June 8, 2010

New study: Children of lesbians more competent

The growing acceptance of same-sex marriage -- now legal in 8 countries, 5 U.S. states, and among the Coquille Indians in Oregon -- demonstrates the rapid social and legal progress of lesbians and gay men. Yet a handful of expert witnesses are still testifying in court that sexual minority parents put children at risk for bad outcomes.

Experts must rely on science. So these antigay experts cite biased research and make strained inferences from supposed empirical evidence of higher rates of psychiatric problems, substance abuse, and relationship instability among sexual minorities as a group. Of course, it's apples and oranges, because those studies are not of parents. These self-described experts only get away with such testimony due to societal prejudice; imagine a scientist testifying for a ban on adoption by Native Hawaiians due to their relatively higher rates of illegal drug use than Asians as a group.

But a new study in the journal Pediatrics blows this sham pseudoscience out of the water. The first prospective, longitudinal study of planned lesbian families found that by adolescence the sons and daughters of lesbians had better psychological adjustment across the board than their demographically matched counterparts from a large normative sample of American youth.

At age 17, both boys and girls were rated significantly higher in social, academic, and total competence and significantly lower in social problems, rule-breaking, aggression, and externalizing behavioral problems.

Interestingly, although more than half of the co-parent couples separated during the time period of the study, this did not affect their children's psychological health. That finding contrasts with the negative impact of divorce on children in heterosexual families. The researchers theorize it may be due to the nature of shared child-rearing among separted lesbian mothers.

The authors theorize that one factor in the relatively superior adjustment of these children is that their parents use less corporal punishment and authoritarian power assertion than do heterosexual fathers:
Growing up in households with less power assertion and more parental involvement has been shown to be associated with healthier psychological adjustment. Also, adolescent boys who are close to their parents are less likely to engage in delinquent behavior.
The study followed 154 prospective mothers who volunteered beginning in 1986 to be followed from their children's conception to adulthood. Because of its prospective nature, findings were not skewed by overrepresentation of families who volunteered once their offspring were doing well. Although the sample was non-random, this was offset by a remarkably high retention rate of 93 percent. The study is ongoing.

These and related findings have significant implications for child custody and adoption cases in which experts testify that the sexuality of the parents is relevant under the "best interest of the child" standard. Respected child custody expert Jonathan Gould and his colleagues have argued that parental sexual orientation is irrelevant to this issue. Forensic psychologist William O'Donohue disagrees. But now, an expert who does raise parental sexuality as a potential negative can expect to be confronted with mounting evidence that -- far from being a liability -- having lesbian parents may actually confer some advantages to children.

Related resources:

Pediatrics has made the article available for free online (HERE). My article in the Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice summarizing the state of this research as of 2003 is: Practice Opportunities with an Emerging Family Form: The Planned Lesbian and Gay Family (Volume 3, Issue 3, pages 47-64).

Photo credit: Telegraph (UK); Hat tip: Ken Pope

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The children were better off because they were raised by their birth mothers without any legally countervailing stresses. The birth mothers were in the higher socioeconomic group that chooses IVF, and they had consistent help in the house that (1986 when the study commenced) had no legal authority to countermand them, or, upon the break-up of the relationship, take them to court.