Traditional and ‘rainbow’ parenting similar: Study

Filip Vukasin

7/03/2023 4:32:56 PM

Research shows most family outcomes are similar regardless of the sexual orientation and gender identity of the parents.

Same sex couple with toddler
An international study suggests that children who are part of ‘rainbow families’ fare as well as those from traditional families.

Chinese research published in BMJ Global Health shows parents’ sexual orientation is not an important determinant of children’s development.
The study found that children whose parents have sexual orientations and gender identities that lie outside of cultural, societal or physiological norms – or ‘rainbow families’ – fare as well or better than those from traditional families with opposite sex parents.
Dr Tom Dickson, a GP in an LGBTQIA+ focused medical clinic, told newsGP he is not surprised by the research findings that children’s outcomes from rainbow families are not inferior.
‘It was heartening to see that the evidence demonstrated significant better outcome psychological adjustment in children raised by sexual and gender minority [parents] and that there may be some advantages being raised in a rainbow family,’ he said.
‘Research like that … helps challenge and overturn centuries of stigma and fear-based narratives regarding the fitness of parents to raise children due to their sexuality or gender differences from the cis heterosexual majority.
‘Overcoming these stigmas surrounding deviancy by the individual parent or parents may be what allows for the raising of children who have a greater ability to care and adjust in a world that is full of diversity.’
As a gay father and psychotherapist, Matthew Cooksey also found the results unsurprising, and told newsGP he believes parenting is ‘a universal experience’.
‘It’s a human condition and so much of it comes from instinct and society,’ he said.
‘We have all been parented, so our blueprint for it derives from how we were parented ourselves.’
The systematic review and meta-analysis included research from Australia, North America and Europe and assessed outcomes such as children’s and parents’ psychological adjustment, children’s physical health, and children’s educational outcomes.
Dr Dickson sees a variety of ways in which rainbow families come to exist.
‘The families I care for come from a variety of origins, including friends or family donating eggs or sperm, surrogacy occurring both overseas and locally through altruism, foster care and adoption,’ he said.
‘The trends I’ve experienced are that there are increasingly more long-term partnerships at younger ages seeking to start a family and there has been an increase in the number of solo parents seeking to start a family.
‘It’s still by and large a costly, time consuming and difficult process starting a rainbow family, with overseas surrogacy costing upwards of $150,000 as an example.’
The researchers found even though minority parents may have been disadvantaged by stigma and discrimination, this may lead to more tolerance of diversity in their children.
Mr Cooksey notes that empathy may play a role in parenting.
‘A very high proportion [of gay parents] have experienced bullying and the study mentions the risk factor of stigma,’ he said.
‘But my personal perspective is that the very nature of being stigmatised for who I am has made me much more cognisant and empathic to my children and their uniqueness.’
‘This links to the point of tolerating diversity. Experiencing pain and trauma can sometimes increase our capacity as parents to have empathy for someone else’s pain and trauma.
‘We have a memory of a similar experience on which we can draw our capacity to empathise and put ourselves in their shoes, knowing first-hand what it’s like to “feel like a freak”.
‘That can make you mindful to not make your child feel like a freak, in any way that may present in them.’
With 2023 marking the sixth year since Australia’s marriage equality vote, the researchers point to the fact that legal marriage confers a host of protections and advantages to couples and children, compared to single-parent and cohabitating households.
Mr Cooksey has seen this from his own experience.
‘Having a marriage is protective of a relationship and this does benefit children,’ he said.
‘I wouldn’t stigmatise people in single-parent families or cohabiting situations, but the presence of an ongoing relationship can make a difference to a child. Being married provides a chance to navigate troubles.
‘After standing in front of people and making a commitment, you don’t easily forget that, and I think that it is protective for a relationship.’
Dr Cathy Andronis, Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Psychological Medicine, told newsGP she is seeing more rainbow families since marriage equality was legalised.
‘This is likely to reflect the positive advances in recognition of diversity,’ she said.
‘[It] has led to much more confidence in both doctors and patients in discussing sexuality and sexual diversity.’
While single parents are more likely to experience stress, Dr Andronis says children benefit most from love and secure attachment.
‘It really takes a village to raise a happy and secure child,’ she said.
‘What children need most are loving parents who they are securely attached to. This requires their adult carers to be accessible, predictable and caring and these basic tenets of security are not gender specific.’
The researchers note that a limitation of their study is including only countries where same-sex relationships are legalised and thus the social climate is generally favourable to families with diverse backgrounds.
As social norms change in Australia, Dr Dickson says research like this helps remedy legacies from the past.
‘I think there remains significant challenges in daily life for all LGBTQIA+ people, including parents or children in rainbow families,’ he said.
‘Overcoming a narrative that for a long time has perpetuated a belief that LGBTQIA+ people are unfit to care for children due to an internal deviant nature and moral failing is difficult and painful.
‘We have only had gay marriage in Australia for six years. Overwhelmingly community attitudes have shifted to acceptance and celebration of LGBTQIA+ people.
Dr Dickson says this was evident when he marched across the Sydney Harbour Bridge for the Sydney World Pride celebrations last week, among every colour of the rainbow and many young families.
‘There remain significant barriers in accessing reproductive healthcare services, and often those from lower paid sectors of the community or those without generational wealth are denied access to these services to assist in starting a family,’ he said.
‘The process of adoption and foster care can also be challenging and lengthy. But I hope that evidence like this further bolsters efforts to reduce these barriers.
‘Evidence in the review highlights some of the benefits that exist in rainbow families, primarily that of acceptance, care, support and adaptation.’
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