Same-sex parenting research

A look below the surface

By Glenn T. Stanton | April 10, 2012

The U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS) originally followed 84 lesbian couples, who’d had children via donor insemination, to determine how their children fared in a number of developmental measures. The authors explain their work is “the largest, longest running, prospective, longitudinal study of same-sex-parented families.”1 Given the study’s purported scope and significance, it’s important to understand what’s under the hood, so to speak.

To begin with, the NLLFS is not a sophisticated, dispassionate academic investigation, but an orchestrated persuasion piece conducted and funded by gay rights activists. The study’s website features a photo of a cute infant lounging in a crib, sporting a baby shirt that proclaims, “I was hatched by a couple of chicks.”

The study, publishing its findings in various stages over the last few years, has gotten a good bit of (uncritical) media attention for its dramatic conclusions, such as this article from Time magazine:

The authors found that children raised by lesbian mothers . . . scored very similarly to children raised by heterosexual parents on measures of development and social behaviour. . . . [H]owever, they were surprised to discover that children in lesbian homes scored higher than kids in straight families on some psychological measures of self-esteem and confidence, did better academically and were less likely to have behavioural problems, such as rule-breaking and aggression.2 (emphasis added)

So kids with two moms do better than those being raised by their own mother and father? This seems to be exactly what the NLLFS claims in its 2010 study, published in the respected journal, Pediatrics:

The NLLFS adolescents are well-adjusted, demonstrating more competencies and fewer behavioural problems than their peers in the normative American population.3

But there are a few factors that must be recognized about the NLLFS before building substantive conclusions on its findings.

An activist study

The investigators of the NLLFS are not scholars in the field of child development. They are not scholars in the field of family formation. Their professional research has been solely in the field of lesbian research. This is borne out by the bibliographies in each of their published studies to date.

They offer the reader no survey of the vast literature on how various family forms impact child development and well-being in varying degrees. They consult – nearly exclusively – those published studies that examine gay or lesbian issues. When they do make a cursory reference to the larger, general body of research on how family form impacts children, they cite sociology textbooks rather than referring the reader to published studies, a practice unacceptable even for beginning graduate students.

In addition, the NLLFS is funded primarily by well-known and highly partisan groups such as the Gill Foundation, the world’s largest and most influential funder of GLBT political and social causes; the Lesbian Health Fund of the Gay Lesbian Medical Association; the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law; the Arcus Foundation; and the Roy Scrivner fund.4

Inside and outside the mainstream of GLBT activism

Dr. Nanette Gartrell, the study’s principal author, has a long and award-winning history in lesbian-research activism. In 2001, she published Everyday Mutinies: Funding Lesbian Activism, a handbook showing how to grow and fund lesbian activism.5

Gartrell is both within the mainstream of lesbian activism and beyond it as well. She is “married” to award-winning lesbian filmmaker Dee Mosbacher, but at the same time, Gartrell and Mosbacher are self-proclaimed polyamorists. Gartrell explains their “progressive” relational arrangement in an article published in the Journal of Lesbian Studies provocatively titled, “If This Is Tuesday, It Must Be Dee . . . Confessions of a Closet Polyamorist.”6

To illustrate how far outside the mainstream lesbian community she has been, Gartrell admits, “. . . as surprising as it may seem, I do not consider honesty, integrity, and commitment the guiding principle of my intimate life.” Rather her commitment is to “making each block of time I spend with each lover as glorious as it can be.”7 She asserts that loving multiple adults should raise no concern; after all, she “would never think to challenge a parent’s capacity to love . . . multiple children at the same time.”8 However, she spends most of her article talking about how both she and Dee had an uphill battle overcoming the strong jealousy that arose at the other’s “extra-relational” dalliances and the “overwhelming” guilt that issued from their own extra relationships. But such powerful jealousy and guilt is seldom part of parenting more than one child. She concludes her article by hoping that through polyamorists “outing” themselves, “polyamorism will become just as passé . . . as lesbianism is today.”9

It’s true that the NLLFS is initiated and conducted by lesbian activists, funded by organizations backing GLBT activism, and led by a researcher outside the mainstream of the lesbian community. But to be fair, none of this rules out the study as a reputable academic investigation. It only indicates who’s behind it and suggests their possible motivations.

What matters is the structure, execution and reporting of the study itself, to which we now turn.

Serious sample problems and highly motivated participants

The problems with the study’s sample are clear even to the casual reader. The data for the NLLFS was collected on a relatively small group: initially 84 lesbian families and currently 78 children, 39 girls and 39 boys.

The authors describe how they gathered their subjects.

Lesbian couples – all in process of getting or being pregnant through donor insemination – were contacted through “informal networking and word of mouth referrals” but participation was also “solicited via announcements at lesbian events, in women’s bookstores, and at lesbian newspapers.” The couples were recruited, not from representative samples, but from three metropolitan areas: Boston, Washington and San Francisco.

These women were nearly all white (94%), middle- and upper-class (82%), and college educated (67%). In addition, 82% held professional or managerial positions. The majority were in their mid-thirties at the beginning of the study. These were not average lesbian or even general couples, but as the study proudly proclaims,

Participants were strongly lesbian-identified, 89% had come out to families of origin, 55% were open about their lesbian identity at work, 38% were active in a lesbian/gay organization at work, and 80% said they would choose to be a lesbian, if it were a matter of a choice.10 (emphasis in original)

In other words, these were well-educated, older mothers from more socially-supportive urban and suburban areas, actively participating in ideological lesbian thought culture and deeply committed to being lesbian. The study further explains,

Prospective participants [solicited through known lesbian networks as explained above] were asked to contact the researchers by telephone. The study was discussed with each caller, and all interested callers became participants.11

To sum up, these were highly motivated lesbian mothers, gathered through what researchers call snowball or convenience samples via the political lesbian culture. They were told the nature of the study – allowing each respondent to easily ascertain the social, political and academic importance of the effort – and all interested callers volunteered and were adopted into the study. It begs considering whether these realities had any impact on the fact that the study has maintained a remarkable 93% retention rate over its fifteen year history.

Commenting on this methodology, Mark Regnerus, a research sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the top sociology of family schools in the United States, explains the qualitative weakness of gathering a research sample the way the NLLFS did:

The bottom line is that snowball samples are nice for undergrads to learn about data collection, but hardly high-quality when you're a professional sociologist working on a complex research question with significant public ramifications. It's not fair, not even close, to compare parenting and child outcomes from a national probability sample of hetero parents and a snowball sample of lesbian parents.12

W. Bradford Wilcox, a leading and broadly respected family sociologist at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project, offers the same caution regarding the way studies of lesbian households have been conducted to date. “You just cannot draw strong conclusions one way or another from these studies, given their methodological limits.”13

What’s more, the mothers were asked to self-report on their children’s well-being and development. This can lead to a “social desirability bias” where respondents are inclined to give answers that align with their convictions, rather than their actual behaviour or outcomes.

Very curious findings

This study – as well as other notable studies conducted by well-known lesbian activist scholars – has come to some very curious conclusions that run strongly contrary to reason and the larger body of sociological and psychological literature on family form and child well-being.14 Here are two of them:

1. Two moms are better

As in the Time article quoted above, the NLLFS concludes that,

The NLLFS adolescents demonstrated higher levels of social, school/academic, and total competence than gender-matched normative samples of American teenagers.15

So then, according to this study, adolescents with lesbian moms did better in important measures of well-being than children in the general population. In fact, this could very well be true, given the highly favourable settings that mark the lesbian homes participating in the study. But it doesn’t say anything about what the average lesbian households raising children from birth are likely to produce.

Another major analysis by GLBT supportive researchers found largely the same thing. Conducted by Timothy Biblarz and Judith Stacey, published in 2010 in the highly respected Journal of Marriage and Family – and plagued by similar methodological shortcomings as the NLLFS16 – this study claims,

In fact, based strictly on the social science, one could argue that two women parent better on average than a man and a woman, or at least a woman and man with a traditional division of labour. Lesbian co-parents seem to outperform comparable married heterosexual biological parents on several measures even while being denied the substantial privileges of marriage.17

In other words, lesbian parents beat biological parents with one arm tied behind their back. It is an overreaching conclusion. Nevertheless, Biblarz and Stacey claim this superior value in lesbian families is because two mothers provide “a double dose of caretaking, communication, and intimacy.”18

From all this, one might conclude that having fathers tends to handicap children. But this flies in the face of hundreds of studies, published over more than four decades, indicating that fathers play an irreplaceable role in fostering healthy child development in ways that mothers do not.19 And it has been demonstrated consistently that children who grow up apart from their fathers face serious difficulties and shortcomings compared to children raised by their mother and father.20 This data has been persuasive enough to compel the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations to institute federal programs to encourage strong fatherhood involvement in the lives of children.

2. More break-ups but no harm done

The NLLSF found “significant difference” in dissolution rates between the lesbian and mother/father families over the years of the study. The lesbian homes broke up at much higher rates compared to heterosexual households (56% vs. 36%).21

The Biblarz/Stacey review also reported a significantly higher divorce/dissolution rate among the lesbian households, citing one major comparative study in which, during the 5-year period of the study, 6 of the 14 lesbian families had broken up compared to only 5 of the 38 mom/dad families. According to the authors, this was because the “comparatively high standards lesbians bring to their intimate unions correlate with higher dissolution rates.”22

And a major study comparing Scandinavian same-sex and heterosexual union dissolution rates found that male/male unions break up at double the rate of male/female unions, while lesbian unions break up at double again the rate of the male/male unions.23

This is of serious concern because numerous studies have long shown that family instability and divorce have substantial negative and long-term consequences for child well-being.24

Notwithstanding, here is the other remarkable finding from the NLLFS:

Within the lesbian family sample, no . . . differences were found among adolescent offspring . . . whose mothers were still together and offspring whose mothers had separated.25

And

Adolescents whose mothers had separated since [the study began] fared as well in psychological adjustment as those whose mothers were still together.26

Inexplicably, the NLLFS fails to note how this finding is strongly at odds with the larger body of literature on family dissolution and child well-being. In any event, this “no-effect” finding from the break-up of lesbian homes surely results more from the extremely small sample size than the lack of true effect.

Still, it must be said: If the NLLFS and Biblarz/Stacey studies are to be believed, they seem to indicate that lesbian homes are the new super-families since they produce better results than mother/father households, and when they do break up, they exhibit no harm to the children.

Or . . .

We might question whether these particular lesbian mothers – drafted very selectively through their deep commitment to lesbian culture and causes, knowing they are participating in the important U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study and allowed to self-report how well their children did – can offer the kind of careful, objective data-reporting a study like this should be built upon.

There are enough serious questions about the nature and methodology of the NLLFS to require a more critical and sober look at the study’s conclusions than most professionals and journalists have given.

Such a significant public policy issue deserves far more careful, less partisan research, especially when it involves the lives of children.

  • 1. Nanette Gartrell and Henny Bos, “U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study: Psychological Adjustment of 17-Year-Old Adolescents,” Pediatrics 126 (2010): 28-36.
  • 2. Alice Park, “Study: Children of Lesbians May Do Better Than Their Peers,” Time, June 7, 2010.
  • 3. Gartrell and Bos, 2010, p. 34.
  • 4. Gartrell and Bos, 2010, p. 8; Nanette K. Gartrell, Henny M. W. Bos, and Naomi G. Goldberg, “Adolescents of the U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study: Sexual Orientation, Sexual Behavior, and Sexual Risk Exposure,” Archive of Sexual Behavior 40 (2011): 1199-1209, p. 1207.
  • 5. Nanette K. Gartrell, Everyday Mutinies: Funding Lesbian Activism (New York: Routledge, 2001).
  • 6. Nanette K. Gartrell, “If This Is Tuesday, It Must Be Dee . . . Confessions of a Closet Polyamorist,” Journal of Lesbian Studies 3 (1999): 23-33. The essay was co-published simultaneously in Marcia Munson and Judith P. Stelbourn, eds., The Lesbian Polyamory Reader: Open Relationships, Non-Monogamy, and Casual Sex, (New York: The Hawthorne Press, 1999).
  • 7. Gartrell, 1999, p. 24.
  • 8. Gartrell, 1999, p. 32.
  • 9. Gartrell, 1999, p. 32.
  • 10. Nanette Gartrell, et al., “The National Lesbian Family Study: 1. Interviews With Prospective Mothers,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 66 (1996): 272-281, p. 274, 275.
  • 11. Gartrell, et al., 1996, p. 274.
  • 12. Research interview with Mark Regnerus conducted by the author, August 12, 2010.
  • 13. W. Bradford Wilcox, “Are Fathers Really Fungible?” FamilyScholars blog, June 14, 2010, http://familyscholars.org/2010/06/14/are-fathers-really-fungible/
  • 14. Timothy J. Biblarz and Judith Stacey, “How Does The Gender of Parents Matter?” Journal of Marriage and Family 72 (2010): 3-22.
  • 15. Gartrell and Bos, 2010, p. 6.
  • 16. Wilcox, 2010.
  • 17. Biblarz and Stacey, 2010, p. 17.
  • 18. Biblarz and Stacey, 2010, p. 17.
  • 19. Ronald P. Rohner and Robert A. Veneziano, “The Importance of Father Love: History and Contemporary Evidence,” Review of General Psychology 5.4 (2001): 382-405.
  • 20. David Popenoe, Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence That Fatherhood and Marriage Are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society, (New York: The Free Press, 1996).
  • 21. Gartrell, Bos, and Goldberg, 2011, p. 1201.
  • 22. Biblarz and Stacey, 2010, p. 12.
  • 23. Gunnar Andersson, et al., “The Demographics of Same-Sex Marriages in Norway and Sweden,” Demography 43 (2006): 79-98, p. 93.
  • 24. Paula Fomby and Andrew J. Cherlin, “Family Instability and Child Well-Being,” American Sociological Review 72 (2007): 181-204; Hyun Sik Kim, “Consequences of Parental Divorce for Child Development,” American Sociological Review 76 (2011): 487-511.
  • 25. Gartrell and Bos, 2010, p. 1.
  • 26. Gartrell and Bos, 2010, p. 7.

Glenn T. Stanton is the director for family formation studies at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs.


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