, and be deeply confident in who they are. Before they can discover the answers to life’s many questions and get to know the sea of disparate people around them, they need to be able to answer the question, “Who am I?” Children need the “Know Thyself” anchor to keep them from floating adrift in the world. Marriage between their biological parents provides that like nothing else.
“Some truths are so homely as to embarrass the philosopher who ventures to speak them,” Velleman says. “First comes love, then comes marriage, and then the proverbial baby carriage. Well, it’s not such a ridiculous way of doing things, is it? The baby in that carriage has an inborn nature that joins together the natures of two adults. If those two adults are joined by love into a stable relationship—call it marriage—then they will be naturally prepared to care for it with sympathetic understanding, and to show it how to recognize some of the qualities within itself. A child naturally comes to feel at home with itself and at home in the world by growing up in its own family.”
Choice Versus Necessity
Sometimes that isn’t always possible. Sometimes it’s necessary to raise a child without both parents, because some children are abandoned and parents die. The adoptive parents who raise these children and the single moms and dads who find themselves alone because of divorce or death are to be admired—and helped. They have a difficult task, but a noble one. They love passionately, which is why adoptive kids who want to search for their biological parents feel such guilt.
But this isn’t the situation central to the marriage and child-rearing debate today. More and more women are choosing to have children and raise them alone—many through sperm donations. More couples are cohabitating, having children, then breaking up. People divorce without a thought to the needs of the children. Lesbian couples are going to sperm banks, having kids, and then raising them as a “family.”
Such children are not only denied the opportunity of having a masculine influence in the home, but they never know their fathers. Contrary to Annette Bening and Julianne Moore’s charming portrayal of a lesbian couple raising donor kids, “the kids really aren’t all right.” They might get good jobs, a good education, and even a happy marriage. They might be loved by the lesbian couple, and they most likely are—but there is something missing inside of them. They miss the love and vital presence of their father, leaving them disconnected from themselves and the world at a deep-seated psychological level.
My Dad Is A Random Stranger
Nothing reveals this more than testimonies from the Anonymous Us project, “a safety zone for real and honest insights regarding third-party reproduction.” One woman whose single mother chose a sperm donor over marriage says she feels “completely alone”:
Growing up without a father has affected me in more ways than I can count. Not to mention my friends have labeled me with ‘daddy issues,’ due to my promiscuous behavior and emotional dependency on older guys. I wonder all the time who he is, and my mother never likes to talk about it with me, though i cry any time i try to talk about it. i would give anything to have a father. maybe then i wouldn’t be so clingy, emotionally dependent, and lets face it, screwed up. I resent my mom horribly, i know its wrong, but it’s true. There will always be a part of me that will be forever angry with her for the decision she made. When i try to talk to her about it, she doesn’t understand. she says i don’t need a dad, which is easy for her to say because she had a dad growing up and doesn’t know what it feels like. I have no one to talk to about this. I’m just sick of this empty feeling inside my chest . . . and there’s nothing to do about it.
Another woman, who says her mother chose a sperm donor out of convenience because she didn’t want to deal with a man (echoes of Katy Perry), admits that her mom “did a great job of raising me—I ate homemade dinners every night, I went to Disneyland every summer, and most importantly, I knew I was loved.” She had everything the researchers in Badger’s article says is necessary for children “to thrive.” But, she confesses, she resents her mother: “I feel her actions were selfish. Emotionally, it’s very hard for me to accept that I was conceived out of convenience and not love. That the only reason I’m on this earth is because some random guy jacked off into a cup while looking at Playboy.”
The conflicted feelings she has are so apparent in her post. She knows she should be thankful that her mom gave her life and that God has a plan for her. But—and this is the great “but” every advocate of an intentional “domestic arrangement” that does not include both parents should heed—“I feel the void of my father more so than ever as an adult. I had no father to walk me down the aisle at my wedding. My son had no grandfather present at his birth or his brit shalom. . . . Father’s Day hits me hard. I’ve lost more than one job in my life simply because I couldn’t drag myself out of bed on that day. I don’t celebrate my birthday at all.”
Those who think marriage doesn’t matter, that dads don’t matter—or that moms don’t matter, either—need to listen to these testimonies and countless others like them.
Those who think marriage is basically irrelevant don’t know human nature, and they deny the deep needs of the human heart. They reject biology for a political scheme, and instead of doing what is best for children—advocating for both parents to raise children in a committed relationship called marriage—they attempt to advance their own twisted views of humanity. They reduce children to material, isolated units instead of seeing them as soulful creatures fashioned from two people and connected to a genetic history that informs them of who they are in this big, diverse world.
To intentionally deny children the opportunity to know both parents—and to be raised by them—is not only naive and foolish, it is cruel. It is a form of neglect—and those who advocate it are advancing the neglect, the abuse, of children. Such people aren’t to be legitimized and they’re certainly not to be admired. They’re to be exposed for what they are: self-centered people who care only about an agenda, not about children. If they were truly compassionate as they claim, they wouldn’t rob children of what they need most in this world—the love and intimate knowledge of their mom and their dad. They would support marriage between a man and woman, which is essential to children knowing themselves and being truly happy.
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