Why Children Need Moms and Dads–Culture, Complementarity and a Whole Bunch of Other ‘Portant Bidness.

I’m planning a post–probably after Easter–that gathers some of the research that illustrates the different gifts mothers and fathers bring to the parenting table.  But for now, a commenter, Lucy, asked a question that is more philosophical in nature that I thought merited a longer answer than a simple combox reply could give.

Essentially, she wanted to know what I meant by the rights of children, and why having a mother and father was more a right than, say, having two parents who the same ethnic/cultural background.  Here is my attempt to answer that.

Hi Lucy (and by extension, anybody else who cares about this stuff),

What I mean by “right” is that it is right and reasonable for a person–especially a child–to expect to be given whatever is necessary for them to become a fully-functioning, healthy,  human person.

Having two parents of the same ethnic/cultural background doesn’t rise to this level.   Culture is the way we live out our humanity.  Culture can certainly shape the way we express our humanity, but it isn’t what makes us human.  Culture proceeds from humanity.  That is, a fully human person can move from one culture to another and retain their humanity despite adopting the traditions of the new culture, but someone who is not a healthy human person cannot participate effectively in any culture.

I believe the research pretty clearly shows that motherhood and fatherhood is essential to developing a healthy sense of human-ness.   The absence of one or the other due to any number of circumstances tends to lead to any number of problems or impairments.  It seems to me that’s pretty clearly borne out by the research as well as my clinical experience.  But why?


I suspect you would agree that both man and woman have masculine and feminine attributes.   How does man or woman develop a healthy relationship between their masculine and feminine selves?   I would argue that there is good evidence that mothers and fathers show them. (and this, of course, is where feminist theories of gender would want to argue with me.  It just isn’t possible in this space to take that battle on.  Suffice it to say that even though cultures do influence the specific ways traits are integrated, there obviously remains something that is consistently masculine and feminine across cultures.  Even the most affectionate, expressive Greek or Italian man is still considered a man by the most stiff-upper-lip Brits or Germans.  I believe this ontological, cross-cultural sense of masculinity and femininity is biological and is resistant to cultural programming.)

At any rate, I would argue that fathers model the masculine form of that combination of masculine and feminine traits, and mothers model the feminine complement of that combination of masculine and feminine traits.  But to be fully, healthily human, a man or woman has to learn how to integrate the qualities that make them fully man or woman.

MEN ARE MEN & WOMEN ARE WOMEN (no matter how hard they try to be otherwise) 

Now, you might think that where I’m going with this is that gay men aren’t fully masculine and lesbian women aren’t feminine.  But I DON’T mean that at all. In fact, I would argue the opposite.  I would argue that there remains something masculine about the most effeminate gay man and that there remains something feminine about the most butch lesbian.  No matter how it is masked, men and women cannot be other than what they are.  An effeminate gay man cannot model the unique combination of human traits that make a woman “mother” no matter how effeminate he might be.  He is still going to nurture in a more masculine way than a woman would.   He can certainly be fully nurturing, but it is still going to be masculine nurturance in a real and palpable way.  The most butch lesbian is still going to approach the role of father in a more feminine way than any man would.  She can’t help it.    She is a woman despite the object of her sexual attractions.

Man and woman are both capable of living out all the qualities that make them fully human.  Men and women can both be fully nurturing.  Men and women can both be fully analytical.  Etc, etc.  But there remains a more masculine approach to nurturance and a more feminine approach to analysis, for instance, that are both efficient in their own right and complementary to each other.  Catholics refer to this as the “complementarity of the sexes.”  That is, man and woman are made in God’s image.  We literally, image God.  Let me break this down.


Man and woman are both fully human–and exhibit all the virtues that make them human– but they live out that humanity–and the virtues that make them human–through their masculine or feminine body.  Let’s go back to nurturance.  My wife and I can and should both be fully nurturing to our children.  But her body gives her ways to express nurturance that I can’t.  For instance, she can nurse.  No matter how much she might want me to nurse our kids at 3am, I am never going to be able to lactate.  Likewise, my greater upper body strength allows me to toss my kids high up in the air–and sometimes even catch them.  And my facial hair–or even my 5 o’clock shadow if I shave–allows me to tickle my kids when I zrrrbrrrrt their chins or tummies.  My wife can’t do either of those things.  We can both be fully nurturing to our kids but our complementary nurturance feels different to our kids in real and meaningful ways.  The differences may be subtle, but they are real enough to make kids prefer one type of nurturance or another depending upon how they’re feeling and what their needs are at the moment.   Returning to the idea of complementarity and the Imago Dei, my wife and I are both fully capable of being nurturing, but when we nurture together, we are a more complete image of the nurturance of God for all of humanity and we present a more complete “nurturance package” (so to speak) to our kids.

Imagine that subtle difference spread out across the thousands of virtues that make us human and you’ll get a better sense of what I mean when I say kids need both mothers and fathers.

It isn’t, as you said,  that men “tend to be this way” and women “tend to be that way.” (i.e. men are aggressive and women are gentle)  I would say that that is demonstrably false, because all you’d have to do is find one man or one woman who wasn’t “that way” to disprove the thesis.  I’ve known plenty of aggressive women and gentle men.  It is that men and women are fully capable of living all the traits and qualities that make both fully human but that men and women live out those qualities in a more masculine or feminine “style” that is dictated by their neurobiology.   Together they present a fuller picture of what it means to be fully human and an image of God.  Together, they model for their children how to be fully human and image God themselves.

In order to become a healthy, fully-formed, human person, a child needs to experience this subtle difference in an up-close and personal way.  And that’s why both mothers and fathers are important.

Fight the Power of 50 Shades: Here’s What YOU Can Do!
Pope Francis and Spanking: 4 Things to Consider
Don’t Think NFP is Effective? Advertisers KNOW It Is–”Bio-Marketing” Can Remotely Monitor Fertility Data to Increase Sales
How Healthy is YOUR Relationship with God? –TAKE THE QUIZ!
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.

  • Lucy Panda

    Dr. Greg,

    Thank you for your timely and thoughtful reply. My request was:

    “What benefits do children have a right to receive? And which of these benefits can only be produced by one sex?”

    You answer appears to be: Children have a right to “whatever is necessary for them to become a fully-functioning, healthy human person.” More specifically, children have a right to both a male parent and a female parent.

    Of course one might wonder “Why are both a male and a female necessary?”

    I think your clearest expression of this is when you say that masculinity and femininity are a “subtle difference spread out across the thousands of virtues that make us human.” Elsewhere you refer to it as a “different feel” or “style”. You also give three concrete examples of this: lactation, upper body strength, and facial hair.

    In another post (Gay Marriage: Getting the Conversation Right) you explain why this is so important: “The best cast against same-sex marriage… has everything to do with protecting the rights of children to have a mother and father.”

    So I understand your view as follows:

    Mothers and fathers each have a unique and necessary “style” of parenting. Gay couples lack one of these two styles. Therefore gays should not be allowed to marry.

    Here are two problems with this argument:

    The Vagueness Problem:
    This idea of a sex-specific “style” of parenting is very, very vague. It may have some intuitive appeal to people who already share your view, but it doesn’t have enough scientific merit to convince others (in my opinion). Worse yet, you are asking it to do a lot of work—namely justify not allowing people to get married. That kind of dramatic conclusion really need more support than just a vague “feel” to back it up.

    The Marriage is Not Identical To Parenting Problem:
    Your Premise: Children need a “male-style” parent and a “female-style” parent.
    Your Conclusion: Therefore, two men or two women should not be allowed to marry.

    This conclusion does not follow from this premise. What follows is:

    Actual Conclusion: Only parenting teams with at least one male member and at least one female member should be allowed to parent.

    I don’t think you want to go there. That would mean that a widow would be banned from raising her child (until she got a male to help her). Or that her child would be better off living with a polyamorous group of 3 men and 2 women since they have both bases covered.

    Moreover, not every gay couple parents. And your argument offers no reason to support banning childless gay couples from marrying.

    I appreciate your sincere desire to provide a kind, compassionate explanation of the Catholic view. I think it comes from a good place. And I think Catholicism has a lot of good features about it.

    But I don’t think this argument succeeds (in its current form) at explaining why non-Catholics ought to agree to ban same-sex marriages.

    Thanks again for your response.

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

      Well, I already said that my response was philosphical and unlikely to convince you. Mostly, I just wanted to show you where I was coming from. I’ll do a post after Easter summarizing some of the research on the different gifts parents bring to the parenting table, but that’s another time.

      Regarding the conclusions you draw from my argument…

      1. I never said anything about banning anyone from anything. I never argued for taking children away from gay couples and I certainly wouldn’t argue for taking a child away from a widow! What kind of a heartless bastard do you think I am? (Don’t answer that. ;-) BUT if a woman’s husband dies and a child is raised without a father, currently, we acknowledge that this is a sad thing. We hope the child will be happy as an adult, but we realize that this is a deficit the child will have to overcome. A therapist would want to help that adult child through the grief they experienced because of their missing father. By contrast, with gay marriage we are forced to celebrate the absence of a parent and we would–in the name of honoring marriage “equality” –be compelled to shame the child for feeling badly to be missing a parent (because if gay marriage is equal to hetero marriage, what right does the child have to mourn a deficit? Indeed, there is not deficit all things being “equal.”)

      2. Polyamory is a separate case. Attachment theory shows that children do not bond to communities. Research on the Kibbutzim show this profoundly well. Children bond first to mom and then to dad and out from there. The need for a dyad is a separate argument which I did not cover because we were not discussing it.

      3. “Not every gay couple parent.” Right. So they don’t need to marry. Marriage primarily exists to provide potential children with a mother and a father, not to socially sanction a love bond. Heterosexual love bonds are always potentially procreative so they need marriage to protect the rights of children who may be born whether they intend to have children or not. Homosexual love bonds are always infertile. They don’t need marriage.

      4. Thanks for your kind words about Catholicism, but be careful not to dismiss this as “the Catholic view.” While my philosophical roots are Catholic, the argument is a secular one and people of other faiths and no faith hold similar opinions. I introduced God, reluctantly, in this post, but I haven’t mentioned him before this and I didn’t really need to this time. There is research that shows mothers and fathers bring different gifts to the parenting table. There is data that show babies bond better to dyads. There are generations of studies on the impact of father absence and the effects of missing a mother. We have research on the ache felt by donor-conceived children for their biological roots. Just like we know “breast is best” we also know that an intact, traditional, married household yields the best outcomes for children. We know these things. We can permit other family forms because life requires it of us. But is a lie to say that any other family arrangement is equivalent.

      Regardless, I appreciate the conversation.

    • Theodore Seeber

      ” It may have some intuitive appeal to people who already share your view, but it doesn’t have enough scientific merit to convince others (in my opinion). ”

      I have to ask, what is the scientific merit of men being able to grow beards and women not means that the genders are the same?

      In other words- when science OR faith fly in the face of direct observation, shouldn’t direct observation be the guide to objective truth?

  • http://www.catholicap.com Kim Cameron-Smith

    Theodore, on some level I agree with you. My concrete experience — as somebody who attended a well-known all womens college which preached tolerance of lesbianism like there was no tomorrow, as a mother of four beautiful children being raised by a mom and dad who both love them but who each bring different gifts to the table as a man and woman — has led me to reject the liberal, relativistic arguments promoting tolerance of gay marriage.

    In the name of justice and equality we can do all sorts of mental gymnastics to justify gay marriage, but ultimately it’s wrong. And this is where we must press beyond our own personal lived experiences to consider who we are as humans and what children deserve. I think this is what Dr. Greg is trying to touch on. Gay marriage is not only wrong for Catholics, who see marriage as an expression of the Trinitarian union of self-donative love which is most perfectly realized in the love of a husband and wife given their complementary natures, but it’s wrong for every American because it contradicts our humanity. Dr. Greg has tried to explain the source of our human dignity and how it expresses itself through our femininity and masculinity. Femininity and masculinity is more than the act of SEX or sexual desire. It’s imprinted into our natures. Our humanity is a constant, no matter how variable our meager interpretations of it might be.

    Even if one has homosexual desires, it’s a free choice whether to act on those desires. It doesn’t give you the right to change the basic design of marriage and what is considered decent. What if somebody is born with natural desires for children?? Would we say, well this guy is just a new normal, let’s allow him to marry a 7 year old girl? You might say, NO, of course not, because the guy is an adult and more powerful. But power is partly a cultural construct, is it not? Why couldn’t this guy argue for a new world, in which he gives his 7 year old bride all the rights and powers of an 18 year old woman, so that no power imbalance remained? You might respond, well that’s silly, the adult still has greater experience. Will you then argue that older men should not be permitted to marry younger women or the reverse?

    I am not insensitive to the pain of homosexuals. But I’m not willing to jump on some unthinking happy bandwagon to call homosexual unions just one different expression of normal, thriving family life. That is such a lie. A giant lie.

  • Gwen

    I really like the third point Dr. Greg made in his reply!

  • Summer

    Dr. Greg, in the first line you mention that you were working on another post about the gifts mothers and fathers bring to parenting. I looked through your archives and couldn’t find it. Could you point me to it? Thanks!