Tuesday, May 20, 2008

there's nothing magical about fathers

The Guardian reports on the discussion of whether lesbian couples should be allowed IVF treatment:
But "there's nothing magical about fathers," says Susan Golombok, professor of family research and director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, and co-author of Growing Up in a Lesbian Family. "Fathers who are very involved with their children are good for children. But fathers who are not very involved - they aren't as important, and can even have a negative effect. It's a very simplistic notion to think that fathers are important just because they're male."

Don't boys need male role models? "The thing is that fathers make absolutely no difference to their children's development of masculinity or femininity," she says. "Studies that have looked at single-parent families have not found that boys are less masculine or girls less feminine. In fact, it seems that parents make very little difference to the masculinity or femininity of their sons and daughters. The peer group is more important, and the stereotypes that are around them in their day-to-day life. Even in families where parents try hard to influence their children's gender developent, where they try to stop their sons being very masculine, for example, and try to make them more gender-neutral, actually find that whatever they do makes no difference whatsoever. Fathers are important more in terms of emotional wellbeing, not in terms of role models."

As for the lesbian issue, says Golombok, "There's now been more than 30 years of research in Europe and the US, that has found very consistently that children raised in a lesbian household are no different from children in heterosexual families, both in terms of their psychological adjustment, and also in terms of their gender development, and in terms of their relationships with other children.

In (neo-, meso- and paleo-) Pagan societies, there are and were many models of bringing up children (and many models of gender). Some tribal societies don't bother to keep track of who is the father of which child; some are patrilineal, some are matrilineal. In India, they have a saying that "It takes a whole village to bring up a child." We should be much more worried about the loss of the extended family, and the tribal community in which a child can get advice and help from any member of the community, not just its parents. The 'nuclear family' model seemingly advocated by the Conservative party is claustrophobic and probably dangerous to children on the grounds that abusive practices can happen within the four walls of the home without anyone else finding out (especially if the family is outwardly respectable). Other traditional societies have extended families to share childcare. Even if a child did need a role model of the same gender (which Professor Golombok's research seems to show is unnecessary), you could aways have a gay couple and a lesbian couple sharing the parenting.

So we need to rethink our society's model of what a family is; and we also need to rethink the primary position we give to gender in considerations of many issues where it is irrelevant.

Of course, individual dads may well be very magical indeed - but it's not their maleness that makes them so, but their unique style of parenting.


Anonymous said...


The irony of the "traditional family values" crowd is that even in industrialized society, the tendency to determine family primarily (let alone solely) in terms of the nuclear family is an innovation of the last century.

genexs said...

Well said.

But I don't believe the nuclear family is that recent of a development. It's ironic that the definition of a 'nuclear family' can also include a single parent and child, the parent almost always being the mother. So when dominionist Xtains pick on single parents, they are denigrating the nuclear family.

Isis raised Horus for a good bit on her own, and he turned out alright. :)

Yvonne said...

Agreed, genexs, but the nuclear family in the past would not have been anywhere near as isolated as it is nowadays. In a pre-industrial society it would have existed in the context of the village or tribe; but in a post-industrial society, extended family members live far away and cannot help out with child-minding etc.

I particularly like your recasting of Isis as a single mother.