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Bermuda, Parents, Gender Roles and Children

Over the past several months there has been a position taken publicly that a husband and wife who become parents bring separate, distinct and therefore irreplaceable parenting dynamics to the life of a child.  It is said that if we “replace” mothers and fathers or make fathers optional, as is stated would happen by supporting marriage equality, it will bring damage to children and to society as a whole.

In order to have a balanced public conversation, below are our thoughts on a research paper entitled, “Male Role Models, Gender Role Traits, and Psychological Adjustment”, authored by Henny Bos, Naomi Goldberg, Loes Van Gelderen and Nanette Gartrell.  This paper was published in the journal Gender & Society and was a longitudinal study, meaning it is a collection of data from several years of observation.

As Bermuda hurtles towards a controversial referendum on the legal recognition of same-sex relationships in Bermuda, a lot of information has been placed in the public domain, aligning specific gender roles of parents to the success of families and the effect of any recognition of same-sex relationships on children and the success of those families.  Many claim that a mother (female) and a father (male) bring special, irreplaceable guidance to children on how they will enter adulthood and society.  This thought pattern, on the surface, seems plausible, but what does research say about families with different configurations and their effect on children?

In the introduction of the research paper the authors state that there is an erroneous assumption that children of same-sex parents do not get adequate gender socialisation.  The authors point out that the claims that “fatherless” boys will be confused about their masculinity, and thus have psychological or behavioural problems, or even “turn” gay, is simply not true – stating that the “fatherless boys” claim is supported by little to no empirical evidence.  Furthermore, the authors point out that there is no data that shows that children of same-sex parents have inadequate gender role development or poor psychological adjustment.

The erroneous premise that children can only acquire proper gender socialisation (rules, beliefs, and attitudes appropriate to their particular gender) with a mother (female) and a father (male) comes from a concept called “social learning theory” – meaning children only learn gender roles from pure observation.  The authors observe that this theory does not take into account biological determinism, brought about by prenatal sex hormones on the developing fetus.  The authors propose that gender social norms are not only derived from observing a parent, sibling or friend, but that they can be acquired from the wider society as a whole (“it takes a whole village”).  In other words, things like the media, culture, peers and the wider family unit, among other things are contributors and all have a part to play in a child actively constructing organised knowledge on gender roles.  This is not exclusive to observing a parent of the same gender.

In order to rationalise this conclusion, a longitudinal study was conducted, starting with recruiting persons self-identified as lesbians who were pregnant between 1986 and 1992.  Data was collected during pregnancy, and also when children reached the ages of 2, 5, 10 and 17 years of age.  There was a 93% retention rate of participation of these families.  At the age of 17 the children were asked if they had a male role model.  Then they were given a short version of the Bem Sex Role Inventory and asked how they felt the traits described them.  There were 10 masculine adjectives and 10 feminine adjectives.  The subjects were given a scale from one to seven, seven being always or almost always true for me.  This was to gauge their masculinity or femininity. Some of the feminine adjectives were affectionate, sympathetic, sensitive to the needs of others, etc.  Masculine adjectives included defend my own beliefs, independent, assertive, etc. There was also a survey to assess psychological adjustments based on the State-Trait Personality Index.  On this scale of one to four, four being very much so, data was collected on questions like, I am a steady person, I feel like a failure, I feel gloomy, I feel peaceful and many other questions.

The reason these methods were used was to evaluate the following. Firstly whether children need a male role model (especially boys) to be successful in a planned two-parent lesbian family.  The researchers wanted to gauge which children had a consistent male role model in their lives and which did not.  Secondly, whether having or not having a male role model affected children’s levels of masculinity and femininity.

The results were as follows.  In these planned two-parent lesbian families:

  • Masculine and feminine traits differed substantially for genders (male and female) as expected, but there was no difference in traits between adolescents with male role models and those without male role models.
  • There was no psychological adjustment difference between those with or without male role models based on surveys taken by adolescents and their mothers.

There were some limitations to the survey that should be mentioned. Primarily the authors acknowledged that their findings would be enhanced with further study and comparison of children from same-sex and different-sex families.  Further, this was a convenience study, where mothers were interested in the topic, and this was because in the 1980’s (when the study began) it was more difficult to find a larger sample due to the long history of discrimination against lesbian and gay people.  Lastly, the sample was more comprised of a white and middle class families and further study could be done to see if socio-economic status and ethnicity could play a significant role.  The authors noted, however, that this was the first study of its kind and it showed that adolescents with male role models were comparable with those without, coming from planned two-parent lesbian families.

The authors of the research paper were able to conclude that their findings were inconsistent with the ‘social learning theory’, i.e. that a mother (female) and a father (male) was needed for proper gender socialisation or to ensure successful psychological adjustment.  The authors surmised that this theory was biased by heteronormative beliefs and assumptions.  Children, although they learn traits from their parents, also actively seek knowledge on gender social norms from the wider society as they develop.  There is also the biological determinism of sex hormones, introduced to the fetus during pregnancy.  There was no difference between children with or without male role models when it came to masculinity or femininity and no difference in psychological development.  The authors went on to say that, “parents of both genders foster integrity, inquisitiveness, compassion, kindness, thoughtfulness, morality, and motivation in their children. Likewise, the ability to love, nurture, groom, teach, inspire, and guide children from infancy to adulthood is shared by mothers and fathers alike… “

As a supplement to the research paper discussed above (“Male Role Models, Gender Role Traits, and Psychological Adjustment”), the American Psychological Association’s current statement on children raised by gay and lesbian parents is as follows : “On the basis of a remarkably consistent body of research on lesbian and gay parents and their children, the American Psychological Association (APA) and other health professional and scientific organizations have concluded that there is no scientific evidence that parenting effectiveness is related to parental sexual orientation. That is, lesbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for their children. This body of research has shown that the adjustment, development and psychological well-being of children are unrelated to parental sexual orientation and that the children of lesbian and gay parents are as likely as those of heterosexual parents to flourish.”

Similarly, the American Sociological Association (ASA) stated in their Amicus Brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, “There is no evidence that children with parents in stable same-sex or opposite-sex relationships differ in terms of well-being. Indeed, the greater stability offered by marriage for same-sex as well as opposite-sex parents may be an asset for child well-being.”

The results of this study along with many others, coupled with the positions of the APA, ASA and other similarly endorsed and respected organisations, should help inform the Bermuda public. There is no evidence that same-sex relationships negatively affect children and the children of gay and lesbian parents have as much chance to do well as the children of heterosexual parents, given the chance. Claims to the contrary should be considered very carefully and honestly by each and every one of us.

Some useful links and further info:

SA Research Shows Parents’ Sexual Orientation Has No Bearing on Children’s Well-Being – http://www.asanet.org/press/asa_files_amicus_brief_in_same-sex_marriage_cases.cfm

APA on Children Raised by Gay and Lesbian Parents –http://www.apa.org/news/press/response/gay-parents.aspx

Sexual Orientation, Parents, & Children –http://www.apa.org/about/policy/parenting.aspx

Gill v. Office of Personnel Management –http://www.apa.org/about/offices/ogc/amicus/gill.aspx

APA Amicus Brief – http://www.apa.org/about/offices/ogc/amicus/gill.pdf

LGBT Parenting – http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/parenting-full.pdf

78 Research Papers on Same Gender Parenting (including 4 opposing research papers) – http://tinyurl.com/moc7uxn *Please read how to evaluate these papers in the body of the article.

Male Role Models, Gender Role Traits, and Psychological Adjustment –http://tinyurl.com/hwzmrct.

Notes (at the time of this research):

Gender & Society (GENDSOC) is a peer-reviewed journal, focused on the study of gender. It is the official journal of Sociologists for Women in Society, and was founded in 1987 as an outlet for feminist social science. Currently, it is a top-ranked journal in both sociology and women’s studies. Gender & Society publishes less than 10% of all papers submitted to it. Articles appearing in Gender & Society analyze gender and gendered processes in interactions, organizations, societies, and global and transnational spaces. The journal primarily publishes empirical articles, which are both theoretically engaged and methodologically rigorous, including qualitative, quantitative, and comparative-historical methodologies.

Henny Bos, Ph.D, is Associate Professor, Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences Graduate School of Pedagogical and Educational Sciences, College of Child Development and Education, Research Institute of Child Development and Education, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Naomi G. Goldberg is a quantitative policy researcher, whose work centers on family and demographics, including LGBT people and their families.  This article was completed while she was the Peter J. Cooper Public Policy Fellow at the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.  She is currently a researcher at The Movement Advancement Project.

Loes van Gelderen, MSc., received her master’s degree in Educational Sciences at the University of Amsterdam. She is a PhD candidate at the Research Institute of Child Development and Education, University of Amsterdam, as well as a teacher at the College of Child Development and Education, University of Amsterdam.

Nanette Gartrell, MD, is a Williams Institute Visiting Distinguished Scholar, UCLA School of Law. Dr. Gartrell also has a Guest Appointment at the University of Amsterdam, and she was previously on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and UCSF.

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