Child development outcomes with same-sex parents

In November 2010, the Pew Research Center released results of a poll that showed that 43% of people agreed with the statement that gay or lesbian couples raising children are bad for society, 41% believe that it doesn’t make a difference, and only 12% saying that they believed it was good for society.
The authors of this paper, a meta-analysis of a number of studies on same-sex parenting, would hope to convince more people to move from a neutral or non-supportive stance to having a positive view by gaining a more accurate idea of the similarities and differences between children raised with a different-sex parents and those raised with same-sex parents.

A common stereotype that both a mother-figure and a father-figure are needed within a household for optimal child development. This belief likely stems from the idea that mothers and fathers parent distinctly and children require both sides of parenting to turn out okay. Studies on married heterosexual parents do show differences in parenting. As many of us might guess, most moms spend more time taking care of the kids and doing domestic work. Dads spend more time working and playing with their children, and are more interested than mothers in reinforcing gender stereotypes within their children. (But, while fathers are thought to be disciplinarians, mothers actually physically punish their kids more often because they spend more time caring for them.)

However, when drawing conclusions about same-sex parenting versus different-sex parenting, many people (including researchers and politicians) have cited or compared families with married different-sex parents to families with a single mother, stepfamilies, or families with the mother’s boyfriend present, instead of comparing the traditional mom-dad arrangement to a mom-mom or a dad-dad arrangement.

In these cases, it makes sense that the different-sex married parents are doing a better job – single parents and their children are usually more stressed out, deal with more financial troubles, and so forth. Research on lesbian and gay parenting is relatively scarce, which may be a reason why some choose to erroneously compare single parent families or stepfamilies to married different-sex couples.

The authors looked at various studies to compare different-sex parents to planned lesbian mothers (there are very few studies on gay fathers and none met the criteria to be included in the analysis. However, the authors do speculate based on the little data out there). “Planned” means that the mothers formed families through adoption or donor insemination, as opposed to the children being born to heterosexual parents and then one parent adopted a gay or lesbian identity.

Here are a few findings that they detail:

1. Two mothers played with their children more, disciplined them less than heterosexual parents, and were less likely to try to elicit gender and social conformity. Women who parent without men (lesbian or straight, solo or coupled) generally have higher-quality interactions with their children than fathers or even mothers who co-parent with their husbands, so it may seem that having two mothers fosters warmer relationships and provides more quality interactions for the children than having heterosexual parents.

2. Children of gay or lesbian parents report being teased more, probably due to social disapproval of their familial arrangement. Six-year-old children of mother-only families (lesbian or heterosexual) felt that they were worse off physically and cognitively than their peers, but this feeling went away 6 years later.

3. Children raised by two moms were more tolerant of gender non-conformity in others, viewed their parents as more available and dependable, and were more likely to discuss emotional issues with them.

4. Boys raised without a father (either by lesbian or heterosexual mothers) scored the same as boys with heterosexual parents on masculinity scales, but scored higher on femininity scales. This seems to imply that growing up without a father enabled sons to achieve greater gender flexibility. On the other hand, girls raised without a father scored the same as girls in heterosexual-parent families. A more androgynous individual (exhibiting both male and female traits) generally has a social psychological advantage over peers who are less gender flexible, including better mental health. The authors speculate that heterosexual fathers, who are more likely to enforce gender stereotypes, may be more involved with their sons than daughters, so the absence of fathers affects daughters less.

This blog post doesn’t begin to cover everything in this paper. In short, the authors conclude that having two mothers lead to better, if not similar, child development outcomes compared to having different-sex parents. With more studies likely to come out in the near future on this topic, correcting misconceptions and informing the public about gay and lesbian parenting is crucial as it has the possibility of influencing governmental policy, education, and social and cultural attitudes. As the authors state, lactation may be the only exclusive ability that women have over men in parenting.