October 30, 2006
Does a parent’s sexual orientation affect her child’s development? And if so, how?
These are the questions posed by Prof. Charlotte Patterson in her article in the newest issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a highly respected academic journal published by the Association for Psychological Science.
Papers in Current Directions are intended to be “concise reviews spanning all of scientific psychology and its applications” that are “written by leading experts in terms that are accessible outside of the realm of research subspecialties.”
Consistent with these criteria, Dr. Patterson’s article doesn’t report new data. Rather, it reviews previously published research and synthesizes the findings for other professionals.
Noting that most studies have focused on lesbian mothers rather than gay fathers, Dr. Patterson highlights two eras in contemporary research on sexual minority families.
In early studies — conducted mainly during the 1970s and 1980s — researchers examined children who were born to a married mother and father but were subsequently raised by their lesbian mother after a divorce or separation. They found few significant differences between the children with a lesbian mother and children whose divorced mothers were heterosexual.
Because these children began life in the context of a heterosexual marriage, however, the question of how their early experiences might have affected their long-term development remained open. What would be the outcome for, say, infants adopted by same-sex couples or children conceived by same-sex couples through donor insemination?
More recent research has addressed this issue by studying children raised from birth in families headed by a same-sex couple. For these studies, children and parents have been recruited through a variety of strategies. Some researchers have located participants through friendship networks and word of mouth, while others have sampled specific groups that included both heterosexual and lesbian parents (e.g., sperm bank clients). Still others have used probability samples that are representative of the entire population.
Regardless of how participants were recruited, all of the studies converge on similar conclusions. In Dr. Patterson’s words,
“Does parental sexual orientation have an important impact on child or adolescent development? Results of recent research provide no evidence that it does. In fact, the findings suggest that parental sexual orientation is less important than the qualities of family relationships. More important to youth than the gender of their parent’s partner is the quality of daily interaction and the strength of relationships with the parents they have.“
Thus, if you want to know which children are most likely to be developing in a healthy way, don’t focus on their parents’ sexual orientation. Instead, find the children who have warm and affectionate relationships with their parents.
Dr. Patterson’s article, “Children of Lesbian and Gay Parents,” appears in the October 2006 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.
In addition to her many scholarly publications on this topic, Dr. Patterson has also written a summary of research findings on lesbian mothers, gay fathers, and their children that is available on the website of the American Psychological Association.