Thursday, March 27, 2014

"Children Need a Father and a Mother": A Reply on Behalf of Androgynous Parents Everywhere

Here’s something I hear a lot: “Children need a father and a mother.”

As a man raising two lovely children together with my wife, I find this statement insulting. I take offense at it. Personal offense.

Let me explain why.

Those who say this aren’t merely saying that two parents are better than one. They aren’t merely saying that two biological parents (who, of course, will be a mother and a father) are better than two non-biological ones. After all, they seem to think that their mother-and-father principle applies to non-biological parents as much as it does to biological ones.

But why think that?

I suspect it’s because they embrace what’s often called the “complementarity thesis”: the view that men and women are essentially different but complementary—that men are imbued by nature with masculine character traits, women with feminine ones, and that these traits complement each other in the sense that masculine strengths make up for feminine weaknesses and vice versa.

Put another way, the complementarity thesis holds that men and women have different native abilities and psychological characteristics, and these are distributed such that men and women “complete” one another. When a man and a woman get together, they combine to offer a toolkit of resources greater than what two men or two women can offer.

On this view of things, there are distinctly “masculine” parenting strengths and distinctly “feminine” ones, and children do best when their parents have the full complement of parenting strengths.

But this way of thinking about parenting strengths won’t take you to “Children need a father and a mother” unless you assume that men never possess the “feminine” strengths, and women never possess the “masculine” ones. If you think the distributions are merely probabilistic (women are more commonly possessed of more of the feminine ones, etc.), you open the door to two mothers or two fathers been just as well-situated to successfully parent children than a mother and a father.

So those who say that kids need a mother and a father need to hold that these “gendered” parenting strengths just can’t cross the borders of biological sex. They need to hold that women, by virtue of their plumbing, cannot possibly possess the “masculine” parenting strengths, since those are the exclusive province of men

You rarely hear the point put so starkly, because it sounds absurd. Ordinary human experience tells us that the sorts of character traits that can contribute to parenting success are diverse, that few people have all of them, that any two people will likely complement one another (in the sense that the one will have strengths the other lacks), and that no character trait is the exclusive province of men or women.

All of us know, from our experience of the rich, messy complexity of humanity, that mothers and fathers come in all shapes and sizes. I haven’t compiled a list of parenting virtues, but I suspect it would be a fairly long list. I suspect that any particular person has only a subset of them. And I suspect that if you want to pair people off so that the strengths of one parent make up for the weaknesses of another, focusing on gender is probably a far less effective strategy than pairing people off in terms of Myers-Briggs personality scores.

“Children need an extrovert and an introvert.”

“Children should have one ‘sensing’ parent and one ‘intuiting’ parent.”

“Children do best when they’re raised by a thinker and a feeler.”

Following these rules probably won’t guarantee successful parenting teams. The presence of love all around is probably the best guarantee of that. But it seems rather blindingly obvious to me that you’ll get a greater diversity of parenting strengths by demanding Myers-Briggs diversity in parenting teams than by demanding heterosexuality.

And if you think that the virtues linked to “masculinity” and “femininity” are especially important for parenting, you’d probably have more success pairing people off in terms of how they score on personality tests that measure how masculine or feminine you are.

Back when I was in college, as part of a psychology course, I took a test like that. It was supposed to measure how “feminine” or “masculine” I was based on fairly conventional understandings of masculinity and femininity.

My test pegged me as androgynous. Completely androgynous. Absolutely smack-dab in the middle of the scale.

I decided, as I was writing this blog post, to take a couple of masculine/feminine personality tests online, to see if anything has changed over the years. The first one I took pegged me as…androgynous.

The second one determined that I was 53% feminine, 47% masculine.

So I guess not much has changed. Biologically, I’m male. In terms of sexuality, I’m heterosexual. In terms of personality, I’m androgynous.

This fact raises some rather personal questions I have for those who say that children need a father and a mother.

After all, I’m not a “masculine” parent. I am (apparently) an androgynous one. So, although my kids have a father in terms of plumbing, they don’t seem to have a “father” in the complementarian sense of fatherhood.

Knowing what I know about my personality—about my failure to be “masculine” in my character and hence my inability to be a “father” in the complementarian sense—was my decision to become a parent wrong? By raising my own children, am I committing the moral offense of denying them a father?

I’m a good parent to my kids. I love them to death, and they know it. I spend time with them. I’m devoted to their success. I cheer for them and grieve with them. I have a number of parenting virtues, but they don’t fall into that “masculine” cluster. And they aren’t in the distinctly feminine cluster, either. They’re just mine.

I’m a good father, not because I’m masculine but because I love and care for my kids. What makes me a father is that it is a biologically male person who is loving and caring for them. That’s it.

Put simply, what I bring to my role as a father isn’t anything distinctly tied to my maleness. Had I been biologically female—had I been a mother—I would have brought the very same things.

And so when people say that children need a father and a mother, they must have in mind an understanding of these categories that doesn’t include me-- a normative understanding of fatherhood that I don’t measure up to. They can’t say what they say and mean it without implying that I am being a poor father to my kids.

I take offense at that. Anyone who thinks such a thing is wrong.

And so, it seems, they’re wrong to believe that children need a father and a mother. What they need are loving parents, preferably more than one of them, parents who bring their diverse strengths to the complex task of raising children. Some of those parents will be introverts, others extroverts. Some will be INFP's and others will be ENTJ's. Some will be masculine, others feminine. Some will be androgynous.

There’s no one template for a successful parenting combination. Hence, there aren’t any rigid normative understandings of what makes for a good father and a mother. And without such inflexible categories, the claim that kids need a father and a mother becomes, not so much false, as meaningless.


  1. Really liked your blog post. I pretty much agree with everything you have said.

    I, too, am one of those "androgynous" types as a heterosexual male. I had hoped that the '80s had finally made permissible to males (and also vice versa, females finding their male side) to find their "female" sensibilities something to cherish, but I am not sure that offer has stood up very well in these culture wars.

    I think males who nurture their children, who can be available on an emotional level, who intuitively feel for others etc. etc. are the hope for the evolution of the American male. Sure, males in our past history weren't often given much to model after but it is time to get past that.

    But also importantly, I believe you are correct in saying that gay partners have a wide spectrum of human sensibilities to offer as parents to their children. In many ways, I think they be more motivated to be great parents. At least they deserve a chance. And what heterosexual couple is perfect in their parenting?

    I think the time has come for everyone to repudiate the notion we get "cooties" from others with differing sexual preferences. Let's all go to work together to raise a generation of highly integrated children who are fully embraced in the totality of their being, whether they develop "normally" or take us further in loving their eccentricity.

  2. Fascinating post. I think the complementary thesis works on a common sense level for many people, so I appreciate your closer look at it, which reveals it to be baseless.

  3. Hi Eric

    I think you're absolutely right with respect to what makes a good parent (love, commitment, stability, ability to communicate etc) and given there's no good reason I know of to believe these are distributed along gender lines, the case for in favour of heterosexual parenting is bogus.

    Not sure the probabilistic case does the work you ask of it though. If some masculine and feminine traits are on average distributed by sex (likely to be true) and the match of these particular traits suits parenting well (which I'd guess is untrue) then one could still argue a child would be better off on average with mixed sex parenting.

    As for Myers-Briggs, I was rather hoping that particular nonsense had died a slow and well deserved death in the nineties. Maybe not!


  4. I am also suspicious of complementary talk regarding gender roles. I'm wondering what your thoughts are regarding the preference for both a male and female parent based on the desire for children to have parental role models from both sexes and not based on complementarity. After all, one advantage of having, say, a mother is that the child gets to know an adult female in a particular and special way. And it is important for children to have adults of both sexes to look up to (no matter whether they fit a certain "gender role" or not). Having a mother and father accomplishes all of this easily.

    There are obviously lots of holes in my presentation and things left unsaid, but theoretically there is a non-complentarity argument for favoring a mother and a father. I'm interested in your thoughts.

    Thanks for your post.

    1. I think the argument you sketch out here supports a weaker conclusion than "Children *need* a father and a mother"--something more like, "There are certain advantages to having both a father and a mother."

      Having role models from both sexes to look up to is clearly valuable, apart from any consideration of gender roles or allegiance to a complementarity thesis. There are also potential advantages to having close adult role models who are of different races or ethnicities, etc.

      Having a male and female parent is clearly one way--a convenient way--to achieve the advantages of close role models from both sexes. But it isn't the only way. If children don't have this particular form of diversity in the home, then I think parents should think about other ways to achieve it--just as parents should, more generally, think about ways to increase the diversity of role models in the their children's lives.