Parenting

Teens of Lesbian Families Better Adjusted than Most

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A new report from the U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS), the longest-running and largest study of American lesbian families, has found that the 17-year-old children of lesbian mothers, all conceived through donor insemination, "were rated higher than their peers in social, academic, and overall competence, and lower in aggressive behavior, rule-breaking, and social problems, on standardized assessments of psychological adjustment." The results were published today in the prestigious journal Pediatrics.

The long-term, "longitudinal" study of the same group over many years offers a picture of lesbian families few other studies can match. The NLLFS began interviewing the mothers in 1986, when they were inseminating or pregnant, then again when the children were a year and a half to two years old, five, and ten. They directly questioned the 10-year-olds and the 17-year-olds.

I had the pleasure in 2008 of interviewing principal investigator Dr. Nanette Gartrell, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and a 2010 Williams Distinguished Scholar at the UCLA School of  Law. Here are a couple of key excerpts about some of the preliminary findings from this phase of the study:

One finding from the teen phase that “knocked my socks off,” she [Dr. Gartrell] observes, was that, “in terms of overall quality of life, almost 80% say they enjoy, are satisfied with, and find life worthwhile.” She reflects, “I don’t know how your teenage years were, but I wouldn’t have given mine a rating anywhere close to that. That says something pretty remarkable about what the moms are doing in terms of helping these kids navigate adolescence.” . . .

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The mothers have also been educating their children about a range of diversity issues, including racism, sexism, and antisemitism, as well as homophobia. “It’s the whole spectrum,” Gartrell says. “That’s a really promising and needed transformation in our culture and in future generations.”

It is a great sign that these findings have now appeared in a major, peer-reviewed academic publication. Pediatrics is the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (not to be confused with the homophobic American College of Pediatricians).

I should also, however, point out an earlier paper by Dr. Gartrell and Dr. Henny Bos of the University of Amsterdam, who is conducting a similar study in the Netherlands. The paper, in the Journal of Orthopsychiatry compares children of lesbian families in the U.S. and the Netherlands. Results showed that Dutch children were more open about growing up in a lesbian family, experienced less homophobia, and demonstrated fewer emotional and behavioral problems than American children (even though the emotional and behavioral problems of the American children were low on an overall scale). Homophobia was found to account for part of the difference in psychosocial adjustment between the Dutch and the American children.

There is much more work to be done to provide a full picture of lesbian families—if such a thing is even possible. Adoptive families, families of color,  interracial families, lesbian families with children from a previous heterosexual relationship, divorced families, blended families, families in different economic groups, not to mention the various permutations of families with gay, bisexual, and transgender parents, and combinations of all of the above—each deserve further study. The NLLFS findings are still of great significance, however. The NLLFS has been studying one wavelength of the great LGBT family spectrum longer than anyone else, and continues to inform our understanding of ourselves—and with luck, the understanding of others as well.