Compared to children raised by heterosexual parents, being raised by same-sex parents doesn’t appear to be a determinant in childhood development, a new international study has shown. In fact, there may be some advantages to being brought up in a rainbow family.
The number of children raised by parents of sexual and gender minorities has increased in recent years. Sexual and gender minorities is an umbrella term that includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and gender non-conforming people. The acronym LGBT (sometimes LGBTQ) is often used to encompass these minorities, and the term “rainbow families” denotes families where the parents are LGBT.
According to 2019 data from the US Census Bureau, 14.7% of same-sex couples had at least one child under 18 in their household, compared with 37.8% of heterosexual couples. The data also showed that same-sex couples were four times more likely than opposite-sex couples to have adopted children or stepchildren.
Many countries have expanded marriage rights to include LGBT couples. As of 2023, same-sex marriage is recognized in 34 countries. But the issue of children being raised by LGBT parents continues to create sociocultural, political and legal division about how a parent’s sexual orientation affects children.
Previous studies have suggested that children raised by lesbian and gay parents do not experience negative outcomes in relation to emotional functioning or stigmatization when compared with other children. However, some studies have demonstrated a negative association between same-sex parenting and children’s developmental outcomes, including in the areas of health and education.
A new meta-analysis examined 34 studies published between 1989 and 2022 in countries where same-sex marriage was legal, to identify disparities between LGBT and heterosexual parent families in relation to major family outcomes such as: children’s psychological adjustment, physical health, gender role behavior, gender identity and sexual orientation, and education outcomes.
The analysis also considered the parents’ psychological adjustment, the parent-child relationship, and the risk factors associated with poor family outcomes. It is the first systematic review to examine these factors against the background of the legalization of same-sex marriage.
A pooled data analysis of the results showed that most family outcomes were similar between heterosexual and rainbow families. Interestingly, it found that children raised by LGBT parents, especially pre-school-age children, demonstrated better psychological adjustment than those raised by heterosexual parents.
“Growing up with sexual minority parents may confer some advantages to children,” the researchers said. “They have been described as more tolerant of diversity and more nurturing towards younger children than children of heterosexual parents.”
Their analysis found that children in rainbow families were less likely to be expected to identify as heterosexual than children from opposite-sex families. This, the researchers suggested, was due to LGBT parents placing less emphasis on traditional gender roles.
“There may be less gender stereotyping in minority parent families, and this effect may be positive,” the researchers said. “Exploration of gender identity and sexuality may actually enhance children’s ability to succeed and thrive in a range of contexts.”
The review indicated that LGBT parents were equal to heterosexual parents in terms of relationship satisfaction, mental health, parenting stress, and family functioning. The identified risk factors for poor family outcomes for rainbow families included experiencing stigma and discrimination, lack of social support, and cohabiting rather than married parents.
“Legal marriage confers a host of protections and advantages to the couples who marry and to their children,” the researchers said.
The researchers hope that the results of this meta-analysis will allay concerns about the well-being of children of rainbow families.
“One contribution of this review is the recognition that parents’ sexual orientation is not, in and of itself, an important determinant of children’s development,” they said. “Policy-makers, practitioners, and the public must work together to improve family outcomes, regardless of sexual orientation.”
The study was published in the journal BMJ Global Health.
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