Pop Psychology: "Kids need their mother/father!"

[Image description: Watercolour illustration of children.]
Article by Amelia A. J. Foy

Pop Psychology (‘popular psychology’) refers to popularised theories about human behaviour and lifestyles with a reported root in psychological research. However, these theories are often misconstrued or over-simplified in the media, presented as “facts” without any critical thought, and when used to justify certain ideologies or behaviours, can be damaging.
In this (new!) series, we talk about what we know and what we don’t about topics in pop psychology - and maybe do a bit of debunking.

This month: “Kids need a mother/father!”

So, this has been a little bit of a hot topic at the moment. With Terry Crews’ recent comments on Twitter, a conversation has resurfaced around the idea that children need a mother and a father in their life.

Of course, it’s more complicated than this with Crews’ comments - with the stereotypes of black fatherhood coming into play - but nonetheless it is a very pervasive and commonly held belief that without a mix of maternal and paternal influences in a child’s life, they will suffer in some form. This includes having a negative impact on their mental health, being more masculine/feminine than their peers, or not knowing how to function amongst their peers or society as their prescribed gender.

This isn’t something new; this ideology has been around as long as families have diverted from the typical nuclear structure of a mother and father with their biological children. The idea of “needing” a mother and father doesn’t just refer to single parents or same-sex couples - it also affects adopted children, children of donor or egg insemination, children of surrogacy and all other non-’traditional’ families. Of course, not all who hold this idea feel that you have to have a blood-related mother and father; often, it is just a mother- and father-figure. But this in itself is based in the idea of maternal and paternal instincts; and that men and women innately work together to raise a child.

But is there any truth to this?

The Research

The Centre for Family Research in the UK has been investigating ‘new’ families since the 80s. This was brought about by public outcry towards lesbian mothers in the late 70s and, around the same time, the first “test tube” baby. This media outrage was around everything previously mentioned, in a very “WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?!” fashion. This centre, in response, has since studied single mothers, single lesbian mothers, lesbian mother families, gay father families, families who’ve used forms of IVF (donor or egg insemination, surrogacy) and families who’ve used adoption. It is currently examining transgender parents and their children.

It aims to address the concerns people have about raising a child without a father- and mother-figure in the home, whether that be biological or otherwise. Many of the studies below were conducted by this group. So, let’s see what they found:

Do children need two biological parents?

The questions surrounding families who have used IVF are commonly: can the non-biological parent(s) bond with the children? How does the child feel towards their non-biological parent? Does a child feel as loved by non-biological parent(s)? This is not exactly what we are looking at today, but is definitely a good place to start.

  • A review of the literature on children conceived through egg donations (so, examining all available studies in this area and their findings) found that children function well from childhood into adolescence, with small discrepancies in mother-child relationships not outside of the normal range of fluctuation (as in, you would see this in “traditional” families too).
  • The same was found in families who used sperm donors and surrogacy.
  • However, a longitudinal study (a study conducted over a long time span with follow-ups) found slight negative differences in the mother-child relationships of egg donor children, showing the lack of genetic link might be a barrier for mothers; however, the children still functioned well and showed good levels of psychological wellbeing. This trend wasn’t found in sperm donor families with fathers; and mothers who conceived through surrogacy showed more positive relationships with their children.
  • The only factor to negatively affect children specifically in this circumstance is if their parents are not honest with them about their origins from an early age.
  • When looking at personal accounts, children and teenagers of surrogacy, egg donation or sperm donation, who were told of their contraceptive origins in childhood, did not feel negatively towards their origins. They were mainly indifferent. If they weren’t in contact with their donor(s) or surrogates, they expressed interest in them; those in contact felt positively about them.

Thus, it doesn’t seem that having a non-traditional family structure, consisting of multiple “parental” figures, negatively affects a child. Furthermore, whilst there may be obstacles for mothers in particular with egg donation, this does not seem to reflect an innate inability to raise a non-biological child healthily (as seen with surrogate mothers). For fathers, the same trend persists. So, we have established that the literature suggests a genetic link does not necessitate a child being raised in a loving environment, with healthy functionality and psychological wellbeing, or their relationships with their families (whether that includes their donors or not).

But they still have both a maternal and paternal figure in the home here, just not blood-related. What about children who don’t?

What about single parents?

Firstly, these studies will focus on single parents by choice. Results therefore can’t be blanket-applied to children of divorce, for example, due to the confounding (i.e. interfering) variables of the stress of divorce on family structure; the same can be said for single-parent families due to death or other circumstances. This makes the studies as valid as possible - that is to say, it is measuring what it set out to measure (single parenting) and not other factors that might confuse the results.

  • In single-mother families by choice (i.e. chose to be a single mother, not just out of circumstance), there were no differences in parenting style, relationship with the child, the child’s psychological adjustment or their gender development, when compared to two-parent heterosexual families.
  • In a follow-up which included lesbian single-mother families, there were no difference in the child’s development; their relationship with their mothers were stronger than with two-parent peers, and boys showed more feminine characteristics, but not any less masculine characteristics, to their peers.

Thus, the literature suggests that a father figure is not necessary for a child to be functional, have good psychological wellbeing, and adopt their prescribed gender roles. Slight differences in boys of lesbian mothers do not reflect an emasculisation, just an added display of feminine traits. (Side note: gendering behaviour is so weird, isn’t it?)

There is sadly less literature available for single-father families, as this is a newer research area; so, we turn to same-sex family literature to study family environments without women, but also how non-heterosexual family structures may differ from those above.

Lesbian mother families and gay father families: yOu’Re mAkInG tHe KiDs gAy!

This was one of the main things highlighted during the Terry Crews debacle: the erasure and invalidation of same-sex families. This is a group already heavily stigmatised; so, on top of the aforementioned “worries” people have about non-traditional families, there is also: the kids will be bullied! They’ll grow up gay!

  • Comparing lesbian mother families to both heterosexual two-parent families and single-mother families yielded no differences in the adjustment and psychological wellbeing of children; at aged 7, they were well-adjusted and mentally well.
  • Looking at child attachment, gay father families and lesbian mother families showed no difference in scores: their children were all very securely attached, denoting parental warmth and responsiveness.
  • Children of same-sex families also have been found to do better in schools.
  • The only negative impact of same-sex parenting is in fact no fault of the parents; in a recent talk of the centre’s findings at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, it was outlined that children of same-sex parents are more likely to be bullied about sexuality. However, they weren’t more likely to be bullied overall - it was just the content of the bullying that differed.
  • It was also stressed that, no, they don’t raise gay children - in adulthood, the majority of children of same-sex families were heterosexual, with only 2 people being LGBQ+.

So, research suggests that both lesbian mother and gay father families raise children to be securely attached, functional and psychologically well children, with no differences to other family structures such as mother-father families and single parents.

If you want to read more on this topic from the experts themselves (the kids), have a look at Sh*t People Have Actually Said to People with LGBTQ+ Parents.

Conclusion: do parents need a mother and father?

The answer is: nah, doesn’t look like it. But Prof. Susan Golombok (of the Centre for Family Research) sums up this whole topic very well in an interview with The Guardian:

“People always assume with new family structures that it's bad for children; that the more families deviate from the "gold standard" of the nuclear family, the more problematic for children it's going to be. Actually, the more we study these families and have solid data on what happens, we find it's not the case.”