Union University
Union University Dept of Language


Growing Kids Skinner's Way

Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship

June 10, 2010 - The most recent issue of Pediatrics has released a longitudinal study that finds children raised by lesbian couples “demonstrate healthy psychological adjustment”. In fact, the results of the 25-year study indicate that the teenage children of those lesbian couples who participated are more socially well-adjusted than a relevant control group of peers raised by heterosexual parents.

In keeping with choreographic expectations, key conservative Christian voices have already begun to question the study’s validity. They correctly point out, among other things, that despite its appearance in the peer-reviewed journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the research was funded by Gay-Lesbian advocacy groups.

For many evangelical culture warriors, the results of this kind of study, if scientifically valid, would represent a serious blow to the avenues by which one attempts to uphold the sanctity of traditional marriage and families. For among the planks in the argumentative strategy for the latter is the claim that (all other things being equal) children are better off when raised by a father and mother than when raised in say, a lesbian household.

Of course, the tricky part in the psychosocial sciences is saying exactly what is meant by “better off.” Far too often, evangelicals mean nothing more by “better off” than what the reigning paradigms within the psychosocial sciences proscribe. Thus, evangelicals commission their own studies, employing these paradigms and tools in an effort to demonstrate the veracity of the key claim.

The trouble is, as this new study potentially illustrates, that it might turn out that according to the reigning paradigms and tools of the psychosocial sciences, the children of lesbian parents are “better off” than the children of the Cleavers. If this happens (as perhaps it has in the present case), what’s an evangelical cultural warrior to do? Perhaps this study represents an occasion for evangelicals to think more deeply about what is meant by “better off” and how that concept is validated in the psychosocial sciences.

The study under consideration measured the children’s well-being using the “Child Behavior Checklist” (CBCL) – a standard assessment tool developed by the Achenbach System of Empirically Based Assessment. No doubt, it is a standard, widely-accepted instrument in psychosocial scientific research. But in conjunction with an inherently value-laden concept like human flourishing (i.e., being “better off” or just plain “well off”) the use of the CBCL carries a tacit assumption about which evangelicals ought to be dubious.

Specifically, the use of the CBCL as a measure of human well-being is reductionistic. It assumes that to be well is to exhibit a certain set of measurable (i.e., observable) behaviors. Thus, those who exhibit the requisite behaviors (quite literally, those who manage to check off the right boxes) are “better off” than those who don’t.

If human flourishing were reducible to the appropriate display of a desired set of behaviors, then surely parental arrangements would be a matter of complete indifference. After all, it is at least theoretically possible (and lately, increasingly feasible) to guarantee the requisite behavioral outcomes by means of psychotropic drugs. (Think of Huxley’s Brave New World.) Thus, if being happy, healthy, and well-adjusted means nothing more than exhibiting a certain set of behaviors for the social scientist to check off, then kids from almost any kind of household could, in principle, achieve this end – provided they have been afforded the appropriate stimuli.

Of course, from a Christian point of view human well-being is not merely a function of succeeding in producing the “right” behavioral outputs. Thus, the claim that children raised by a dad and mom are “better off” than children raised by two dads or two moms is not merely the claim that children raised by the former are more likely to manifest the desired behaviors than those raised by the latter. If it is, then evangelicals are fighting a culture war in which they’ve turned their enemy’s weapons on themselves.