Children's Development of Social Competence Across Family Types/Variation in children's social competence across family types

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Variation in children's social competence across family types

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4 Variation in children's social competence across family types

Having documented the development and qualities of social competence, and the features of parental socialization that support social competence, we have the basis with which to judge the literature on the links between family types and social competence. We focus on studies of parents and children in families with two parents of the opposite sex, compared to families with two parents of the same sex. We also examine lone parent compared to two parent families, both heterosexual and gay or lesbian. We review studies of children’s social competence, studies of parental socialization that we have shown to be related to children’s social competence, and studies that directly assess the relations between parental socialization and children’s social competence across family types.

4.1 Lone-parent and two-parent families[edit]

Far more research has been done comparing socialization and development in heterosexual lone-parent and two-parent families than has been done comparing heterosexual and gay or lesbian families. Several recent and comprehensive reviews of the literature on lone-parents are available (Hay & Nash, 2002; Patterson, in press; Weinraub, Horvath, & Gringlass, 2002). We provide a brief summary of this area of research first, before examining research on families with heterosexual parents compared to families with gay or lesbian parents.

There is a disproportionate over-representation of young mothers with poor economic resources in the population of lone-parent families (Martin, Kochanek, Strobino, Guyer, & MacDornan, 2005). The social and economic stresses that burden the lives of young lone mothers are likely to have adverse impacts on their parenting and their children’s well-being; these points are addressed further in a subsequent section on the environmental contexts of families. However, the number of older, college-educated and well-employed women who are choosing to become lone parents has been increasing in recent years (Bachu, 1998). Similarly, although they are still less common, the number of lone-father families also is increasing (Weinraub et al., 2002).

Never-married lone mothers have been found to be more rejecting, and to provide less supervision and authoritative control, than married mothers (Shaw, Winslow, & Flanagan, 1999; Thomson, McLanahan, & Braun-Curtin, 1992), although there is considerable variability in the parenting skills of never-married lone mothers (Brody, Flor, & Gibson, 1999). Despite these differences in parenting, some research indicates that children of never-married lone mothers and children of married mothers do not differ strongly on behavioural measures of social competence (Shaw et al., 1999).

When researchers are careful to match samples of lone-mother families and two-parent families on measures of education and income, they often find that these two family types do not differ on measures of parental socialization or children’s behaviour (Weinraub et al., 2002; Patterson, in press). However, Gringlas and Weinraub (1995) found differences even with carefully matched samples, especially when families were experiencing high levels of stress. Teachers described the elementary school-aged children of highly stressed lone mothers as least socially competent, compared to children of less stressed lone mothers and children of both more and less stressed married mothers.

Interestingly, this research was based on a sample of families who had been studied when the children were preschool-aged (Weinraub & Wolf, 1983, 1987). At preschool-age, stress was also associated with family functioning for the lone-mother families but not the two-parent families. More stressed lone mothers used less effective parenting behaviours during interactions with their children, were less nurturing, and poorer at communication, and their children were moodier. Conversely, the presence of more social support was associated with more optimal parenting by both lone mothers and mothers in two-parent families. This suggests that all mothers benefit from protective factors like social support, but lone mothers and their children are uniquely vulnerable to the adverse effects of risk factors like perceived stress. Mothers in two-parent families may be able to rely upon their co-partners for emotional and practical support when they are under stress, whereas lone mothers would not always have a substitute social support for this ready resource.

There is limited research on lone fathers. Some studies suggest that the socialization by lone fathers and lone mothers is similar; for example, they have both been found to be more permissive than mothers and fathers in two-parent families (Dombusch & Gray, 1998). Compared to lone mothers, lone fathers tend to have more economic resources, feel more confident, be more positively engaged with children, and have more authority over their children (Hilton & Devall, 1998). Some studies find no difference in the social competence of elementary school-aged children living in lone-father, lone-mother, and two-parent families (Histon, Desrochers, & Devall, 2001; Schnayer & Orr, 1989). However, another study found that daughters of lone fathers showed adjustment difficulties including decreased sociability and in increased neediness, whereas sons of lone fathers did not differ in social competence from their peers (Santrock, Warshak, & Elliott, 1982).

Many lone-parent homes result from divorce or spousal separation. The emotional, social and economic stresses that frequently follow divorce may account for the fact that divorced parents are less authoritative than parents in intact families (Hay & Nash, 2002; Hetherington & Stanley-Hagen, 1999). However, the benefits of authoritative parenting for children’s social adjustment appear to be just as strong in divorced families as they are in intact families (Hetherington & Clingempeel, 1992). This is further evidence that the impact of divorce on children’s well-being may be partially explained by the deleterious effects of divorce on the quality of parenting that children receive (O’Connor, Thorpe, Dunn, & Golding, 1999).

In summary, the risk factors that adversely affect functioning and development appear to have stronger impacts on the parents and children living in lone-parent families. Many lone parents cope well with their life circumstances and use appropriate and effective socialization strategies, and their children seem to benefit from these practices and develop social competence just as much as children in two-parent families. Overall, though, the proportions of lone parents and children of lone parents who manifest social difficulties are greater than is seen with two-parent families. Moreover, more lone parents, and especially lone mothers, live in highly stressed contexts, and lone parents appear to be more vulnerable to the adverse effects of stress. It seems likely that the effects of life stress on children are at least partially accounted for by the impact of stress on the quality of parental socialization.

4.2 Families with heterosexual parents and families with lesbian and gay parents

Although many of the early studies of socialization and social competence in families with gay or lesbian parents were plagued by methodological limitations, the situation has improved considerably in the past 15 years. Most researchers now use careful recruitment and matching procedures to ensure that they have comparable samples of heterosexual families and gay or lesbian families, and well-validated measures of family relationships, parenting practices, and child functioning. We first provide one example of a study with serious methodological limitations, and then give greater attention to methodologically superior studies.

4.2.1 General[edit]

We begin with an example of the kind of study that is very difficult to evaluate because of its methodological limitations. Cameron and Cameron (2002) reported on a "content analysis" of life-story narratives made by 24 five to seventeen-year-old children with one gay or lesbian parent. These narratives were published transcripts of stories told by the children about being reared by gay or lesbian parents. The stories were collected through interviews conducted by two other researchers (Rafkin, 1990; Safhon, 1996), although how they recruited the samples of children is not described. The majority of the children described a variety of social and emotional difficulties in their lives, such as being embarrassed, teased, or victimized, or experiencing family instability. Only two to four children (it is impossible to determine exact numbers from the report) reported such serious problems as possible sexual abuse, violence, or criminal behaviour. The authors stated that most problems were attributed to the gay or lesbian parent and not to the heterosexual parent, although they did not describe how this was determined.

There are numerous problems with this study. The authors tell nothing about the samples: were the parents still cohabitating, divorced, or separated, or were the children raised by lone parents from birth? Did children live with their gay or lesbian parent? Were any children raised by two gay or lesbian parents? What were the socioeconomic circumstances of the families? Experiences of spousal conflict and family dissolution, contact with parents, and access to resources or experiences of economic stress would have direct bearing on the children’s well-being, regardless of parents’ sexual orientation (Bernstein, 2002). The interviews were specifically stated to be about "the nature of homosexual parenting" (p. 73). The children apparently were not also asked to talk about their heterosexual parent, so the transcripts probably contained little information on any problems in that parental relationship. Thus, the authors could not validly determine whether children associated more problems with their gay or lesbian parent than with their heterosexual parent. There was not a matched comparison group of life stories from children with heterosexual parents who lived in similar socioeconomic and family type circumstances. It is impossible to know whether these 24 children reported social and emotional difficulties at greater or lesser frequency, or of greater or lesser severity, than children without a gay or lesbian parent. Finally, the authors provided no information about the reliability or validity of their procedures for quantifying the information in the transcripts.

As well as being seriously flawed methodologically, this study is almost unique in its conclusion that children of gay and lesbian parents experience serious adjustment problems. As mentioned earlier, replication is an important part of research. The results of any one study may be suspect, especially if it is a purely descriptive or correlational study with a small sample of participants. When independent studies produce identical results, we can be more certain of the validity of those results. Meta-analysis is a statistical method of evaluating the extent to which results are replicated. It combines the results of many studies in order to test whether findings are consistent across studies, and to assess the overall strength of any consistent findings that are identified.

Allen and Burrell (1996) conducted a meta-analysis of 18 independent studies on gay or lesbian parents and/or children with gay or lesbian parents, compared to heterosexual parents and/or children with heterosexual parents. All 18 studies included comparison groups, making them methodologically superior to the Cameron and Cameron (2002) report. The meta-analysis included both studies of lesbian mothers and studies of gay fathers. Four of the studies included teachers’ reports of children’s behaviour at school, five studies included parents’ reports of the quality of the parent-child relationship, four studies included parents’ reports of children’s happiness and life satisfaction, and seven studies included children’s reports of their adjustment and life satisfaction. By aggregating across studies, their analyses of these measures of competence were based on 167 to 386 families.

None of the tested effects were significant (Allen & Burrell, 1996). In other words, children with heterosexual parents and children with gay and lesbian parents did not differ in any of the measures of socialization and social competence. The conclusions of this report are strikingly different from those of Cameron and Cameron (2002). Studies with better methodologies, larger samples of participants, and aggregation of data across multiple independent studies, provide stronger support for the conclusion that children with a gay or lesbian parent do not differ in these indicators of social competence from children without a gay or lesbian parent.

In the following review of specific studies, we do not provide reviews of each of the 18 investigations that were included in this meta-analysis, because reviewing Allen and Burrell’s (1996) paper has already accounted for that research. However, reports that included additional relevant information that Allen and Burrell did not examine, such as lone parent versus two parent family status, are reviewed for results pertaining to those features. Our main focus will be on research studies published since Allan and Burrell’s meta-analysis, and on earlier papers that were not included in their study.

4.2.2 By developmental period[edit]

In this section, we examine specific empirical investigations of social competence and socialization across family types. There is more research available on the social competence and adjustment of elementary school-aged children of gay or lesbian parents than there is on either preschool-aged or adolescent children (Patterson, 2002). Thus, our conclusions about differences or similarities in children’s functioning will be strongest for school-aged children.

4.2.2.1 The preschool period

Most studies on gay and lesbian families with preschool-aged children have focused on parental socialization and family functioning, rather than children’s social competence. The information on parents and families is reviewed in the following section.

One of the few longitudinal programs of research on children in families with same-sex parents followed the development of 84 lesbian families who conceived through donor insemination from pregnancy until children were five-years-old (Gartrell et al., 1996, 1999, 2000). There were initially 14 lone-mother and 70 two-parent families, although some separations and new unions occurred over the 5 years of study. Although there was no comparison sample of children being raised in heterosexual families, this study does provide useful descriptive information on the lives and experiences of young children with lesbian mothers. Interviewed when their children were five-years-old, mothers reported that 68% were open about their family type with their peers, and that 87% of children related well with their peers. Given the incidence of social problems in the general population of preschoolers (Rimm-Kaufman et al., 2000), this suggests that preschool-aged children with lesbian mothers were at least as socially competent as preschool-aged children of heterosexual mothers. However, mothers reported that 18% of children had experienced some form of homophobic discrimination from peers or teachers, an adverse social event that would be a source of stress unique to children raised in gay and lesbian families.

4.2.2.2 The elementary school-age period

In a study of seven-year-old children who had been conceived through DI, 30 lesbian two-parent families were compared with 16 heterosexual two-parent families (Chan, Brooks, Raboy, & Patterson, 1998; Chan, Raboy, & Patterson, 1998), matched on age and sex of children, age of if parents, employment and income, and duration of the couples’ relationships. Biological mothers, non-biologically-related parents (fathers or lesbian partners who are sometimes called ‘social mothers’), and teachers reported on the children’s social functioning. Children in the two family types did not differ on any of the measures of social competence. An independent study of ten-year-old children who had been conceived through DI showed that children with lesbian parents and children with heterosexual parents did not differ in self-reported social competence or mother-reported behaviour problems (Vanfraussen, Kristofferson, & Brewaeys, 2002). Children in lesbian families described themselves as having fewer aggression and anxiety problems than children in heterosexual families, although teachers described the children in lesbian families as less attentive.

Similar results were found in a study of 50 lesbian lone mothers and 40 heterosexual lone mothers (Green, Mandel, Hotvedt, Gray, & Smith, 1986). There were no differences in children's popularity and social engagement, according to both mothers’ and children’s reports. Using published data about children’s normative scores on psychological tests rather than a direct comparison group, Patterson (1996) also found that children of lesbian mothers reported levels of social competence and closeness with peers that did not differ from the average scores for children of the same age.

Golombok and her colleagues have conducted some of the most methodologically sound studies of socialization in lesbian families, matching families on methods of procreation, ages of mothers and children, birth order, and family size. They examined the social and emotional functioning of children raised by lone lesbian mothers, lesbian mothers with a partner (social mother), lone heterosexual mothers, and heterosexual mothers with a partner (biological father)(Golombok, Tasker, & Murray, 1997). Children in both types of lesbian families and children of lone heterosexual mothers had been raised without a father-figure in the home since infancy. The six-year-old children raised in father-absent homes had greater security of attachment than the children raised in two-parent heterosexual homes, but the children of lesbian mothers and children of lone heterosexual mothers did not differ in attachment. There were no family type differences in children’s reports of their social acceptance by peers, but children in father-absent homes reported less physical and cognitive competence than children in father-present homes. Again, children raised by lesbian and heterosexual lone mothers did not differ in these competence scores.

In a longitudinal extension of this study, most of the families were visited again when children were l2 years old (MacCallum & Golombok, 2004). Both mothers and children were interviewed about the children’s social competence. At this time, there were no differences across family types on any of the measures of children’s peer relationships, experiences of bullying, self-esteem, or school adjustment.

Golombok and colleagues (2003) also identified lesbian-mother families within a large, representative sample of families enrolled in a longitudinal geographic population study. They recruited 20 lone-mother and l9 two-parent lesbian families with a five to seven-year-old child, and compared these families with 60 lone-parent heterosexual families, and 74 two-parent heterosexual families. There were no differences across family types in mothers’ reports of their children’s social adjustment, although there was a weak tendency for lesbian mothers to report that their children were having more problems with peers. Teachers also did not report any differences in functioning for children in lesbian-headed families compared to children in heterosexual-headed families. However, teachers reported that children in lone-mother families, either lesbian or heterosexual, had more behavioural problems than children in families with two mothers or with a mother and father. As well, children did not report different levels of self-esteem or competence across the family types, although there was a weak tendency for children of lesbian mothers to report that they were less accepted by peers. Thus, this study replicated previous results showing little association between mothers’ sexual orientation and children’s social competence, but children of lone-mothers have more problems related to social competence than children of heterosexual or lesbian two-parent families.

In one of the only large studies of gay fathers, Barrett and Tasker (2001) interviewed 101 gay fathers of 179 children. The fathers generally reported that their children had very few problems related to adjustment, life satisfaction, or comfort with having a gay father. However, only fathers’ perspectives on their children’s functioning were assessed, and there was no comparison group of heterosexual fathers.

4.2.2.3 Adolescence

Given the great importance of peer relationships during adolescence, societal homophobia or discrimination might be a serious problem for adolescent children of gay or lesbian parents. Adolescent children of lesbian mothers who reported perceiving more stigma against lesbian families reported lower self-esteem, less social acceptance, less close friendships, and decreased likelihood of disclosing their mothers’ sexual orientation, compared to youths of lesbian mothers who perceived less stigma (Gershon, Tschann, & Jemerin, 1999). However, being willing to disclose appeared to protect some aspects of the youths’ social functioning. Youths who disclosed more had closer friendships, even if they perceived high levels of stigma.

A reluctance to disclose mothers’ lesbianism because of anticipated negative reactions by peers seems to be a common concern for children of lesbian mothers (Javaid, 1993; Patterson, 2002; Ray & Gregory, 2001). There is little evidence, however, that children who have disclosed their mothers’ lesbianism actually experience more rejection or social problems than children who do not disclose their mothers’ sexual orientation. One research program showed that the majority of children with gay or lesbian parents experienced some social problems, such as teasing or bullying, because of their mothers’ sexual orientation (Ray & Gregory, 2001). However, older adolescents reported that peers are more accepting than younger adolescents.

As well, these studies did not compare children of different family types for the actual frequency of experiencing teasing, bullying or discrimination. Therefore, it is difficult to detemiine whether youths with gay or lesbian parents were victimized more frequently or more severely than youths with heterosexual parents, although the reasons for victimization might vary across family types.

Not all studies of adolescents have shown that having gay or lesbian parents was associated with experiencing social problems at school. Drawing on a large and nationally representative sample of youths, Wainright and colleagues (2004) identified 44 adolescents living in lesbian two-parent families, and also recruited 44 adolescents living in heterosexual two-parent families. These groups were carefully matched for age, sex, ethnicity, adoption status, learning disability, parental education and family income. Having matched characteristics, and statistical control of non-matching characteristics, increases our confidence that any group differences in adolescent functioning could be accurately attributed to the adolescents having lesbian or heterosexual parents.

Adolescents with lesbian mothers were at least as socially competent as adolescents with heterosexual parents (Wainright et al., 2004). There were no differences between family types in adolescents’ self-reported self-esteem, anxiety, or having romantic relationships. Adolescents with lesbian mothers reported being more connected with their schools than youths with heterosexual parents.

4.2.2.4 Summary

Almost uniformly, research has documented the absence of differences in social competence and adjustment across studies describing the behaviours and experiences of children with gay or lesbian parents, and comparing children with gay or lesbian parents to children with heterosexual parents. Only one aspect of social functioning distinguished children in different family types and was replicated across multiple studies: discrimination. There were more concerns about being discriminated against, and possibly more experiences of being discriminated against, for children living with one or two gay or lesbian parents compared to children living with heterosexual parents. Adolescents with gay or lesbian parents appeared to be more worried than younger children about negative peer reactions to their family types. However, a larger number of studies showed that children with gay or lesbian parents and children with heterosexual parents did not differ in any measures of their peer acceptance and social adjustment at school, and one study indicated that youths with gay or lesbian parents had marginally better school adjustment. It should be recognized that the majority of these studies were methodologically limited, in that they utilized single time-point, correlational designs with convenience samples. This limitation is off-set by the small set of longitudinal studies and studies with representative samples that also found convergent results: children with gay or lesbian parents and children with heterosexual parents did not differ on measures of social competence.

Conversely, on average, children raised in two-parent families appeared to show better social competence than children raised in lone-mother families, regardless of parents’ sexual orientation. As we show in later sections, this difference is partially attributable to the different life circumstances of many lone parents and coupled parents, including access to emotional and socioeconomic resources.

It should be recognized that the evidence for average or marginally better-than-average social competence in children with gay or lesbian parents is based primarily on children with lesbian mothers. A few studies on children with gay fathers were included in the meta-analysis of Allen and Burrell (1996), but these were not distinguished from the studies on children with lesbian mothers. There is not yet sufficient research on children with gay fathers to determine whether being raised by two gay fathers is associated with any differences in children’s social competence, compared to being raised by two mothers, or by a mother and a father (Bigner, 1999).

4.3 Variations in parenting across family types[edit]

A second way of inferring whether children with one or two gay or lesbian parents might differ in social competence from children with heterosexual parents is by looking at whether the factors associated with social competence differ across family types. As we have documented earlier, there are strong and consistent associations between many aspects of parental socialization and children’s social competence, and it is likely that parental socialization has causal influences on the development of social competence. Therefore, it is informative to examine whether studies of parental socialization have documented any differences between heterosexual families and gay or lesbian families.

In a study comparing parenting in 15 lesbian families who conceived through DI to parenting in 15 matched heterosexual families who conceived through DI, the family types were found to differ on only one aspect of parental socialization (Flaks, Ficher, Masterpacqua, & Joseph, 1995). The lesbian parents scored higher on their awareness of parental problem solving, meaning they were able to identify more potential child-care problems and a greater variety of solutions to those problems, compared to heterosexual parents. This difference was mainly attributable to fathers in the heterosexual families, who scored lower on problem solving awareness than all mothers.

Another study compared 30 lesbian two-parent families with four to eight-year-old children conceived through DI at a fertility clinic to 38 matched heterosexual families who conceived through DI and 30 matched heterosexual families who conceived without medical assistance. (Brewaeys, Ponjeart, & Golombok, 1997). Couples in the three family types did not report differences in their satisfaction with their couple relationship, although lesbian social (non-biological) mothers were more involved in helping with practical childcare duties than fathers in both heterosexual family types, a common finding(Patte1son, 2002). Biological mothers in the three groups reported similarly positive relationships with their children. However, lesbian social mothers reported more positive relationships with their children than did fathers in either of the heterosexual family types. Children in the three family types reported similarly positive relationships with their biological mothers, and the quality of children's relationships with lesbian social mothers did not differ from the quality of children's relationships with fathers. In all family types, children reported more positive relationships with biological mothers than with social mothers or fathers. When these families were seen again about four years later (Vanfraussen, Kristofferson, & Brewaeys, 2003), the researchers did not find any differences in parental socialization or parent-child relationship quality between heterosexual families and lesbian families.

Differences in the quality of relationships children have with their two mothers in lesbian families have been seen in other research as well. Despite sharing the job of childcare fairly equally, being satisfied with their couple relationships, and having overall positive relationships with their children, lesbian couples tend to report that children form a stronger bond or closer relationship with one of their two mothers (Bennett, 2003; Nelson, 1999). In families with a birth-mother, the stronger relationship is typically with the biological mother. In adoptive families, the mother with whom the child is closer is seen as more caring and nurturing. This parallels the usual difference seen in children's relationships with their mothers and fathers in heterosexual families (Russell et al., 2002). However, although the mother-child bond may be strongest for the primary caregiver, almost all social mothers establish close and strong attachments to their children (McCandlish, 1987; Steckel, 1987), just like the majority of biological fathers.

Golombok et al. (1997) found mothers in father-absent homes expressed greater warmth, were more engaged, and had more serious disputes with their six-year-old children than mothers in father-present homes. When lesbian mothers were compared with lone heterosexual mothers, the mothers in these two family types did not differ in warmth or seriousness of disputes, but lone heterosexual mothers were found to be more engaged with their children than lesbian mothers.

These differences were not replicated in a subsequent investigation of families with five to seven-year-old children (Golombok et al., 2003). In that study, mothers in two-parent families, whether they were lesbian or heterosexual, reported more affection and enjoyment in their roles as mothers, less serious disputes with their children, less fantasy play, and more supervision of play, compared to lone heterosexual and lesbian mothers. Thus, number of parents in the home was associated with parenting quality. There were some differences according to sexual orientation as well. Compared to heterosexual mothers, lesbian mothers were less likely to use physical discipline, and more likely to engage in fantasy and domestic play with their children. In two-parent families, lesbian social mothers also differed from fathers in heterosexual families, with social mothers reporting greater emotional engagement, less physical discipline, and more domestic play than fathers. Another study of lesbian and gay two-parent families showed that both lesbian mothers and gay fathers report lower rates of physical discipline than the national average (Johnson & O’Connor, 2001). These differences would be likely tend to advantage children in families with lesbian and gay parents, vis-a-vis the development of social competence.

Golombok and her colleagues saw these same families again six years later (MacCallum & Golombok, 2004), when the children were about l2 years-old. Some of the group differences - were maintained and others changed. There were no differences across family types in warmth and affection, use of reasoning or aggression during conflicts, and children's reports of parental monitoring and discipline. Lone heterosexual mothers reported the highest levels of aggression during discipline, and all mothers in father-absent homes reported more serious disputes than mothers in father-present homes. Compared to children in father-present homes, children in father-absent homes reported that their mothers engaged in more activities with them.

Conversely, no substantial differences in parenting attitudes and behaviours were found in several studies comparing the socialization of lesbian mothers and heterosexual mothers (McNeill, Rienzi, & Kposowa, 1998; Mucklow & Phelan, 1981; Wainright et al., 2004). This lack of differences has been replicated in a large, carefully designed study. The parenting and relationship experiences of 100 lesbian families who conceived a child through DI after having established their couple relationship were compared with those of 100 heterosexual two-parent families, matched on number of children in the family, ages and sexes of the children, and living in urban, suburban or rural areas (Bos, van Balen, & van den Boom, 2004). Mothers and fathers; and lesbian biological and social (non-biological) mothers, did not differ on any of the parenting measures. Parents in the two family types did not differ in their self-reported competence as parents, feelings of parental burden, or access to social support outside the family, The lesbian social mothers reported feeling more need to justify the quality of their parenting than did fathers in the heterosexual families, but they also reported more satisfaction with their couple relationship than did fathers. Lesbian biological mothers were more satisfied with their partners' contributions as co-parent than were heterosexual mothers.

There have been more studies on the parenting attitudes and practices of gay fathers than there have been studies that directly assess the social competence of their children. Compared to heterosexual fathers, gay fathers put more emphasis on the importance of tradition and security in their decision to have children, and they describe using a more authoritative parenting style with their children (Bigner & Jacobsen, 1989a, 1989b).

Gay fathers who have disclosed their sexual orientation to their children, compared to gay fathers who have not, were more likely to be in stable committed relationships with another man (Bigner, 1999; Bozett, 1987a, 1987b). As well, fathers who had disclosed spent more time in positive interactions with their children. This may be because disclosing gay fathers had greater self confidence and self-acceptance than non-disclosing gay fathers, as better psychological health generally supports more effective parenting.

Looking at relationship dynamics within gay and lesbian and heterosexual families, McPherson (1993, as cited by Patterson, 2002) studied 28 gay parent families and 27 heterosexual two-parent families. Gay couples shared household and childcare responsibilities more equally than heterosexual couples, were more satisfied with their division of labour, and felt that their couple relationships were more cohesive and affectionate. Similarly, in a study that included only fathers, Barrett and Tasker (2001) found that these fathers generally reported that they had very few difficulties with parenting. A number of the indicators of fathers' effective socialization and coping were associated with the presence of another supportive adult in the home. Gay fathers who were cohabiting with either another man or a woman had fewer practical, emotional, and financial difficulties related to parenting, compared to gay fathers who lived alone.

Overall, studies of the socialization practices used by gay fathers and heterosexual fathers find few consistent differences between them (Bigner, 1999; Patterson, 2002). When differences are identified, they point to gay fathers using slightly more authoritative parenting styles, or generally being marginally more positive and effective, than heterosexual fathers.

4.4 Variations in the relations between parenting and children's social competence across family types.[edit]

There are few if any consistent differences in the social competence of children with heterosexual parents and children with gay or lesbian parents. As well, studies of many aspects of parental socialization do not suggest that children with gay or lesbian parents experience less effective and supportive socialization than children with heterosexual parents. It is possible, however, that the associations between parental socialization and children's social competence are not the same across family types. In other words, in accordance with the principle of multifinality, the same parenting practice may be correlated with different child outcomes depending on whether children live in heterosexual families or gay and lesbian families. In this section, we review studies examining the associations between parental socialization and children's social competence across family types. In a longitudinal study of rural lone-mother African-American families, Brody and colleagues (1998, 1999, 2002) found that firm parental control and structuring of the home environment, more positive mother-child relationship quality, and maternal involvement predicted their elementary school-aged children's better behavioural self-regulation. In turn, more well-regulated children evidenced better social competence. Similar results emerged in a study of lone-parent and two-parent African-American and Latino families (Florsheim, Tolan, & Smith, 1998). Boys in lone-parent families generally had more problems than boys in two-parent families, but more effective and positive parenting was associated with more positive developmental outcomes for boys in both lone-parent and two-parent families.

Children in divorced families have been found to be given more responsibilities in the home and more opportunities to participate in family decision-making, compared to children in intact families (Gately & Schwebel, 1992). This egalitarian and engaged approach to socialization and child management predicted more maturity, self-esteem and empathy in the children. As well, pre-adolescent children of divorced lone mothers described themselves as more socially competent when their mothers used more authoritative control.

In research on lesbian mothers that did not include comparison samples of heterosexual mothers, Patterson (1995) found that children in these lesbian two-parent families reported a greater sense of well-being when their social mothers were more involved in their childcare, such that childcare was shared more equally between the mothers. Conversely, Chan and colleagues (1998) did not find that children of lesbian couples were more socially competent when their mothers had more satisfying and less conflicted couple relationships, and engaged in more co-parenting and shared family decision-making. However, these aspects of positive family functioning were correlated with children having fewer aggression or acting-out problems.

In one of the few studies of parent-child relationships in families with two gay fathers, Crosbie-Burnett and Helmbrecht (1993) studied 48 adolescents and their parents, including the biological mother, the biological gay father, and the social gay father. Only 12 of the adolescents lived with their biological fathers, but all of the children living with their biological mothers also had regular contact with their fathers. Adolescents reported being happier when they had closer relationships with their biological fathers, when their social gay fathers were more included in the family, and when their biological fathers and social gay fathers had a more satisfying couple relationship.

Investigations that have compared the links between parental socialization and children's social competence across family types generally have not found any differences in correlations. For example, Golombok et al. (2003) found that mothers and teachers reported that young elementary school-aged children had fewer social and behavioural problems when mothers were warmer and had less conflict with their children. The correlations between these aspects of socialization and children's social adjustment were consistent for children in lesbian and heterosexual families, and for children in lone-mother and two-parent families.

Similarly, Wainright et al. (2004) found that parents who described their relationships with their adolescent children as being closer, more trusting, and involving more open communication had children who reported fewer problems and more connectedness at school. These correlations existed for both lesbian two-parent and heterosexual two-parent families.

4.5 Overall section summary[edit]

Research has consistently shown little difference in children's social competence, parental socialization, and family functioning between families of heterosexual parents and families of gay or lesbian parents. The few differences that do emerge consistently suggest that (1) gay and lesbian couples tend to have a more egalitarian and satisfying balance of child-care tasks than heterosexual couples, (2) gay and lesbian parents may be marginally more effective socialization agents than heterosexual parents, and (3) children with gay or lesbian parents may be more concerned with or even experience more discrimination due to their parents’ sexual orientation, although this does not appear to interfere with their social competence. From the perspective of risk and protective factors, the marginally, more effective socialization practices of gay and lesbian parents might act to protect their children from the adverse effects that could otherwise result from concern about or experience of teasing, bullying and discrimination because of the sexual orientation of their parent(s). Additionally, the marginally more positive home environment that likely results from lesbian and gay parents' greater support of each other's child-care activities might provide a marginally more supportive context for children's development of feelings of security and self-worth.

Conversely, having one parent or two parents present in the home appears to be more robustly associated with children's social competence and parents' socialization practices. Lone mothers often appear more engaged and involved with their children than mothers with a partner. This may reflect lone mothers' efforts to compensate for the lack of a second parent in their children's daily lives, or simply the fact that parents without a partner do not need to divide their time and activities between the other adult and the child as often as parents with a partner may need to do. However, on average, lone mothers are also less warm and authoritative, use stronger disciplinary tactics, and have more conflicted relationships with their children. A larger proportion of children of lone mothers are likely to have social and behavioural problems, and lower social competence, than children in two-parent families. Although there has been less research on lone fathers, their children also seem on average to be at a somewhat increased risk of having problems with social competence. Whether other forms of social support can ameliorate the challenges involved in being a lone parent is considered in Section 5.2.

Despite these patterns of similarities and differences in functioning, the associations between parental socialization and chi1dren’s social competence appear to be remarkably consistent across family types. The same child-rearing practices that foster better social and emotional functioning in the children of heterosexual two-parent families also promote the well-being of children of gay and lesbian two-parent families and lone-parent families. Consistent with the principle of resilience, when children are supported by effective parental socialization practices, they are likely to attain similarly positive developmental outcomes despite living in markedly different social circumstances.


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