The presumption that children need both a mother and a father may be readily accepted by many people today, but there is little evidence to support the idea, say sociologists from USC and NYU. In a new Journal of Marriage and Family study, the team argues that "fatherless" children are not necessarily at a disadvantage and that men do not provide a different set of parenting skills than women.

Extending their prior work on gender and family, Timothy Biblarz and Judith Stacey analyzed relevant studies about parenting, including available research on single-mother and single-father households, gay male parents and lesbian parents.

In their analysis, the researchers found no evidence of gender-based parenting abilities, with the "partial exception of lactation," noting that very little about the gender of the parent has significance for children's psychological adjustment and social success.

 "The social science research that is routinely cited does not actually speak to the questions of whether or not children need both a mother and a father at home. Instead proponents generally cite research that compares [heterosexual two-parent] families with single parents, thus conflating the number with the gender of parents," the authors write.

Indeed, there are far more similarities than differences among children of lesbian and heterosexual parents, according to the study. On average, two mothers tended to play with their children more, were less likely to use physical discipline, and were less likely to raise children with chauvinistic attitudes. Studies of gay male families are still limited.

However, like two heterosexual parents, new parenthood among lesbians increased stress and conflict, exacerbated by general lack of legal recognition of commitment. Also, lesbian biological mothers typically assumed greater caregiving responsibility than their partners, reflecting inequities among heterosexual couples.

"The bottom line is that the science shows that children raised by two same-gender parents do as well on average as children raised by two different-gender parents. This is obviously inconsistent with the widespread claim that children must be raised by a mother and a father to do well," Biblarz said.

Stacey concluded: "The family type that is best for children is one that has responsible, committed, stable parenting. Two parents are, on average, better than one, but one really good parent is better than two not-so-good ones. The gender of parents only matters in ways that don't matter."

Citation: Timothy J. Biblarz, Judith Stacey, 'How Does the Gender of Parents Matter?', Journal of Marriage and Family, January 2010, 72 (1), 3-22; doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2009.00678.x