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Stigmatisation, not structure, causes problems for children in ‘non-traditional’ families

‘Quality of relationships matters most to the well-being of families’

It is stigmatisation outside the family, rather than relationships within it, that creates difficulties for children in new family forms, says Professor Susan Golombok of the Centre for Family Research within the University of Cambridge.

Professor Golombok notes that today 'non-traditional' families outnumber nuclear families in the UK and many other countries.

In her new book, Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms, Professor Golombok charts the remarkable changes that have taken place in the context of the empirical research that has sought to answer a series of contested questions. Are children less likely to thrive in families headed by same-sex parents, by single mothers by choice, or by parents who conceived them using assisted reproductive technologies? Will children born to gay fathers through egg donation and surrogacy be less likely to flourish than children conceived by IVF to genetically related heterosexual parents?

Modern Families seeks to bring together a growing body of research into the wide range of family forms, undertaken not just in the UK but also in the USA and around the world. Most strikingly, says Professor Golombok, these studies show that it is the quality of relationships that matters most to the well-being of families, not the number, gender, sexual orientation or genetic relatedness of the parents, or whether the child was conceived with the assistance of reproductive technology.

Professor Golombok addresses the fact that research into so emotionally charged a field is bound to be imperfect. Parents willing to take part in research are more likely to be those who are functioning well than those who struggle. "It is important to study new family forms to find out what they are really like. Otherwise, all we have is speculation and assumption, usually negative, which simply fuel prejudice and discrimination and are harmful to the children involved," she says.

Some findings, she says, are counterintuitive, others less so. One of the arguments most famously used against same-sex parenting has been that children may lack models on which to base their own gender identity and behaviour. In a study of play preferences, lesbian mothers chose a mix of masculine and feminine toys but their children chose toys and activities that were highly sex-typed. It seems that parents have little influence over the sex-typed toy and activity preferences of their daughters and sons.

In studies of children born through assisted reproduction, their mothers have consistently been found to show more warmth and emotional involvement, and less parenting stress, than natural conception mothers.

"Contrary to the expectation that parents of children born through assisted reproductive technologies would experience difficulties in parenting, research has found them to be highly committed and involved parents, even in donor-conceived families where one or both parents lack a genetic relationship with their children," says Golombok.

"A key factor in the positive functioning of children in new family forms appears to be that they are very wanted children. Parents in new family forms often struggle to have children against the odds. Many experience years of infertility before becoming parents; others become parents in the face of significant social disapproval; and still others surmount both hurdles in order to have a child."

Golombok stresses that families aren't self-contained units. Parents in non-traditional families have to handle the prejudice they and their children are almost bound to encounter and the children must learn to cope with what are perceived as 'differences'? While children of same-sex parents are just as likely to flourish as those with heterosexual parents, children with lesbian or gay parents have to 'explain' their families in a way that their peers don't. The need to explain can be burdensome.

"It's stigmatisation outside the family, rather than relationships within it, that creates difficulties for children in new family forms," says Golombok.

13/3/15