What is parenthood?

One dimension of the debate about what homsexual unions should be called is “What is parenthood?”  What are parents?  What is their function, exactly?  Who are the “best” parents and is there even such a thing?

Family Scholars Blog is having an interesting discussion of that question.  The best contribtution IMO is by Laura Rosenbury, a Law Professor at Washington University in St Louis.  In sum, she says that the question, “What is parenthood?” is the wrong one.   Instead, we should be asking, “What is childhood?”  In other words, what do children need from us, not what do we want to give them.  It’s tought provoking stuff and I encourage you to read it.

My own reaction to Prof. Rosenbury’s piece is…

YES! ABSOLUTELY!   The biggest issue I have with the “new” conversation on marriage is that I do not see anyone in the new conversation speaking for the children. In the rush to help adults get along with each other and see that adults “rights” (i.e., desires) are protected, no one is asking these essential questions that Rosenbury has presented. The fact that there isn’t a ready answer to Diane M’s (one of the commenter’s) question, “What does this mean, practically?” is just evidence of my point. How dare we make changes in the only institution intended to protect the rights of children (and this applies to divorce law as well as homosexual unions) without really giving children’s voices a major seat at the table.

What does this mean practically? I don’t know either. Does it mean that, in divorce cases, children should be assigned an attorney (paid for at their parents’ expense) who represents their needs? Does it mean that there should be a methodological review board made up of people of varying opinions that judge–not the findings–but the strength of the methodology of various studies used by both sides to support their arguments?

I think most honest people on either side of this issue would agree that research and facts are really not driving this debate. Opinion and sentimentality are. I find that fact deeply distrubing because I have a tremendous heart for children. When I was a kid, the big experiment was “new math.” The result of this experiment was that my generation displayed the worst math and science scores ever. The new conversation is just the new math applied to family life and the ones who will pay the price are the children.

Regardless of the side you fall on, we all owe it to children to commit ourselves to asking the hard question, what is genuinely BEST for children. Not, “what can they get by with?” or “what’s good enough?” The question must be, “What is best?” That is what must define the terms of the conversation because children deserve our best. We can make exceptions from there, but the exceptions prove the rule, not the other way around.

We can say, for example, “breast is best” because we know the research supports that. At the same time, we make allowances for bottle feeding,because some kind of nutrition is better than nothing, but we do not say that bottle is best or even as good as breast milk because we know it is not true. In the same way, we ought to be able to say that a two-parent, heterosexual, married family is best for children because all the data shows that is true. We can make exceptions for other family forms because life requires it of us, but we should not be pressured to say or forced to pretend that alternative family forms are as good as traditional, heterosexual married households. It is simply not true and to say otherwise is politics, sentiment and folly, not fact. Our children deserve better than that.

Once we settle the “what is best for children?” question, exceptions can be made from there, but the bar cannot be lowered to meet the exception and it is irresponsible to try.

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About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.

  • Chris Nunez, M.A. Theology

    Thanks for this interesting reflection Dr. G, as well as the new source links… just ‘liked’ one of ‘em. However, this is not a new issue. Perhaps for the media to look at the issue in this way is very different from the way sensational headlines have treated it. But many discussions about the need to care for children have gone on in cultural anthropology and sociology courses, and in the community. As for ‘traditional’ families, that’s a stretch considering that the two parent family is a concession to the Industrial Revolution that is singularly responsible for the destruction of the family systems in Europe. You’d have to look elsewhere throughout the world, and through the ages to see how non-European cultures have conceived of families.

    • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

      Thank you for your comment. You are correct that the Industrial Revolution had a powerful impact on families, but not the one you claim. Before the IR, both mothers and fathers were actually MORE present to children than after the IR because most families lived and worked at home (farms, family businesses, etc). Traditional families were not a “concession” to the IR. They persevere despite the IR as fathers went away from home to work in the factories leaving mom behind to man the forts for the first time since the nomadic, hunter-gatherer days. Perhaps that’s what you’re referring to, but we’re talking several thousands of years of history between the two. Cultures that persisted in this way of life were not the norm throughout not only the West, but almost everywhere. As farming becomes the norm in any culture, moms and dads at home with kids becomes the norm in that culture.

      • pgh mama

        Part of me wonders if The Feminine Mystique would have ever been written if the Industrial Revolution hadn’t happened (and then the rise of the suburbs with the use of the automobile). We think about moms staying at home as being “natural” (and I think in many ways it is, as a stay-at-home mom myself), but I think it would also be infinitely more natural for fathers to be at least nearby instead of absent 8-12 hours every weekday. There isn’t much natural about women being isolated from all other adults and only having their children for company during the day. I can easily see why so many women don’t/can’t thrive in that environment, and think that the grass must be greener with a paid career (although I suspect that men and children may suffer from this setup as well, because they have less opportunity to get to know each other. I know my dad loved us, but having him home sometimes felt like having a guest in the house – it didn’t feel “normal.” Normal was just us and Mom.)

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  • Niemand

    In the same way, we ought to be able to say that a two-parent, heterosexual, married family is best for children because all the data shows that is true.

    Um…which data would that be? Several studies that have gotten past various levels of peer review have claimed that two parent, heterosexual married families are best for children. At least one that has been a major source of support for the claim has been found to be, shall we say, less than rigorous and essentially unreliable in its results. Multiple other, better, studies have found few differences in child outcomes between children raised by straight and gay parents, all else being equal. I won’t link them all out of respect for your spam filter, but the bottom line is that you simply won’t find any high quality studies that indicate that children of gay or lesbian parents do worse in any way.

    • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

      Thank you for your comment. I never claimed gay parents are incompetent. That’s not the question. None of what you say changes the fact that there are hundreds of studies that demonstrate that mothers and fathers bring very different gifts to the parenting table. There are a million ways to raise a basically decent, grow-up-and-get-a-job, function-in-society kid. No reasonable person is suggesting that gay parents raise three horned, two-headed, one-eyed children. The point is that you can’t give what you don’t have. Kids deserve the best we can give them, not just what we feel like giving them. Kids raised by a mom and a dad have the greatest potential to receive all the benefits two parents can give a child. No matter how competent gay or lesbian parents are, they can’t give a child a mother and a father. To intentionally deprive a child of one or the other is to do violence to a child.

    • Ailina

      How do gay parents conceive children without the aid of a third party? Some of those children do wonder who the absent biological parent is and feel the absence of that person. Children become commodities in arrangements where a child is procured. I am not talking about adoption but about sperm donation, surrogacy, etc., where a child is bought and sold.

      • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

        Exactly. The campaign for traditional marriage is not anti-gay. It is pro-child. My desire for validation cannot trump the rights of a child to be treated as a person, not a commodity. Thank you for your comments.

      • Mike

        And same applies to single women who just want a baby because they feel it is their right to have one without the child’s father. Same goes for sperm donors. These situations are all wrong for the child, unfair and selfish. How would you like it if you didn’t know who your father or mother was? I would cry.

      • Steve

        “How do gay parents conceive children without the aid of a third party?” I’d venture the same way heterosexual couples do, via adoption, sperm donation, or a IVF. So what?

        “Some of those children do wonder who the absent biological parent is and feel the absence of that person.” (SEE RESPONSE ABOVE)

        “Children become commodities in arrangements where a child is procured. ” In a manner of speaking children brought to parents via adoption, sperm donation or IVF where there is money exchanged somewhere along the way could be considered a commodity, though typically it’s far more complex than going out to buy, say a loaf of bread. And again, such children would be a ‘commodity’ for both heterosexual & homosexual couples.

        “I am not talking about adoption but about sperm donation, surrogacy, etc., where a child is bought and sold.” Why would you leave out adoption, which is the most clear case of monies being exchanged directly for a child?

        • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

          You are correct re: assisted reproduction technologies like sperm and egg donation, surrogacy and IVF. That is why I oppose those for heterosexuals as well. You are not correct with regard to adoption. There are laws–both domestic and international–that protect the rights of the adopted child and prevent child-selling. There are abuses, but they are recognized as abuses and treated accordingly. Regardless, adoption is certainly not an ideal, but it is a necessary mechanism for connecting an already existing child with a family he or she needs. The other technologies create life wholesale as a product to be designed and produced. Thank you for your comments. Dr.Greg

          • Steve

            I do not feel like a child in the case of adoption is a commodity like buying Orange Juice from the grocery store, but when people pay adoption agencies tens of thousands of dollars for a child you could, again in a bizarre way, suggest that the child in question, regardless of whatever laws are in place, is by the very definition of the word a commodity.

            I don’t know why someone would oppose egg/sperm donation, surrogacy or IVF. For nearly all who choose such avenues, this is their only option for having a biological child of their own. To me, that’s a good thing and find opposition to it is curious.

          • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg


            Regardless of socioeconomic status, donor offspring are twice as likely as those raised by biological parents to report problems with the law before age 25. They are more than twice as likely to report having struggled with substance abuse. And they are about 1.5 times as likely to report depression or other mental health problems.

            As a group, the donor offspring in our study are suffering more than those who were adopted: hurting more, feeling more confused, and feeling more isolated from their families. (And our study found that the adoptees on average are struggling more than those raised by their biological parents.) The donor offspring are more likely than the adopted to have struggled with addiction and delinquency and, similar to the adopted, a significant number have confronted depression or other mental illness. Nearly half of donor offspring, and more than half of adoptees, agree, “It is better to adopt than to use donated sperm or eggs to have a child.”


  • Mike

    What ever happened to do unto others as you would have them do unto you? I would never want to be raised by 2 men or 2 women if I could have a mom and dad like 99.9% of children have, so why would I do that to other children by supporting the redefinition of marriage to suit adult desires for social status?

  • Adam

    Idealistic views aside and looking at reality, am I to assume that every heterosexual marriage is only for pro-creation? I have o friends that are married and are proud to be DINK (double income – no kids) lifestyle people. They enjoy the legal benefits along with the sentimental value their marriage brings and wish not to have kids. What about young infertile couples or elderly couples who decide to marry but are beyond child-bearing age? To assume that every marriage convenes for the intended purpose of procreation is not based in reality of what the actual legal benefits to marriage are. So to gay couples who wish to be married and enjoy the legal benefits of their heterosexual counterparts and do not wish to adopt or have children, what are the legal justifications for them not to have those benefits as it relates to their private lives and protection of their estate?

    Also, I’d like to explore this “children as a commodity” expression and how this stance evolves legally and how we function as a society. A commodity in a basic definition is a product that brings some benefit whether material or immaterial to its consumer. Speaking idealistically, I believe that most people who seek to raise a child believe that they could be of benefit to the child acquired through adoption. Whether or not you believe that a Mother and Father are the best for kids and regardless of the veracity of that statement, it does not change the fact that there are countless kids with neither.

    So if you’re conceding the argument that raising children any other way other than a traditional family unit is detrimental then what is your argument really? If you’re not claiming that gay parents are incompetent and then say there are a million ways to raise a “basically decent, grow-up-and-get-a-job, function-in-society kid” then why limit the options kids have as to who their parents can be? “Kids deserve the best we can give them, not just what we feel like giving them.” The best is relative and can be defined in many ways but basically in a generic sense is a loving/caring home. But it seems that some don’t feel like giving that to them because the couple might be of the same-sex. If the only options for an orphan are being a ward of the state or being in loving household with parents of the same-sex, what’s the best option for that kid? And how do you explain to that child that because the best option isn’t available that they can’t have the cliched “next best thing”?

    To use a loose hypothetical to try to encapsulate your argument, assuming that you really believe that gay parents/couples that wish to be parents aren’t incompetent and that their are many ways to raise a successful kid, I have three options, A, B and C, and the best option for me is A but B could potentially be just as good as A and probably better if the circumstances were right and C is the least desired option. I am currently in option C but have the opportunity to move to option B but can’t because option A is best even though it’s completely unavailable and others have decided that option B is really not an option although it’s better than option C. If that’s your logical opinion as you see it how does it help me to keep me in option C knowing that it is not desirable option only because the “best” option is not available? It would seem to me that you don’t intend on giving me the best you can give me and only give me what you feel like giving me because the best option is not how you see the best option.

    • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

      See the post about two above this one. I already answered all of these objections. Dr.Greg.

      • Adam

        Your post is double-speak as you state gay parents aren’t incompetent and can raise a successful child but since they’re not a traditional family unit they’re hurting the aforementioned normal and successful child. None of your previous posts directly address my requests for clarification.

        Is civil marriage for the sole or primary purpose of procreation?
        As a legal justification, why can’t couples, whether hetero/homosexual, who intend not to procreate enjoy the same civil benefits of marriage?
        If gay parents can be competent and provide a loving/caring home for a child would that violence that would be put upon them be more intense or harmful than the violence of having no loving/caring home or parental figures since both situations deprive them of the traditional family unit?
        If there is a child that is an orphan and already hurting can we not lesson that pain and hurt with a loving/caring home and competent parenting no matter if the couple is hetero/homosexual?

        • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

          1. It’s only “double-speak” if you don’t care to actually think about what I’m saying. Go re-read the post and actually think about it instead of skimming it.

          2. I’ve already answered all these questions in the post above on Kagan. It’s not a previous post. Its a subsequent post. Reading is fundamental.

          3. I never said marriage was, “just for procreation.” I said it was for the protection of the right of children to know and be raised by their mother and father. That’s an important distinction.