Children's Development of Social Competence Across Family Types/Conclusion
In this report, we have conducted an extensive review of the contributions of parental socialization to children's development of social competence. We concentrated on evaluating the evidence for and against the proposition that children's social competence varies depending upon family type, determined by number of parents in the home and the gender and sexual orientation of parents. More specifically, we determined whether social competence differs for children being raised in heterosexual versus gay and lesbian two-parent families, heterosexual versus lesbian lone-mother families, and heterosexual versus gay lone-father families.
In conducting this evaluation of the literature, we provided detailed descriptions of the nature of children's social competence from preschool-age through adolescence, and demonstrated the ways in which normal variations in parental socialization practices are associated with children demonstrating greater or lesser social competence. This provided the context for examining the findings of several dozen studies on family types as they pertain to parental socialization and children's social competence.
We ended with an examination of two of the broader contextual factors that influence the quality of parenting and family functioning: socioeconomic status and social support. These factors can indirectly influence children's social competence through their impacts on parents' stress and coping, and directly affect social competence through children's own experiences of economic advantage or deprivation and interactions with other adults.
6.1 Integrative summary of reviewed literature
The strongest conclusion that can be drawn from the empirical literature is that the vast majority of studies show that children living with two mothers and children living with a mother and father have the same levels and qualities of social competence. A few studies suggest that children with two lesbian mothers may have marginally better social competence than children in 'traditional nuclear' families, even fewer studies show the opposite, and most studies fail to find any differences. The very limited body of research on children with two gay fathers supports this same conclusion. We can tentatively suggest that children with two gay fathers do not seem to differ in social competence from children with a mother and father, although more research on the families of gay fathers clearly is needed. Given the currently available literature, an objective evaluation of empirical research supports only one conclusion: Whether a child’s two parents are heterosexual or lesbian or gay has no significant discernable impact on that child's social competence.
This lack of difference in children's social competence may be due to the fact that, on the whole, children do best with maximum positive attention from committed parents. Most studies show that the quality of parental socialization in two-parent lesbian and gay families is equal to that seen in two-parent heterosexual families. The few studies that report differences almost uniformly find marginal differences favouring gay and lesbian families: overall, gay and lesbian parents may be marginally more authoritative, warm, sensitive and positively engaged with their children than heterosexual parents.
These conclusions may be somewhat surprising considering that lesbian and gay two-parent families live with an additional set of stressors that could potentially adversely impact socialization and social competence. Many gay and lesbian parents express concern over the potential for themselves and their children to experience teasing, bullying and discrimination due to attitudes against gay and lesbian individuals and parenting. A sizable minority of gay and lesbian parents report that they or their children have directly experienced teasing, bullying or discrimination related to the parents' sexual orientation. Some children of gay or lesbian parents, and in particular many adolescent children, share their parents' concerns. Some children do not tell their friends that they have gay or lesbian parents, out of fear of bullying, teasing, rejection, or discrimination by peers, although it appears that a minority of children of gay or lesbian parents actually experience such reactions directly.
It seems likely that the high quality of parental socialization within lesbian and gay two-parent families acts to protect their children from the adverse effects of this additional stress and discrimination. In turn, gay and lesbian parents are protected by the quality of their relationships with their partners. On the whole, lesbian and gay couples in two-parent families report sharing the tasks of child-rearing more equally than many heterosexual couples, and also report having more satisfying couple relationships. Many lesbian and gay parents are also protected by the availability of good economic resources and positive social support from outside the family. These appear to bolster the parents' ability to cope effectively with the normal challenges of child-rearing and the unique challenges of discrimination because on their sexual orientation.
More robust differences in socialization and social competence were found in the comparisons of lone-parent families and two-parent families. Lone mothers are at increased likelihood of providing less positive and effective socialization than mothers in two-parent families, and it is also more likely that their children will appear less socially competent. Although the amount of research on lone fathers is more limited, it supports the same conclusion. Overall, socialization and social competence are better in two-parent families than in lone-mother or lone-father families.
It is important to note that many lone-parents do adequate, or even excellent, jobs of raising their children and fostering their children's social competence. There is a great deal of variability in socialization and social competence within lone-parent families, just as there is within two-parent families. Although, overall, lone-parent families are at risk of lower quality socialization and poorer social competence, many parents and children in lone-parent families are fine. It is clear that effective socialization and positive development within lone-parent families are supported by the same extra-familial protective factors that are seen with two-parent families: having adequate economic resources, and being socially embedded in a supportive network of friends and family members.
Recognizing that many lone-parent families are functioning well, it is worth noting that the overall greater frequency of difficulties related to socialization and social competence in lone-parent than in two-parent families appears to be independent of the sexual orientation of parents. Just as there are effectively no differences in socialization and social competence between heterosexual two-parent families and lesbian and gay two-parent families, there are effectively no differences between heterosexual lone-parent families and lesbian and gay lone-parent families. On average, children raised by lone lesbian mothers, lone heterosexual mothers, lone gay fathers, or lone heterosexual fathers are likely to be less socially competent than children raised by heterosexual mothers and fathers, two lesbian mothers or two gay fathers. Lone parents, be they heterosexual or lesbian or gay, are on the whole less likely to provide good quality socialization to their children than parents in two-parent families, be they heterosexual, lesbian or gay two-parent families.
The research on risk and protective factors suggests that at least three factors are likely to contribute to the differences between lone-parent and two-parent families in socialization and social competence. First, lone parents do not have the regular emotional and instrumental support of a partner and co-parent to rely on. When difficult events occur and stresses accumulate, the absence of a close, dependable and supportive partner leaves lone parents more vulnerable, and the quality of their parenting is more likely to suffer. Their children are also lacking a second attachment figure, socialization agent, and source of support and comfort. Unlike the children in most two-parent families, the children of lone parents also are not regularly exposed to models of positive and effective social relationships: well-functioning couples may show their children how to be socially competent through their own positive interactions.
Second, on average, lone parents are more likely to experience economic hardship than two-parent families. This is particularly true for lone mothers, although lone fathers also tend to have lower incomes than fathers in two-parent families. Lacking adequate financial resources, it is more difficult for lone parents to meet all of the material needs of themselves and their children. This leads to more frequent and more serious experiences of stress, which exacts a toll upon the quality of their parenting. Children of lone parents also experience the effects of economic hardship, as they may have less access to resources and are more likely to live in impoverished neighbourhoods.
Third, there is evidence that lone parents are more likely to have less social support from adults outside the family, compared to parents in two-parent families. Some studies show that lone parents perceive themselves to have fewer sources of support, and other studies indicate that lone parents are more likely to be socially isolated. This would compound the lack of support that results from not having a partner and co-parent, such that lone parents could be far less likely than parents in two-parent families to have access to emotional and instrumental assistance that protects them from the adverse effects of stress from a variety of risk factors. As well, children of more socially isolated lone parents are less likely to benefit from regular contacts with other adults, depriving them of these additional agents for the socialization of social competence.
From the perspective of doing what will most benefit the well-being of children, it appears that governments and nongovernmental organizations should focus on ensuring that children are living in well-functioning families. Families function well when parents function well. Parents are most successful in raising well-functioning children when they have the social and economic resources to cope with the normal stresses of life. Building support for the establishment and maintenance of these resources will help to improve the quality of life, quality of socialization, and quality of children's social competence in all families.
Parents need to not be alone in the job of raising their children. Supportive and engaged partners, and accessible and supportive social networks, help parents to provide their children with the socialization experiences that foster the development of good social competence. The experience of stresses related to economic hardship and, in the case of lesbian and gay parents, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, undermine the quality of parental socialization when good social support is lacking. As a society, we should endeavour to eradicate poverty and discrimination because of their adverse effect on children and families. In addition, we should support the social factors that protect families against the adverse effects of these risk factors. All two-parent and one-parent families should be accepted and supported, and the positive social support networks of lone-parent and two-parent families should be fostered and encouraged.
Children do well when their parents do well. The more positive attention a child has, the more likely that they are to achieve good social competence. Children can develop good social competence in all family types: mothers and fathers together, mothers together, mothers alone, fathers together, and fathers alone.
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