Making The Case For Traditional Parenting

Over the weekend, John Farrell published an odd critique of an essay of mine that ran at First Things. The essay is an excerpt from my new book, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom. In the book, I argue on the basis of philosophy, social science and public policy that the judicial redefinition of marriage will have negative consequences for our country. In the last chapter, I place this debate over the nature of marriage and human sexuality into a larger discussion, one of philosophical and theological anthropology.

Farrell criticizes this for being too religious and for not being scientific enough: “If there’s one thing the article doesn’t discuss at all, it’s … anthropology: The science of anthropology as it would be understood by practitioners of the wide-ranging discipline.” Farrell might want to reconsider his scientism. After all, philosophical and theological anthropology pre-date the practice of scientific anthropology by millennia. And, in fact, the most important anthropological truths—that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights—aren’t “scientific” at all.

There’s no such thing as “parenting”

Nevertheless, had Farrell looked to the book from which the First Things essay was drawn, he would have found ample scientific evidence to support the conclusion that marriage policy should reflect the truth that marriage is the union of man and woman. Part of that argument hinges on the reality that there is no such thing as “parenting.” There is mothering, and there is fathering—children do best with both. This is an argument about human anthropology if ever there were.

Other non-theological disciplines provide insights, too. In a summary of the “best psychological, sociological, and biological research to date,” Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, finds that “men and women bring different gifts to the parenting enterprise, that children benefit from having parents with distinct parenting styles, and that family breakdown poses a serious threat to children and to the societies in which they live.”

Wilcox finds that “most fathers and mothers possess sex-specific talents related to parenting, and societies should organize parenting and work roles to take advantage of the way in which these talents tend to be distributed in sex-specific ways.” These differences are not the result of gender roles or sex stereotypes. They are a matter of what comes naturally to moms and dads, what moms and dads enjoy doing with their children.

Fathers have crucial parenting roles

As I explain in Truth Overruled, dads play important roles in the formation of both their sons and their daughters. As the sociologist David Popenoe of Rutgers University explains, “The burden of social science evidence supports the idea that gender-differentiated parenting is important for human development and that the contribution of fathers to childrearing is unique and irreplaceable.”  Popenoe concludes:

“We should disavow the notion that ‘mommies can make good daddies,’ just as we should disavow the popular notion . . . that ‘daddies can make good mommies.’ . . . The two sexes are different to the core, and each is necessary—culturally and biologically—for the optimal development of a human being."

What are the distinctive gifts of mothers and fathers? Wilcox reports, “Among the many distinctive talents that mothers bring to the parenting enterprise, three stand out: their capacity to breastfeed, their ability to understand infants and children, and their ability to offer nurture and comfort to their children.” And fathers, Wilcox writes, “excel when it comes to discipline, play, and challenging their children to embrace life’s challenges.”

Children of each sex, moreover, benefit from the distinct and complementary attention of a mother and father. Consider what dads do for their sons and daughters.

Fathers tend to be the ones who engage in what sociologists call “rough and tumble play”—teaching their boys that it’s all right to put people in headlocks but not to bite, pull hair, or gouge eyes. Fathers help their boys channel their distinctively masculine tendencies into productive activities. When this doesn’t happen, social costs run high. Wilcox writes, “[C]riminals come from broken homes at a disproportionate rate: 70 percent of juveniles in state reform schools, 72 percent of adolescent murderers, and 60 percent of rapists grew up in fatherless homes.” Fathers matter for their boys.

Don’t underrate the importance of father-daughter interaction

Fathers also matter for their daughters. Because dads, on average, tend to be larger than moms and have deeper voices, they’re likely to be better at scaring away bad boyfriends. And because dads were boys themselves, they know what the wrong sort of boy might be looking for in their daughter. As a result, dads are more likely to police whom their daughter is dating. A married father and mother are models of a good male-female relationship for their daughter.

Wilcox reports that “35 percent of girls in the United States whose fathers left before age 6 became pregnant as teenagers, that 10 percent of girls in the United States whose fathers left them between the ages of 6 and 18 became pregnant as teenagers, and that only 5 percent of girls whose fathers stayed with them throughout childhood became pregnant.” Would you rather have a 35% or a 5% chance of becoming a teenage mom?

Traditional marriage matters

Social science confirms the importance of marriage for children. According to the best available sociological evidence, children fare best according to virtually every indicator examined when reared by their wedded biological parents. Studies that control for other factors, including poverty and even genetics, suggest that children reared in intact homes do best in measurements of educational achievement, emotional health, familial and sexual development, and delinquency and incarceration.

A study published by the left-leaning research institution Child Trends concluded:

“[I]t is not simply the presence of two parents . . . but the presence of two biological parents that seems to support children’s development [emphasis in original]. . . .

. . . [R]esearch clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps children the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage. Children in single-parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in stepfamilies or cohabiting relationships face higher risks of poor outcomes. . . . There is thus value for children in promoting strong, stable marriages between biological parents."


Marriage benefits everyone because separating childbearing and childrearing from marriage burdens innocent bystanders—not just children, but the whole community. When parents are unable to care for their children, someone has to step in, and that “someone” is often the state. By encouraging the marriage norms of monogamy, sexual exclusivity and permanence, the state strengthens civil society and reduces its own role.

So, yes, anthropology matters. It’s studied both philosophically and empirically. And it’s not simply a historical matter—it manifests itself in our daily lives. And the sociological evidence presented here, and in my new book, shows why marriage as the union of husband and wife matters.

 - Ryan Anderson is the William E. Simon senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and author of a recent book about marriage.

This article originally appeared in Forbes. The original piece can be found at http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2015/07/22/making-the-case-for-traditional-parenting/.

About the Author

Ryan T. Anderson, Ph.D. William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow in American Principles and Public Policy
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society