Susan Golombok is director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge. Her fascinating book, published in March this year, brings together over thirty years of research into new family forms – forms which include lesbian and gay-parented families, single mothers by choice, and families created through assisted reproduction techniques (ART).
The findings not only contest popular myths and assumptions about the social and psychological consequences for children being raised in these new family forms, but also challenge well-established theories of child development that are founded upon the supremacy of the traditional family.
The quality of family relationships and the wider social environment are shown to be more influential on children’s psychological development than the number, gender, sexual orientation, or biological relatedness of their parents, or the method of their conception.
Naysayers have tried to debunk studies on same-sex parented families, saying that there are not enough same-sex parented families to study to give a true representation. “I don’t think that’s true anymore,” says Susan. “There are very large numbers. And there is now a large body of research on lesbian mother families - going back to the 1970s when lesbians were giving up custody (of their children) - and there’s a growing body of research on gay father families.”
In a UK study of adoptive parents, gay fathers showed lower levels of depression and stress associated with parenting then did heterosexual parents. In terms of parenting, gay fathers showed higher levels of warmth, higher levels of interaction and lower levels of disciplinary aggression (assessed by interview), and higher levels of responsiveness (assessed by observation), than the heterosexual parents.
Susan has contributed to many of the research studies in her book. Here she discusses just a few interesting examples with We Are Family magazine:
One study shows that lesbian mothers try to break down gender stereotyping by encouraging their boys to play with dolls and their girls with guns and cars. Susan comments, “Yes, it’s quite funny - it goes to show that it doesn’t actually work! I think people think it’s good for kids to have more of a range of things to play with but from the conversations I had with parents it didn’t seem to make much difference. If you don’t give your boys guns, they’ll just turn something else into guns.”
Teenage daughters with lesbian mothers were more likely to have sexual relationships with other girls. Susan explains, “There was definitely a pattern. It seemed that girls with lesbian mothers feel more free to explore same-sex relationships as well as opposite sex relationships. It seemed to be more about experimentation. We thought this was quite interesting and that perhaps it was because in lesbian parented families there wasn’t a taboo against that. Interestingly a study in the US found exactly the same thing. I think if the same thing is found in two different studies you’ve got a pattern that’s worth looking at.”
“In the US, where there’s no regulation over how many children are born from the same donor, we found one sibling group of 55, and, since then, there have been several groups of over 100. That was completely unexpected.
A lot of these families wanted to meet each other – if you suddenly found you had half-siblings of 50 or 75 it must be quite a shock! Then traditional heterosexual parented families were getting to know same-sex parented families and single parent by choice families – you’re getting all these different family types related to one another through their children and getting together and forming relationships. It’s a very nice hotchpotch of people.”
Susan’s current favourite study is happening in the US, it’s “on gay fathers who have had children using surrogacy and egg donation. These in a way are the most different families from traditional families – they’ve got sexual orientation, the gender of the parents, plus surrogacy and egg donation. Just about every non-traditional family feature you can think about all rolled into one! We hope this one will be finished by the end of the summer.”
Overall, the results may not be a great surprise to those of us who are part of these new forms of family, but still, its great to hear it officially: empirical research demonstrates that family structure matters less for children’s psychological development and well-being than the quality of family relationships.
Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms, New Cambridge Press, £18.99, available on Amazon.co.uk
This article was originally published in issue 8 of We Are Family magazine. To buy your copy click here.