Writing Off Families: Psychologists Doubt that Moms and Dads Make Much Difference in Raising Children

Social scientists can’t seem to agree on what the family is and how it should function in society. In fact, when it comes to the family, theorists have more novel solutions than problems. Little Mikey returns from school wondering why his friend’s daddy has a roommate and why Heather gets to have two mommies. Yet the social problems that flow from family breakdown—divorce, child abuse and neglect, single motherhood, abortion—don’t seem to respond to any of the treatments scientists prescribe. And if that isn’t enough, psychologists are now telling us that the two-parent setup is inconsequential to a child’s well-being.

The recent rash of statements on just what a family should be come from the pages of journals published by the American Psychological Association (APA), an ostensibly scientific organization that has shown an increasing aptitude for taking on ideological disputes. In its mission statement, the APA declares it intends “to advance psychology as a science and profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.” Some believe that’s the APA’s problem: Its science is being reduced to a means that serves its social and political ends.

Consensual and Positive?

The first report to generate public outrage came in July 1998, when the APA’s Psychological Bulletin published “A Meta-Analytical Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Students.” The author’s conclusion, based on 59 previous studies that examined the long-term effects of child abuse, states that, in the long run, sexual abuse of children is really not all that bad. People who have experienced such abuse shouldn’t be troubled by it, for the authors of the report found that some victims believe their experiences were consensual—even positive.

Public reaction to the report’s claims began with nationally syndicated radio commentator Dr. Laura Schlessinger, whose outrage generated widespread attention for the article. Congress condemned the statements, and the American Psychiatric Association lambasted the report, despite a shady scientific history of its own. (In an example of “democratic” science in 1973, the board of the psychiatric association voted to remove homosexuality from the list of disorders.)

Dr. Raymond Fowler, CEO of the APA, responded somewhat belatedly to the public reaction to the report in Psychological Bulletin. He promised that his organization would take steps in good faith to review with greater care articles that might have implications on public policy. And a month after publication of the article, the APA issued a statement stressing that it “repudiates and disassociates itself from any organization or publication that advocates sexual interaction between children and adults.” At the same time, the House of Representatives passed a congressional resolution condemning the report’s findings. In a letter to Congress, the APA recognized the article was “inflammatory,” but never quite managed to condemn the findings of the report itself, finding it much easier to turn defense into offense. “The only effective way to uphold or discredit the substance and methodology of any article is for it to be reviewed by credible scientists who can, in turn, publish independent findings derived from their own and others’ research,” the letter reads.

But even as the APA was issuing these statements, another of its journals, American Psychologist, published “Deconstructing the Essential Father.” The authors of the most recent report, Louise B. Silverstein and Carl E Auerbach, professors at Yeshiva University in New York, conclude that “neither a mother nor a father is essential” and could find no “empirical support that marriage enhances fathering or that marriage civilizes men and protects women.” In fact, the authors claim, a father’s presence in a family may actually “be detrimental to the child and mother,” since men are inclined to use resources for “gambling, purchasing alcohol, cigarettes, or other nonessential commodities.” Silverstein and Auerbach accuse “neoconservative social scientists” of oversimplifying current research by claiming that fathers are of the utmost importance in raising their children well. The authors malign the view that heterosexual marriage may be beneficial to children. “This perspective is generating a range of governmental initiatives designed to provide social support references to fathers over mothers and heterosexual married couples over alternative family forms,” they complain.

The authors arrive at this somewhat abrupt conclusion by combining qualitative research, their own analysis of a group of 200 men from 10 different subcultures, and previous research done in the area of marmoset behavior. (Those not versed in primate research should know that a marmoset can be any of a number of small, soft-furred, South and Central American monkeys who have claws instead of nails on all the digits except the great toe.) Silverstein and Auerbach chose this particular primate because marmosets always have twins, making it necessary for both males and females to participate actively in baby marmoset rearing.

In an interview with Crisis magazine, Schlessinger stresses her initial reaction to the report. “The main point of this article is an ideological position. It is not backed by anything reminiscent of science. They’re saying that it doesn’t matter what situation kids are in. That’s absurd. It flies in the face of thousands of years of history, much less decades and decades of real research,” she says.

 

Dispensable Dads

But psychologists Silverstein’s and Auerbach’s real concerns are social science and public policy. They think some social scientists incorrectly link social problems with the presence or absence of fathers in families. The authors call this idea “essentialism,” an idea that is outmoded and, therefore, must be defeated.

David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, is one of the social scientists criticized in the report by the authors. “The political views of Silverstein and Auerbach are no more interesting or valid than that of someone in a bar you would happen to bump into,” Blankenhorn says in response. “They just arbitrarily superimposed their own political categories on a topic that really deserves to be examined on its own terms. The ;essentialist’ position? Where is the integrity of defining people according to terms that the people themselves don’t accept?”

The data that are so crucial to Silverstein’s and Auerbach’s scholarly arguments and conclusions are conspicuous by their absence from the article. And the authors aren’t even sure they are right. They themselves state that some of the research used to support their argument will turn out to be incorrect. Yet the target of this article is “neoconservative social scientists” who have done research not in psychology, but in their own respective fields.

What methodological problems are there in the report? Dr. Ray Johnson, founder and president of Psychologists for a Free APA, also found several methodological problems in the report. He points out that 200 fathers stretched out across 10 subcultures results in 20 fathers per subculture, which is “hardly representative of any subculture at all.” Johnson founded Psychologists for a Free APA to give support to psychologists who wish to see the APA separate its science from its politics. “The APA is supposed to be a professional organization, a scientific organization. It should not be going before Congress, trying to pass bills which their particular political groups want passed.”

Schlessinger doesn’t even give the authors credit for bad methodology “There is no methodology,” she says. “When you study marmosets, little fuzzy creatures that hang from trees, and say that the way marmosets carry on child-rearing is an indication of anything having to do with human parents, much less the conclusions they drew, is just plain stupid. That’s not science.”

As with the pedophilia report, the APA found it necessary to issue a statement that distances the official opinions of the organization from the authors’ opinions in the report. And, once again, the APA defended its right to publish any article it deems fit: “These journals provide checks and balances on the field and provide a focus for the scrutiny of fellow scientists,” the APA claims in an official statement.

Blankenhorn says that a review process must occur before an article is published in a journal of the APA, but wonders how such an article could survive “an even minimally competent review process.” He points out that researchers such as Sarah McLanahan (Princeton), Linda Waite (University of Chicago), Robert Lerman (Urban Institute), and Urie Bronfenbenner (Cornell) have gathered a lifetime’s worth of evidence to prove that marriage is beneficial for society, children, and both parents.

While the APA has issued a statement asserting that it supports “quality parenting by both mothers and fathers,” many of the APA’s activities and political and social spheres coincide with statements made in Silverstein’s and Auerbach’s report. The APA has been very active in national legislation, supporting abortion for minors, pushing for gay marriage in all states, and condemning the Defense of Marriage Act.

 

Marmoset Moms

The APA tells a slightly different version. It says that it “recognizes that the family constitutes a basic unity of society.” (The term “family” is never defined or limited.) It also claims it has advocated legislation that recognizes the equal rights of men and women in child custody cases. Silverstein and Auerbach Just take that logic one step further. In a statement for public-relations purposes, they call for “extensive governmental supports” for families in “a variety of family structures, not only within the traditional heterosexual family.”

While the APA has nearly 160,000 members, a small cadre of 200 individuals on the council of representatives are consulted on political issues and public statements. Schlessinger believes the APA’s recent activities are harmful to society “They are aiming to destroy the foundation of civilization, marriage, on the family, mothering and fathering, and heterosexuality in order to get validation for others’ sexual deviancy. They are willing to destroy modern civilization, causing serious harm to needy, dependent children.”

Governmental support of a loosely defined family may be the next step in an already rapidly declining respect for the American family. Our schools tell Mikey about differing family structures; now psychologists are putting parents on the defensive by questioning their roles as caregivers. One can’t help but wonder if Mikey might be better off being raised by the marmosets after all.

Author

  • Colet Coughlin

    At the time this article was published, Colet Coughlin was an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

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