A new UK study suggests that stay-at-home dads hurt their sons' chances in school–but not their daughters'.
"Our analysis points strongly towards the idea that fathers do not, on average, provide the same degree of cognitive stimulation to sons that mothers provide," says the study, published by the conservative Centre for Market and Public Organisation.
The study has been extensively critiqued in the progressive parenting blogosphere: Equally Shared Parenting faults its methodology; Rebeldad quotes University of Texas professor Aaron Rochelin as saying that the study's conclusions are way too sweeping given its limited data set.
They're right in their particular criticisms, but my take is even more fundamental: A study like this is rigged from the start.
Take single moms. There are many studies showing that single mothers don't do as good a job raising kids–measured in terms like mental health and school achievement– as two-parent families. However, there are many other studies showing that not all homes headed by single moms have the same outcomes. Most of the time, it turns out that poverty and social isolation, not single motherhood per se, hurts kids chances in life.
Thus the wiser, richer societies craft public policies to support single mothers, by providing basic welfare and health care, quality daycare and preschool, and job training and opportunities. And yes, I am thinking of all those nice Scandinavian social democracies that American progressives like so much.
The results speak for themselves: Single motherhood in those countries does not contribute to social inequality and children are not condemned for not having a breadwinning father in the house.
Conservatives will argue that the Nanny State is stepping in to replace fathers–and they're not wrong. When dad runs out, someone has to help. In places where state support is extremely stingy–the United States comes to mind–mothers with strong social networks of friends and relatives still succeed in raising happy, healthy, successful children.
But over two decades, the US government has waged virtual war against single motherhood, heaping burden after burden on mothers in an effort to discourage it. And yet moms continue to head families, as a result of divorce, abandonment, and out-of-wedlock births–and generally speaking, they do a pretty good job of it, despite all the obstacles tossed in their way.
Single motherhood is now a fixed part of the landscape; it's a byproduct of the emancipation of women, who not very long ago couldn't vote, own property, bolt from abusive marriages, or charge their husbands with rape. There's no going back to the bad-old-days when women were property and marriage, with its flip side of illegitimacy, was a life sentence. Instead the question is, how can we leverage the good and mitigate the bad, so that children in these families have the same chances as other children?
What does this have to do with stay-at-home dads?
Stay-at-home dads are another byproduct of women's advancement. Reverse-traditional families are a new family form, and, as Stephanie Coontz argues in the Fall 2007 issue of Greater Good, every new family form involves trade-offs, just like older kinds of families. The results of a study like this need to be replicated before it can be considered authoritative, but let's say, for the sake of argument, that stay-at-home mothers do provide some marginal benefit to sons that fathers do not. Even in that case, the results are not an argument against stay-at-home fatherhood. Instead we have to ask: Why is that? And then: What can we do to address it?
Because dads are not going to stop taking care of children just because some study somewhere says that their sons will do .17 percent less well in school than other kids. The growth of caregiving fatherhood is being driven by forces that are larger than any one family. We can't stop it–nor should we, because it comes with huge advantages for men, women, children, and society. These advantages (such as a more caring, emotionally intelligent masculinity; greater paternal investment in children; more work opportunities for women; etc.) far outweigh the piddling objections raised by those who would have us revert to 19th century gender roles .