Why Children Need Moms and Dads–Culture, Complementarity and a Whole Bunch of Other ‘Portant Bidness.

I’m planning a post–probably after Easter–that gathers some of the research that illustrates the different gifts mothers and fathers bring to the parenting table.  But for now, a commenter, Lucy, asked a question that is more philosophical in nature that I thought merited a longer answer than a simple combox reply could give.

Essentially, she wanted to know what I meant by the rights of children, and why having a mother and father was more a right than, say, having two parents who the same ethnic/cultural background.  Here is my attempt to answer that.

Hi Lucy (and by extension, anybody else who cares about this stuff),

What I mean by “right” is that it is right and reasonable for a person–especially a child–to expect to be given whatever is necessary for them to become a fully-functioning, healthy,  human person.

Having two parents of the same ethnic/cultural background doesn’t rise to this level.   Culture is the way we live out our humanity.  Culture can certainly shape the way we express our humanity, but it isn’t what makes us human.  Culture proceeds from humanity.  That is, a fully human person can move from one culture to another and retain their humanity despite adopting the traditions of the new culture, but someone who is not a healthy human person cannot participate effectively in any culture.

I believe the research pretty clearly shows that motherhood and fatherhood is essential to developing a healthy sense of human-ness.   The absence of one or the other due to any number of circumstances tends to lead to any number of problems or impairments.  It seems to me that’s pretty clearly borne out by the research as well as my clinical experience.  But why?


I suspect you would agree that both man and woman have masculine and feminine attributes.   How does man or woman develop a healthy relationship between their masculine and feminine selves?   I would argue that there is good evidence that mothers and fathers show them. (and this, of course, is where feminist theories of gender would want to argue with me.  It just isn’t possible in this space to take that battle on.  Suffice it to say that even though cultures do influence the specific ways traits are integrated, there obviously remains something that is consistently masculine and feminine across cultures.  Even the most affectionate, expressive Greek or Italian man is still considered a man by the most stiff-upper-lip Brits or Germans.  I believe this ontological, cross-cultural sense of masculinity and femininity is biological and is resistant to cultural programming.)

At any rate, I would argue that fathers model the masculine form of that combination of masculine and feminine traits, and mothers model the feminine complement of that combination of masculine and feminine traits.  But to be fully, healthily human, a man or woman has to learn how to integrate the qualities that make them fully man or woman.

MEN ARE MEN & WOMEN ARE WOMEN (no matter how hard they try to be otherwise) 

Now, you might think that where I’m going with this is that gay men aren’t fully masculine and lesbian women aren’t feminine.  But I DON’T mean that at all. In fact, I would argue the opposite.  I would argue that there remains something masculine about the most effeminate gay man and that there remains something feminine about the most butch lesbian.  No matter how it is masked, men and women cannot be other than what they are.  An effeminate gay man cannot model the unique combination of human traits that make a woman “mother” no matter how effeminate he might be.  He is still going to nurture in a more masculine way than a woman would.   He can certainly be fully nurturing, but it is still going to be masculine nurturance in a real and palpable way.  The most butch lesbian is still going to approach the role of father in a more feminine way than any man would.  She can’t help it.    She is a woman despite the object of her sexual attractions.

Man and woman are both capable of living out all the qualities that make them fully human.  Men and women can both be fully nurturing.  Men and women can both be fully analytical.  Etc, etc.  But there remains a more masculine approach to nurturance and a more feminine approach to analysis, for instance, that are both efficient in their own right and complementary to each other.  Catholics refer to this as the “complementarity of the sexes.”  That is, man and woman are made in God’s image.  We literally, image God.  Let me break this down.


Man and woman are both fully human–and exhibit all the virtues that make them human– but they live out that humanity–and the virtues that make them human–through their masculine or feminine body.  Let’s go back to nurturance.  My wife and I can and should both be fully nurturing to our children.  But her body gives her ways to express nurturance that I can’t.  For instance, she can nurse.  No matter how much she might want me to nurse our kids at 3am, I am never going to be able to lactate.  Likewise, my greater upper body strength allows me to toss my kids high up in the air–and sometimes even catch them.  And my facial hair–or even my 5 o’clock shadow if I shave–allows me to tickle my kids when I zrrrbrrrrt their chins or tummies.  My wife can’t do either of those things.  We can both be fully nurturing to our kids but our complementary nurturance feels different to our kids in real and meaningful ways.  The differences may be subtle, but they are real enough to make kids prefer one type of nurturance or another depending upon how they’re feeling and what their needs are at the moment.   Returning to the idea of complementarity and the Imago Dei, my wife and I are both fully capable of being nurturing, but when we nurture together, we are a more complete image of the nurturance of God for all of humanity and we present a more complete “nurturance package” (so to speak) to our kids.

Imagine that subtle difference spread out across the thousands of virtues that make us human and you’ll get a better sense of what I mean when I say kids need both mothers and fathers.

It isn’t, as you said,  that men “tend to be this way” and women “tend to be that way.” (i.e. men are aggressive and women are gentle)  I would say that that is demonstrably false, because all you’d have to do is find one man or one woman who wasn’t “that way” to disprove the thesis.  I’ve known plenty of aggressive women and gentle men.  It is that men and women are fully capable of living all the traits and qualities that make both fully human but that men and women live out those qualities in a more masculine or feminine “style” that is dictated by their neurobiology.   Together they present a fuller picture of what it means to be fully human and an image of God.  Together, they model for their children how to be fully human and image God themselves.

In order to become a healthy, fully-formed, human person, a child needs to experience this subtle difference in an up-close and personal way.  And that’s why both mothers and fathers are important.