That is the question researchers explored in the first study ever to track children raised by lesbian parents, from birth to adolescence. Although previous studies have indicated that children with same-sex parents show no significant differences compared with children in heterosexual homes when it comes to social development and adjustment, many of these investigations involved children who were born to women in heterosexual marriages, who later divorced and came out as lesbians.
For their new study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, researchers Nanette Gartrell, a professor of psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco (and a law professor at University of California, Los Angeles), and Henry Bos, a behavioral scientist at University of Amsterdam, focused on what they call planned lesbian families - households in which the mothers identified themselves as lesbian at the time of artificial insemination.
Data on such families are sparse, but they are important for establishing whether a child's environment in a home with same-sex parents would be any more or less nurturing than one with a heterosexual couple.
The authors found that children raised by lesbian mothers - whether the mother was partnered or single - scored very similarly to children raised by heterosexual parents on measures of development and social behavior. These findings were expected, the authors said; however, they were surprised to discover that children in lesbian homes scored higher than kids in straight families on some psychological measures of self-esteem and confidence, did better academically and were less likely to have behavioral problems, such as rule-breaking and aggression.
"We simply expected to find no difference in psychological adjustment between adolescents reared in lesbian families and the normative sample of age-matched controls," says Gartrell. "I was surprised to find that on some measures we found higher levels of [psychological] competency and lower levels of behavioral problems. It wasn't something I anticipated."
In addition, children in same-sex-parent families whose mothers ended up separating, did as well as children in lesbian families in which the moms stayed together.
The data that Gartrell and Bos analyzed came from the U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS), begun in 1986. The authors included 154 women in 84 families who underwent artificial insemination to start a family; the parents agreed to answer questions about their children's social skills, academic performance and behavior at five follow-up times over the 17-year study period. Children in the families were also interviewed by researchers at age 10, and were then asked at age 17 to complete an online questionnaire, which included queries about the teens' activities, their social lives, feelings of anxiety or depression and behavior.
Not surprisingly, the researchers found that 41% of children reported having endured some teasing, ostracism or discrimination related to their being raised by same-sex parents. But Gartrell and Bos could find no differences on psychological adjustment tests between these children and those in a group of matched controls. At age 10, children reporting discrimination did exhibit more signs of psychological stress than their peers, but by age 17, these feelings had dissipated. "Obviously there are some factors that may include family support and changes in education about appreciation for diversity that may be helping young people to come to a better place despite these experiences," says Gartrell.
It's not clear exactly why children of lesbian mothers tend to do better than those in heterosexual families on certain measures. But after studying gay and lesbian families for 24 years, Gartrell has some theories. "They are very involved in their children's lives," she says of the lesbian parents. "And that is a great recipe for healthy outcomes for children. Being present, having good communication, being there in their schools, finding out what is going on in their schools and various aspects of the children's lives is very, very important."
Although such active involvement isn't unique to lesbian households, Gartrell notes that same-sex mothers tend to make that kind of parenting more of a priority. Because their children are more likely to experience discrimination and stigmatization as a result of their family circumstances, these mothers can be more likely to broach complicated topics, such as sexuality and diversity and tolerance, with their children early on. Having such a foundation may help to give these children more confidence and maturity in dealing with social differences and prejudices as they get older.
Because the research is ongoing, Gartrell hopes to test some of these theories with additional studies. She is also hoping to collect more data on gay father households; gay fatherhood is less common than lesbian motherhood because of the high costs - of surrogacy or adoption - that gay couples necessarily face in order to start a family.