It's often suggested that children with same-sex parents have poorer outcomes because they're missing a parent of a particular sex. But research my colleagues and I published in the journal BMC Public Health shows this isn't the case.
In fact, we found children in same-sex families scored better on a number of key measures of physical health and social well-being than kids from the general population.
But stigma is a common problem. Around two-thirds of children with same-sex parents experienced some form of stigma due to their parents' sexual orientation which, of course, impacts on their mental and emotional well-being.
Research in this area has traditionally focused on lesbian parents and used small sample sizes. So we surveyed 315 same-sex attracted parents with a total of 500 children, aged up to 17 years, across Australia.
These children are growing up in a range of family contexts formed in a range of ways; from previous heterosexual relationships, to assisted reproductive technologies and same-sex co-parenting arrangements. Around 80 per cent had female parents and 18 per cent had male parents.
We asked the parents to answer a range of questions on health and well-being using internationally recognised measures. This produced a set of scores that represent overall child health.
Parent reports are necessary to determine how young children are faring. While parents don't always view health experiences in the same way as their children, there is no evidence to suggest that any group of parents systematically overstate child well-being in population research.
We compared the responses from the same-sex parents in our study to established population samples. This allowed us to interpret our findings against population norms.
What we found
Our results suggest children with same-sex attracted parents are doing well in terms of their overall health and that their families are getting along really well.
We found that children from same-sex families scored, on average, 6% better on two key measures, general health and family cohesion, even when controlling for a number sociodemographic factors such as parent education and household income. But on most health measures, including emotional behaviour and physical functioning, there was no difference when compared with children from the general population.
In spite of doing well, many children did experience stigma, which was linked to lower scores on a number of scales. Stigma can be subtle, such as letters home from school addressed to Mr and Mrs. Or it can be overt and very harmful, in the form of bullying and abuse at school. The more stigma the family experienced, the greater the impact on the social and emotional well-being of the children.
Our findings support and strengthen the existing international research undertaken with smaller sample sizes.
Interestingly, there is growing evidence to suggest that the structure of same-sex parent families, particularly in relation to work and home duties, plays an important part in how well families get along. Same-sex parents, for instance, are more likely to share child care and work responsibilities more equitably than heterosexual-parent families.
It is liberating for parents to take on roles that suit their skills rather than defaulting to gender stereotypes, where mum is the primary care giver and dad the primary breadwinner. Our research suggests that abandoning such gender stereotypes might be beneficial to child health.
Simon Crouch is a public health doctor and researcher at the McCaughey VicHealth Centre. He receives funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council.