Tuesday, February 18, 2014, 00:01 by Michael Conti
One argument that often crops up when discussing same-sex parenting is whether there are any differences between children brought up by a different-sex couple and children raised by a same-sex couple. This area is still understudied, but a number of issues warrant some clarification.
Firstly, some argue that children of same-sex parents have a higher chance to identify as non-heterosexual than children of heterosexual parents. The preoccupation with the sexual development of children of gay and lesbian parents implies a negative perspective of a non-heterosexual orientation, suggesting a pathological approach to homosexuality. However, one must bear in mind that research on sexual orientation has been going on for over 60 years. Apart from removing homosexuality from a mental disorder in 1973, this research has shown that negative outcomes on individuals are related to social stigmatisation and not to sexual orientation.
Further to the above argument, if a child’s sexual orientation depends on their parents’, what does such an argument suggest about heterosexual parents who have raised non-heterosexual children (which is usually the case)? Some argue that children of same-sex parents (most studies have been done on lesbian parents) are more likely to have homoerotic experiences. If this is a result of their parents’ sexual orientation, one needs to ask whether this is actually a problem or whether these children have a chance of being more in touch with their sexuality as they would be freer to question themselves in contrast to a socialisation process that pushes forward heterosexuality as the norm and as a better option.
This is something that is usually stated as a research limitation in this area.Sometimes the issue of representative samples is brought up in discussions on this issue. Research done on stigmatised populations always presents methodological challenges. This is because no actual study can be representative as no one canever know what the population actually entails and how large it is. One can only describe and state minimum values. Moreover, participants in such studies have usually overcome – at least partially – the stigma they experience. Hence, very little is really known, or can be known, about a population that is still a victim of stigmatisation.
That is why one also needs to look at more qualitative research which values the experience of individuals, rather than searching for numbers which can be manipulated either way. However, even if individual studies are not statistically representative, findings emerging from the collection of accumulated studies can be deemed to have validity and reliability.
Furthermore, if one were to focus only on statistically significant data, one needs to take into account the fact that the majority of all children and youth who are abused, neglected, or have experienced serious mental, psychological or social difficulties, have been brought up by heterosexual parents. Should these statistically significant findings be influencing public policy when it comes to parenting?
Ultimately, one asks whether differences actually do exist. Studies indicate that children of same-sex parents have similar experiences to those raised by heterosexual parents as regards psychological well-being, peer relationships, adjustment, quality of family interactions, parent-child relationships, self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and feelings of social acceptance. Listing all the studies here is beyond the scope of the article, but it is a good idea to look at the American Psychological Association’s report that reviews over a hundred studies in the area (http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/parenting-full.pdf).
At the same time, a few differences have emerged. These include the fact that children of gay and lesbian parents tend to be more tolerant and open-minded and have parents who are more egalitarian in their relationship, use more positive discipline techniques, and use less corporal punishment with their children. But ultimately one needs to remember that differences exist between all families, regardless of parents’ sexual orientation, and that every aspect of one’s self will affect the way a person raises their child.
In the current discussions about parenting, I think it is vital to move away from thinking of children’s wellbeing in terms of their parents’ genitals, and focus more on the quality of the parents’ relationship and the kind of love they can provide to their children – irrelevant of their sexual orientation. What children need is a caring and loving environment. What children ..need is an environment that increases their parents’ stress levels solely because of who they love.
Michael Conti is a counsellor and registered psychotherapist.