Authors and politicians have long voiced concern that children — especially sons — of lesbian parents might be damaged by the lack of male role models in their lives. So researchers from the University of Amsterdam and UCLA’s Williams Institute decided to investigate whether the absence of a man to look up to actually harmed lesbian couples’ kids. They found it actually had very little effect — and their work may call into question recent research that showed children of lesbians struggling later in life.
Study author Henny Bos and her team looked at 78 adolescent children of lesbian parents. They asked the teens if they had a close male role model in their lives. Then, because some psychologists have speculated that boys without men around fail to learn masculine behavior, they asked the kids how much they identified with stereotypically masculine traits (like competitiveness) and stereotypically feminine ones (like being understanding). Finally, they gave both the teenagers and their mothers standard questionnaires designed to measure the teens’ psychological adjustment.
They found that having a male role model didn’t affect whether girls or boys identified with traits stereotypically assigned to their gender — girls were more likely to identify with feminine traits than boys were, and both genders were actually equally likely to identify with masculine ones, regardless of whether they’d grown up with a man around. Male role models didn’t seem to affect psychological adjustment, either — teens without them were no more likely to be anxious, depressed, or angry than teens who did have them.
The study authors note that this matters because the lack of a male role model has been used as a justification for barring lesbian couples from adopting. And lesbian parents have come in for criticism lately in the wake of last week’s paper by sociologist Mark Regnerus, which found psychological and social problems among adult children of moms who had same-sex relationships. That paper was held up by some conservatives as an argument against gay marriage — Maggie Gallagher, founder of the National Organization for Marriage, said it showed that “the intact, married biological family, a mom and a dad” was the “gold standard” for raising kids. But if the male-role-model study is accurate, a mom and a mom may be just as good.
Study co-author Nanette Gartrell told BuzzFeed Shift that her team’s research took a very different approach than Regerus did. Her team’s was, she said, “the only study of its kind” that began at conception and followed families in real time throughout their children’s lives, asking about experiences as they happened. This structure, she says, gives her research “an entirely different level of validity” than Regnerus’s.
She was hesitant to make a direct comparison between her team’s results and his, because her study looked exclusively at lesbian parents who were out before they had children, while Regnerus didn’t study sexual orientation per se — his research looked at parents who had ever had a same-sex relationship, regardless of whether they currently or ever identified as gay. What Gartrell could say was that in her team’s work over the years, which has been the subject of numerous papers before the most recent one, they’d found “the adolescents are doing very well.”
She added that this wasn’t only the case for children from intact lesbian families. About half the couples who were together at the beginning of the study have now separated. But, she noted, three quarters of the separated lesbian parents have continued to co-parent, which likely will result in more stability and better outcomes for their kids than if they failed to share parenting duties.
Regnerus himself was doubtful about whether Bos and Gartrell’s team had really found anything about children of lesbian parents in general. He told BuzzFeed Shift that their study could help scholars “learn more about these 78 people,” but “whether we have learned more about the experience of children from all lesbian parents or households […] is much less likely.” He also doubted whether a “sample of largely well-educated, mostly-white women” could be representative of lesbian parents nationwide — the team’s sample was 87% white and about 57% middle-class, with 18% of families identifying as working-class and about 25% identifying as upper or upper-middle.
Gartrell, meanwhile, argues that her team’s sample size isn’t small for such a long-term study. Data collection began in 1986, before computer technology and the internet made data from large samples easier to gather. Now that such technology is available, she says there are many larger studies in the works — her team looks forward to more data on same-sex parents very soon.
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