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Can Children Do As Well In “New Family Structure” As In The Traditional Family?

According to researcher, Susan Golombok of Cambridge University, they do. Children do just as well in “new family structure” as in the traditional family. Her motivation for doing this research is to change people’s minds about new family forms so that their attitudes are based on facts rather than prejudice and assumption. .

The Associated Press reports that the battle over same-sex parenting is an ongoing one, and many opponents argue these relationships put children at risk. The conservative Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is currently using this argument to fight against Oklahoma’s overturned ban on same-sex marriage.

Rosie O’Donnell with wife and their new born child

However, multiple studies have contradicted this sort of ideology. Last year, the Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families conducted the world’s largest study comparing same-sex parents to heterosexual parents and found that children of gay couples are thriving in terms of health and familial wellness, Think Progress reported.

Lynne and Dick Cheney posed their newborn grandson. (Photo: The White House Handout, via Reuters)


Mary Cheney and spouse, Heather Poe

Every piece of remotely responsible research that has been done in the last 20 years has shown there is no difference between children raised by same-sex parents and children raised by opposite-sex parents,” Mary Cheney noted, adding, “What matters is being raised in a stable, loving environment.”

By Susan Golombok

Child and Family Blog  – How do families support healthy psychological adjustment and gender development for their children? Is family structure the crucial factor – that is, parents’ gender, number, their sexual orientation and genetic connection to the children? What role is also played by family processes – the quality of relationships in the family, such as warmth, levels of interaction, openness of communication and methods of discipline?

For a long time, people believed that family structure enjoyed over-riding importance, the gold standard being the traditional two-parent family with married heterosexual mum and dad, biologically related to their children. So “non-traditional” variants of this family structure, be they, for example, single-parent families or stepfamilies, took second place, at best.

More recent variations, known as “new family forms”, involving same-sex parents and families created by assisted reproductive technologies, have also experienced stigma. However, research on these more modern variants not only supports their value but seriously questions the once accepted primacy of the traditional family structure.

The evidence suggests that the presence of fathers in children’s lives is not per se essential. More controversially, children can, it seems, do fine without a mum.

This research on new family forms gathered over the last 35 years has shown that children in these families do just as well as children raised in traditional families. The evidence also reveals that boys are no less masculine in terms of identity and behaviour, and girls are no less feminine, when they grow up with parents of a single or the same gender.

To some, these findings will hardly be surprising. Children in these new family forms are typically very wanted children with committed and involved parents. They are not born casually. These parents have often gone to great lengths to have children, requiring complicated fertility treatment or the surmounting of considerable prejudice. Many gay fathers have said they never dreamed that the day would come when they would be parents. Some studies find more positive relationships in these family forms even than in traditional families.

I am not saying that children in new family forms always flourish. The research simply shows that they are just as likely to do well or have problems as children in traditional families, depending on factors such as the quality of parenting, the children’s own personal characteristics and, importantly, the social environment in which they are raised. That includes society’s attitudes towards the family. So prejudice and stigmatisation can harm these children – even though there is actually nothing in their families per se that puts them at risk.

What about the number of parents? Is that significant in children’s psychological development? Take single-mother families as an example. Research on the psychological adjustment of children in such families shows that children are more at risk of psychological problems than are their counterparts from homes where the father is present. This is true of single-mother families formed by divorce as well as those headed by unmarried single mothers. However, this difference is largely accounted for by factors that often accompany single parenthood, such as economic hardship, maternal depression and lack of social support, as well as factors that came before the transition to a single-parent home, such as parental conflict. When we control for these factors, differences in psychological adjustment between children with and without fathers largely disappear.

The evidence suggests, therefore, that the presence of fathers in children’s lives is not essential per se. What about mothers? Our findings lead to the controversial conclusion that the presence of a female parent is not essential for children’s well-being or their development of sex-typed behaviour. What’s the evidence? Although only a small number of studies have been conducted, the available findings show no evidence of raised levels of child adjustment problems or atypical gender development between children with two-parent gay father families and children from either two-parent lesbian or two-parent heterosexual homes. Children can, it seems, do fine without a mum.

These findings challenge widely held theories of child development. They question the importance of the traditional family in providing boys with fathers and girls with mothers on whom to model their behaviour. Most controversially, perhaps, the emerging research on father-headed families challenges the centrality of the mother.

Research on new family forms contradicts conventional wisdoms and prejudice, confirming what many parents in those families have long known – the kids are typically doing fine.

Susan Golombok – Professor of Family Research and Director of the Centre
for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, UK.

My research examines the impact of new family forms on parenting and child development, specifically lesbian mother families, gay father families, single mothers by choice and families created by assisted reproductive technologies includingin vitro fertilisation (IVF), donor insemination, egg donation and surrogacy. My work demonstrates that who is in the family – the number, gender, sexual orientation and biological relatedness of parents – is less important for children’s psychological well being than the quality of family relationships.
The book: Parents and Children in New Family Forms, Cambridge University Press, March 2015. For more information: Duncan Fisher, duncan@childandfamilyblog.com, +44-7950 028704.


Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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