Are same-sex parents a miracle solution for raising good children? Over the last several years, a number of studies have found that children of same-sex parents scored better than their peers with different-sex parents on a number of developmental measures. Much as I would love to think of myself as part of an elite group of the World’s Best Parents, however, another part of me urges caution.
Most recently, Dutch pre-teen children raised by two moms scored higher on “core principles of democratic citizenship” than their peers with different-sex parents, according to a study announced September 17 by the Williams Institute of UCLA. The research, led by Henny Bos of the University of Amsterdam, looked at children 11-13 years old who participated in a Dutch national survey of civic competence. The demographic information collected during the study incidentally allowed researchers to determine which children had same-sex parents. The 32 children with two moms were matched with 32 raised by different-sex couples, based on age, gender, parental educational level, and parental ethnicity. Overall, those with two moms scored significantly higher on “attitudes concerning acting democratically, dealing with conflicts, and dealing with differences.” (There were not enough children with two dads to be included in the study.)
In 2010, the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS), the longest-running study of lesbian families, released results showing that the 17-year-old children of lesbian mothers “were rated signiﬁcantly higher in social, school/academic, and total competence and signiﬁcantly lower in social problems, rule-breaking, aggressive, and externalizing problem behavior” than their peers in a “normative” sample of American youth (Pediatrics, June 2010).
And back in 2009, Dr. Abbie Goldberg compiled decades of research by many different scholars into her book Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children. She cited studies showing that lesbian non-biological mothers were more involved with their children than straight fathers; that gay fathers were “more sensitive and responsive to the perceived needs of their children” than their straight peers; and that children of lesbian and gay parents—and their offspring as well—may also grow up with “more expansive and flexible notions of gender” and be more accepting of differences in others.
Both mainstream and LGBT media, from the New York Times to smaller channels, responded to Goldberg’s book with headlines like: “Are Same-Sex Couples Better Parents?” The celebratory response from the LGBT community, used to being told they were inherently worse parents, was understandable.
But as Goldberg clarified for me in an e-mail, she was not trying to imply that gay and lesbian parents are “better.” Instead, she said, “the take-home message is that sexual orientation per se does not have much to do with one’s ability to parent, and the similarities between lesbian/gay and heterosexual parents outweigh the differences.” Some of the differences, on average, might favor same-sex couples, “but it is important to emphasize that many of the characteristics that make (some) same-sex parents ‘special’ (e.g., encouraging flexibility with regards to gender roles; engaging in a great deal of thoughtful preparation before becoming parents) also occur in some heterosexual parents.”
Here are some other reasons why I also urge people not to take any of the above research results (or similar future ones) and engage in the game of “Do same- or different-sex couples make better parents?”
Kids are all different. As long as we parents are not doing anything that damages them mentally or physically, it’s petty and pointless to get into discussions of who’s “better,” as if that were a static, objective measure. It’s like those debates kids have about whether Batman or Spider-Man is better. Personally, I don’t care who saves the city as long as it gets saved. And if I ever want to become a superhero myself, I’m going to take the best of both: the gadgets and martial arts skills of Batman combined with the wall-crawling, web-slinging acrobatics of Spider-Man.
Most of these studies focus on very limited characteristics. It may be true that a certain group of parents has strengths in a given area, but we shouldn’t overgeneralize to say that makes them “better” overall. We often fault opponents of LGBT equality for their sketchy scientific conclusions; we therefore need to make sure our own conclusions are sound.
Painting any group of parents with sweeping strokes of “better” and “not better” obscures the human variation that we all possess.
Competition between parents benefits no one. We should, of course, loudly repeat the findings that show LGBT parents are no worse than any others, and are in many ways very similar. It’s also fine to discuss our differences, as long as we don’t transform them into overarching claims about who’s “better.”
But if we view other parents (singly or in groups) as fellow travelers rather than competitors on this grand journey of parenting, we gain the opportunity to learn from our differences, draw strength and inspiration from each other, and rejoice in the common experiences we all share. If we can seize that opportunity, all of our children will benefit.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), an award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.