Early Childhood Education

Gay or Lesbian Parents, Children with

 

A growing number of children are being brought up by one or more gay or lesbian parents in one of a variety of family constellations. Accurate statistics regarding the number of children who have one or two parents who are gay or lesbian are impossible to obtain. The secrecy required as a result of the stigma still associated with homosexuality has hampered even basic epidemiological research. The best guess is that there are at least one million children in the United States who have at least one parent who is gay or lesbian. Many of these children are participating in early care and educational programs; in some cases, teachers are unaware of the children’s family circumstances.

Most children now living with parents who are lesbian or gay were conceived in the context of a heterosexual relationship. Increasing social acceptance of diversity in sexual orientation has encouraged more gay men and lesbian women to “come out” prior to forming intimate relationships or becoming parents. The majority of lesbian women who conceive a child do so using alternative insemination techniques with sperm donated by an anonymous donor who has agreed to be identifiable when the child becomes an adult, or a fully-known donor (e.g., a friend or relative). Lesbian women and gay men can become parents as well by fostering or adopting children. Growing numbers of gay men have chosen to become fathers through the assistance of a surrogate mother who bears their child. Others have made agreements to share parenting responsibilities with a single woman or a lesbian couple.

Most research regarding children with gay or lesbian parents has focused on parental attitudes and behaviors; and children’s psychosexual development (and sexual orientation), social and interpersonal experience, and psychological/emotional status.

 

Research on Parental Attitudes, Personality, and Adjustment

Research suggests that the parenting styles and attitudes of gay and heterosexual fathers are more similar than they are different. Fathers in each group endorse a similar active, caretaking stance regarding their paternal role. Several studies have described fathers’ encouragement of gender-appropriate toys, their attempts to provide a female role model for their children, and their children’s generally accepting reactions to knowledge of their father’s homosexuality. Gay fathers have been described repeatedly as nurturing and as having positive relationships with their children.

Lesbian and heterosexual mothers also describe themselves similarly in terms of maternal interests, current lifestyles, child-rearing practices, role conflicts, social support networks, and coping strategies. Few differences have been found over two decades of research comparing lesbian and heterosexual mothers’ selfesteem, psychological adjustment, and attitudes toward child rearing. Lesbian mothers fall within the range of normal psychological functioning based on interviews and psychological assessments and report scores on standardized measures of self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and parenting stress indistinguishable from those reported by heterosexual mothers. Based on such assessments, lesbian mothers are at no greater risk for psychiatric disturbance than are heterosexual mothers.

Lesbian mothers typically endorse child-centered attitudes and commitment to their maternal roles. Lesbian mothers report making more efforts than do divorced heterosexual mothers to provide male role models for their children, and encourage their children to see their fathers more frequently after divorce than do heterosexual mothers. Lesbian mothers have also been reported to have greater knowledge of child development and more successful parenting skills, as a group, than heterosexual mothers. Lesbian partners appear to share child-care tasks more equitably than do typical heterosexual couples, and both partners are more equally involved with discipline and with their children’s day-to-day activities.

 

Research on Children’s Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation

Both environmental and genetic mechanisms might result in an increased likelihood for children who have a lesbian or gay parent to develop a homosexual orientation. Much attention has been paid to the play, playmate, and activity preferences of preadolescent children. These studies have failed to identify any differences in children’s gender identification, playmates, toys, and activities based on the sexual orientation of their parents.

Only a few studies include adults whose parents were gay or lesbian, and the data are ambiguous. In one study of adult daughters of divorced mothers, no differences were found in gender identity, social roles, or sexual orientation based on the sexual orientation of the mother. In the most extensive study of the adult sexual orientation of the sons of gay fathers, 9 percent were bisexual or homosexual. A longitudinal follow up of adult men and women who had been raised as children in families with a lesbian mother as well as men and women who had been raised by a single heterosexual mother, found that although the former were more likely to consider the possibility of having a same-sex partner and to have been involved in at least a brief relationship with someone of the same gender, similar proportions of both groups reported feelings of attraction toward someone of the same gender or identified themselves as gay or lesbian (Tasker and Golombok, 1997).

 

Children’s Emotional and Social Development

Children’s experience in households with gay and lesbian parents varies widely, based on the origin of the parenting relationship, whether they have experienced divorce, and the subsequent partnership experience of both parents. Some children are being raised by a single parent, some by two separated parents, others by a couple, and still others by three or four adults in a newly-imagined coparent arrangement (e.g., a lesbian couple and one or two sperm donors). This diversity in family arrangements is helping to elucidate the requirements of successful parenting, but makes systematic research difficult.

Nine studies published between 1981 and 1994 compared 260 children from the ages of 3 to 11 who were living with a lesbian or gay parent after divorce, and compared them to children who lived with a heterosexual parent after divorce. These studies included reports from parents, teachers, and children themselves. They concurred in finding no meaningful differences between the groups in academic achievement, self-esteem, peer relationships, social adjustment, emotional problems, or psychiatric symptoms. Neither the subsequent partnership status of the divorced mothers nor the quality of the relationship between these mothers and their former spouses was included in the research.

One longitudinal study assessed twenty-five young adults (seventeen to twenty- five years old) who were raised by a divorced lesbian mother with twenty-one young adults who had been raised by a divorced heterosexual mother, and similarly found few differences among them in psychological or social adjustment or in family relationships (Tasker and Golombok, 1997). The young adults with a lesbian mother were no more likely to report anxiety or depression than their peers whose mothers were heterosexual, and scores on standardized inventories of psychological functioning in both groups were well within the normal range. Extensive interviews revealed that their memories of having been teased during childhood were little different from those experienced by children raised by single heterosexual mothers, and intrafamily relationships were rated as equally good.

Seven studies published from 1987 to 2003 included 208 children between the ages of 2 and 11 with lesbian mothers and 218 children with heterosexual parents. Once again, no differences were found based on the sexual orientation of the mothers in children's cognitive functioning, self esteem, behavior, peer relationships, social adjustment, emotional symptoms, psychiatric diagnoses, or relationships with grandparents (Golombok, Tasker, and Murray, 1997; Tasker, 1999; Vanfraussen et al., 2003). Some studies report that children of heterosexual parents saw themselves as being somewhat more aggressive than did children of lesbians; and parents and teachers reported them to be more bossy, negative, and domineering. Children of lesbian parents more often saw themselves as lovable and were reported by both parents and teachers to be more affectionate, responsive, and protective of younger children (Steckel, 1987; Patterson 1994; 1996; 1997).

Since all parents studied were women, the possible effects of gender cannot be separated from those of sexual orientation. Children whose parents reported greater relationship satisfaction, more egalitarian division of household and paid labor, and more regular contacts with grandparents and other relatives, were rated to be better adjusted and to have fewer behavioral problems by both parents and teachers (Chan, Raboy, and Patterson, 1998; Patterson et al., 1995, 1998).

Most of these studies report on volunteers, generally parents who are Caucasian, relatively well educated and middle class, and live in urban areas. Because the findings in many separate reports are very similar they have been presumed to reflect a more generalizable pattern. Two recent studies used community-based random samples of parents to investigate the well-being of children whose mothers were lesbian, thus strengthening the findings of smaller investigations. The importance of these two studies is that the research was planned and carried out without the intent to investigate same-sex parents. In both cases the investigations regarding same-sex (in both case lesbian) parents and their children were post-hoc analyses and thus neither the sample nor the methods were influenced by any possible bias.

Among a national sample of 12,000 adolescents in the United States, the forty- four who reported living with two women in a “marriage-like” family arrangement were found to be similar to peers whose parents were heterosexual in measures of self esteem, depression, anxiety, school functioning, school “connectedness,” and the presence of school difficulties. Overall, these adolescents reported positive family relationships, including parental warmth, care from others, personal autonomy, and neighborhood integration, and there were no systematic differences between the same-sex and the opposite-sex parent families. There was no difference between the two groups in the proportion of adolescents who reported having had sexual intercourse, nor in the number who reported having a “romantic relationship” within the past eighteen months (Wainright, Russell, and Patterson, 2004).

Another study reported data from a cohort study that enrolled all children born within a particular county in England during one year (14,000), comparing the well-being of the 39 7-year-old children whose parents self-identified as lesbian to the well-being of peers whose parents were heterosexual. No differences were found in maternal warmth, emotional involvement, enjoyment of motherhood, frequency of conflicts, supervision of the child, abnormal behaviors of the child reported by parents or teachers, children’s self esteem, or psychiatric disorders. On the other hand there were significant differences in warmth, parenting quality and enjoyment, emotional involvement, imaginative play activities, severity of conflicts, supervision of the child, maternal stress, and abnormal child behaviors reported by teachers—all favoring two-parent families (lesbian or heterosexual) over single parent families (Golombok et al., 2003).

 

Summary

Lesbian and gay parents appear to have parenting styles and quality of relationships with their children similar to those of heterosexual parents. A large and growing professional literature demonstrates that parental sexual orientation has no measurable effect on children’s mental health or social adjustment. Children whose parents are lesbian have been reported to be affectionate, nurturing toward younger children, and accepting of diversity.

These changing family constellations suggest numerous implications for early childhood educators. It is important to emphasize that considerable diversity exists among the population of children whose parents are not heterosexual. The life of a child who lives alone with her divorced gay father is surely different from that of a child born to a well-functioning lesbian couple, and different as well from one who lives with his divorced lesbian mother and lesbian stepmother. The roles of the sperm donor or surrogate mother, and the child’s gender, are likely also to affect family relationships and life experience. Teachers should ensure that the diversity in family constellations present in their classrooms and schools is discussed and valued. School libraries should include books for children of all ages about families with gay or lesbian parents.

Further Readings: Benkov, L. (1994). Reinventing the family. New York: Crown Publishers; Chan, R., B. Raboy, and C. Patterson (1998). Psychosocial adjustment among children conceived via donor insemination by lesbian and heterosexual mothers. Child Development 69(2), 443-457; Flaks, D., I. Ficher, F. Masterpasqua, and G. Joseph (1995). Lesbians choosing motherhood: A comparative study of lesbian and heterosexual parents and their children. Developmental Psychology 31(1), 105-114; Gartrell, N., A. Banks, N. Reed, J. Hamilton, C. Rodas, and A. Deck (2000). The national lesbian family study, 3. Interviews with mothers of five-year-olds. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 70(4), 542-548; Golombok, S., F. Tasker, and C. Murray (1997). Children raised in fatherless families from infancy: Family relationships and the socioemotional development of children of lesbian and single heterosexual mothers. Journal of Child Psychology/Psychiatry 38(7); Golombok, S., B. Perry, A. Burston, C. Murray, J. Mooney-Somers, M. Stevens, and J. Golding (2003). Children with lesbian parents: A community study. Developmental Psychology 39(1), 20-33; Patterson, C. J. (1992). Children of lesbian and gay parents. Child Development 63, 1025-1042; Perrin E. C. (2002). Sexual orientation in child and adolescent health care. New York: Kluwer/Plenum Publisher; Tasker, F., and S. Golombok (1997). Growing up in a lesbian family: Effects on child development. New York: Guilford; Tasker, F. (2005). Lesbian mothers, gay fathers, and their children. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 26, 224-240; Wainright J., S. Russell, and C. Patterson (2004). Psychosocial adjustment, school outcomes, and romantic relationships of adolescents with same-sex parents. Child Development 75(6), 1886-1898.

Ellen C. Perrin