Dr. Abbie Goldberg

A new study has shown that adopted children of same-sex parents are “significantly less” gender stereotyped in their play habits than adopted children of opposite-sex parents. That news is likely to be seen as a Bad Thing by many on the extreme right—but as the study notes, many scholars, parents, and educators today believe a more flexible attitude towards gender roles is less limiting to children’s development. Such openness may thus have psychological benefits—and that’s a Good Thing.

The study, published in the November 2012 issue of Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, was headed up by Dr. Abbie Goldberg of Clark University. Goldberg has long studied lesbian and gay families (see my 2007 interview with her), and her book Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children: Research on the Family Life Cycle brought together decades of research on LGBT families into one handy and recommended volume. (I also recently reviewed her new book, Gay Dads: Transitions to Adoptive Fatherhood.)

Why the difference in behaviors? The authors write that, “Lesbian and gay parents’ own gender-nonconforming identities may facilitate their creation of an environment that supports and reinforces less gender-typed behavior.” Straight parents, however, may tend to create a more discouraging environment for gender-atypical behavior. They add that this type of behavior, particularly in boys “is often viewed by heterosexual parents as a precursor or indication of homosexuality, which may fuel direct or indirect stigmatization of gender nonconformity.”

Less stereotypically gendered play may bring certain benefits. The researchers explain, “One consequence of children developing gender-stereotyped toy preferences is that it may constrain their experiences, since different types of toys facilitate different types of skill-building.”  Not only that, but “there is some evidence that children’s gender flexibility may in fact be associated with psychological benefits.” They conclude, “Thus, engaging in less gender-typed play behavior may be associated with positive outcomes in children.”

Let me quickly warn people not to get all excited about how, because of this, gay and lesbian parents are “better”than straight ones. That’s a leap that isn’t warranted by the evidence—and is something that Goldberg has warned us about before. The authors note that if children of same-sex parents are less stereotyped in their play, they “may possess certain strengths that may aid them later in life.” At best, we can say that in aggregate, lesbian and gay parents tend to have some points of difference. That’s valuable information in itself, without us having to make it into a game of “who’s better?”

The study also found that while girls and boys with same-sex parents were “significantly less” stereotyped in their play behavior than those in families with opposite-gender parents, this tendency was “more marked” in families with lesbian moms than with gay dads. Sons of lesbian mothers were less masculine in their play behavior than sons of opposite-sex parents and sons of gay fathers. Daughters of gay men, however, were not less feminine in their play behavior than the daughters of both lesbian and straight mothers. They were less feminine in their play behavior than the daughters of straight parents, but more feminine in their play behavior than the daughters of lesbians.

The researchers note a few limitations of the study. In particular, their sample size was relatively small (44 lesbian couples, 34 gay couples, and 48 heterosexual couples) and they relied on parental reporting of child behavior (the children were all in the two- to four-year-old age range). I’ll also add that most of the parents were white, although the children were almost evenly split between white and people of color.

At the same time, by focusing on adoptive rather than biological children, the study isolates nurture rather than nature in the outcome, looking at how gay and lesbian parents raise their children and not muddying the waters with any possible genetic influence. Also, by studying only adoptive families, gay, lesbian, and straight, they control for any possible influence based on method of family creation.

The authors call for further studies of gender development by observing young children’s play behavior over time, in different settings, and in different types of families.

After that, as I see it, we must then convey the results of such studies to parents, teachers, social workers, coaches, and others so they may be more willing and able to support the various ways in which children express their genders.

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