Knowing What We Don’t Know: A Meta-Analysis of Children Raised by Gay or Lesbian Parents

  1. 1.  Iowa State University

Abstract

Objective. This meta-analysis integrates the available empirical evidence of the past 35 years and critically discusses the current state of knowledge on children raised by gay or lesbian parents. Design. Data from 81 studies on children living with gay or lesbian parents and opposite sex couples was included in the analyses. Results. There were negative associations between living with gay or lesbian parents and several outcomes. Most outcomes showed significant variation across studies and were treated as random effects. There appeared to be evidence consistent with publication bias. Significant moderators included child age, environmental stability, adequacy of heterosexual comparison sample, sampling technique, sample location, researcher allegiance, citation rate, and publication status. Conclusions. Future research on this topic is needed, consisting of adequately-powered probability-based samples, with detailed measurement and safeguards against researcher bias.

 

 “Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing,” answered Holmes, thoughtfully. “It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different.” - Arthur Conan Doyle

 

Child development is influenced by the family environment (Collins, Maccoby, Steinberg, Hetherington, & Bornstein, 2000), including family formation (Amato, 2005). In recent decades, families headed by at least one gay or lesbian parent have increased in prevalence (Eurostat, 2011; U.S. Census Bureau, 2011) with almost 2 million children now being raised by gay and lesbian parents in the U.S. alone (Family Equality Council, 2012). For the past three decades, a steady stream of literature has shown no significant differences between children in families headed by gay or lesbian parents and children in families headed by heterosexual parents. This has been described in numerous narrative reviews, amicus briefs, and policy statements as support for the “no difference hypothesis” or the hypothesis that there are no differences between children living with gay or lesbian parents and children living with heterosexual parents (APA, 2004). Speaking of this hypothesis, Patterson affirmed in 2009 that “…a consensus has emerged among professional organizations such as the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Association of Social Workers (p. 733)” that parent sexual orientation is unrelated to children’s development.

This consensus notwithstanding, there are several reasons why this research domain has a unique need for a quantitative summary. First, gay and lesbian parents are a comparatively small and hard to reach population, which has required the use of predominantly small non-random samples. As a consequence, the families on which this literature is based “tend to look fairly homogenous: Caucasian, female, middle-class, urban, and well-educated” (Crowl, Ahn, & Baker, 2008, p. 388). Incorporating these samples into a single analysis will make the most of available heterogeneity, thereby increasing generalizability to the larger population of families headed by gay or lesbian parents. Second, meta-analysis is particularly advantageous over narrative reviews of the literature in cases where the research question engenders controversy (Cooper & Rosenthal, 1980). Few issues have been the subject of such intense political debate as the place of gay and lesbian couples in society and their role as parents (Patterson, 2009). Third, whereas the culture of scholarship in social science traditionally includes an emphasis on null-hypothesis significance testing (Cohen, 1994; Loftus, 1996; Meehl, 1978; Rosenthal & Rubin, 1985), and most research questions are asked by scientists looking to reject the null hypothesis of no difference (Dickersin et al., 1987; Easterbrook, Berlin, Gopalan, & Matthews, 1991), the particular nature of this issue may lead to scientists looking to retain the null hypothesis.

Finally, the existing quantitative reviews on this topic have limitations in scope and execution. Three previous meta-analyses exist on this topic (Allen & Burrell 1996/2002; Crowl, Ahn, & Baker, 2008; Fedewa, Black, & Ahn, 2014), published in the Journal of Homosexuality, and the Journal of GLBT Family Studies (Allen & Burrell reprinted an updated version of their meta-analysis in the 2002 book Classroom Communication and Instructional Processes: Advances through Meta-Analysis). All these meta-analyses were comparatively small. For example, Patterson’s (2005) narrative review on children of gay or lesbian parents includes twice as many studies as any of these three meta-analytic reviews. Second, these prior quantitative reviews are limited by errors. For example, Allen and Burrell report identical chi square values (0.00) for all but one of their comparisons, which cannot be correct. They also report using Ostrow (1979) in their analyses, although that dissertation consists of qualitative interviews. Fedewa, Black, and Ahn, (2015) identify as independent studies multiple studies which use the same sample (i.e., Gartrel et al., 2010 and van Gelderen et al., 2012; Wainwright et al., 2004 and Wainright et al., 2006). Finally, although these prior meta-analyses identified between-study differences in the magnitude of association between parent sexual orientation and child development, they could not account for this heterogeneity between studies.

For these reasons, a meta-analysis on the well-being of children raised by gay or lesbian parents is needed. The aims of this meta-analysis are threefold: to test for differences between children raised by gay or lesbian parents and heterosexual parents across a broad range of outcomes, to identify mechanisms that can explain any differences in these outcomes, and to address questions regarding the validity of research in this area.

Are Children of Gay or Lesbian Parents Different or Not?

The study of families headed by gay or lesbian parents is relatively recent when compared to the study of other family formations. For decades, large foundations would not permit their funds to be used for studies considering homosexuality (West, 1967), and grant support to study children of gay and lesbian parents came decades later. Initial assumptions were that children raised by gay or lesbian parents could be at risk of socio-emotional deficits (Osman, 1972; Krueger, 1978; Weeks, Derdeyn, & Langman, 1975). Early researchers in this area called those assumptions into question by reporting no significant differences between children of gay or lesbian parents and children of heterosexual parents (Mandel & Hotvedt, 1980). Since that time, researchers have frequently reported finding no differences between children of gay or lesbian parents and heterosexual parents (Patterson, 2005; Tasker 2005).

More recently, researchers have drawn attention to the fact that parenthood is much harder to achieve for same-sex couples (Rosenfeld, 2010), which implies a selection effect. Consistent with this selection effect, some authors report gay or lesbian parents as significantly better than their heterosexual counterparts (Bigner & Jacobsen, 1989). In fact, a growing number of researchers suggest that when compared to heterosexual parents, gay or lesbian parents may in fact provide a better childrearing environment (APA amicus curiae brief in Bottoms v. Bottoms, Nov 15 1993; Biblartz & Stacey, 2010; Bozett, 1989; Crowl, Ahn, & Baker, 2008; Patterson, 2005; Patterson, 2006; Strohschein, 2010; Tasker, 2010). These suggestions have made their way into non-academic media, as illustrated by a recent article in the Washington Post titled “Children of same-sex couples are happier and healthier than peers, research shows” (Bever, 2014). In sum, it is unclear whether compared to children of heterosexual parents, children raised by gay or lesbian parents are advantaged, or no different. A quantitative summary of the available research on parent sexual orientation and child development will provide an evidentiary base upon which these competing claims may be evaluated.

The research on gay and lesbian parenting spans from 1979 to 2015, and more recent research might show different associations due to: 1) changes in cultural views toward gay or lesbian parents, 2) a greater number of gay or lesbian parents, and 3) a greater willingness among gay or lesbian parents to participate in parenting research. Forty years ago homosexuality was widely considered pathological (Freund et al., 1974; Siegelman, 1974), and gay or lesbian parents understandably expressed concerns about being judged as poor parents simply because of their sexual orientation (Ostrow, 1978). That concern may be less prevalent now that gay or lesbian couples have been granted legal and social recognition equal to heterosexual couples.

If Children of Gay or Lesbian Parents are Different, Can Researchers Interpret Those Differences?

Bronfenbrenner (1979) emphasized the importance of examining the context in which children develop in order to understand child development. Parent sexual orientation potentially creates such a context. However, although social address variables like parent sexual orientation are often correlated with measures of child development, they are not necessarily causal agents themselves. Such variables (e.g., parent age, parent race, parent sexual orientation) are commonly found in data used to study children and families, in part because they are comparatively easy to collect. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of both theory and intervention, of greater interest are identifying mechanisms through which social address variables may influence child development (Parke, 2013). For instance, the presence of a gay or lesbian parent may be nothing more than a marker of previous family transitions (e.g., divorce), different ideas of normative gender roles, differential access to models of normative gender roles, flexible belief systems that allow children to be more accepting and tolerant, or an increased exposure to discrimination. Simply identifying a family as headed by a gay or lesbian parent provides little insight into how the parent’s sexual orientation might have an effect on children.

One particular strength of meta-analysis is the ability to test for moderation across studies in the magnitude of effect. Ideally, this moderation can provide clues as to potential mechanisms. For instance, the effect of growing up in a family headed by a gay or lesbian parent – if there is any – may vary between gay father families versus lesbian mother families (Patterson, 1992). If such a difference were found between children of gay fathers and children of lesbian mothers, it could support explanations involving parent gender. Were a difference found between children raised from birth (or adopted early) into families headed by gay or lesbian parents versus children originally raised in heterosexual families who later in life transitioned into living with a gay or lesbian parent, it could support explanations involving environmental stability (Tasker, 2005). Were a difference found between children raised by gay or lesbian parents in U.S. versus children raised by gay or lesbian parents in other countries, it could support explanations involving the cultural acceptance of gay parenting (Anderson & Fetner, 2008; van den Akker, van der Ploeg, & Scheepers, 2013). A second purpose of this meta-analysis is to test for moderating effects of these and other variables identified in prior narrative reviews of this literature that could explain any differences between children living with gay or lesbian parents and children living with heterosexual parents.

If Children of Gay or Lesbian Parents are Different, Should Researchers Interpret Those Differences?

Studies of children raised by gay or lesbian parents have been criticized on methodological grounds (Cameron, Cameron, & Landess, 2001; Marks, 2012; Schumm, 2008; Sullins, 2015). A third purpose of this meta-analysis is to test for moderators that would address each of these concerns. One concern regarding findings in this area is that if researchers find differences between children of gay or lesbian parents and children of heterosexual parents, they may be comparing children from fundamentally nonequivalent groups: single, low-socioeconomic status gay or lesbian parents and married, high-socioeconomic status heterosexual couples. Such biased comparisons conflate the presence of a gay or lesbian parent with differences in environmental instability, divorce, lower socioeconomic status, or number of caregivers (Tasker, 2005).

A second concern is that differences may be reporter-specific. This is particularly relevant in situations when parenting is being assessed, or the parenting of a group with whom the parent identifies (i.e., gay or lesbian parents) as it would motivate self-enhancement. In situations where self-enhancement motives are salient (Crocker, 2002; Sedikides, Gaertner, & Toguchi, 2003), or where group identity may feel threatened, individuals are motivated to positively rate ingroups or people with whom they identify (Roese & Olson, 2007). As acknowledged by Bos and colleagues (2007) “Society’s less favorable attitudes toward lesbian-parent families mean that lesbian mothers are likely to feel more pressured than heterosexual parents to justify or defend the quality of their parenthood” (p. 39).

A third concern is the regular use of non-probability and snowball sampling techniques, which, although understandable, could nevertheless reduce the degree to which the published findings generalize to the larger unmeasured population of children raised by gay or lesbian parents.

A final issue raised in some qualitative reviews of this literature concerns the allegiance of researchers in this area to the hypothesis of no differences between children raised by gay or lesbian parents and children raised by heterosexual parents (Marks, 2012; Schumm, 2008). As early as Glass’s (1976) summary of the effects of psychotherapy, meta-analysts have considered as a possible moderator the expectations and motivations of the scientist conducting the research. Even the most responsible researchers can inadvertently affect the results of their studies and thereby find results consistent with their hypothesis (Harris, 1991; Martin, 1977; Rosenthal, 2002).

Method

Literature Search Procedure/ Inclusion Criteria

The first step of the search procedure involved entering related keywords into the PsycINFO, Web of Science, Academic Search Premier, Behavioral Sciences Collection, Sociological Abstracts, and Social Services Abstracts databases. The first broad search was based on the keyword “homosexual parents”. The second search was based on the conjoined predictor keywords (i.e., lesbian, gay, homosexual, and same-sex parent), and a list of outcome keywords (parenting, parental characteristics, or parenting style). Together these searches (conducted on December 5, 2013) produced over 1200 unique documents. Additional searches conducted on December 4, 2014 and February 7, 2016 based on the same keywords produced seven additional studies published after the initial literature search. To be included in the meta-analysis, the authors must have either a) compared parenting behaviors (e.g., warmth) of gay or lesbian parents to heterosexual parents or b) compared developmental outcomes (e.g., internalizing problems) of children living with at least one gay or lesbian parent to children living with at least one heterosexual parent. The vast majority of these studies were excluded for not reporting any parenting behavior or child outcomes. However, there was a smaller group that did report either parenting behaviors or child outcomes, but were still excluded because they lacked a heterosexual comparison group (Bailey, Bobrow, Wolfe, & Mikach, 1995; Bos, Goldberg, van Gelderen, & Gartrell, 2012; Bos, van Balen, van den Boom, & Sandfort, 2004; Brewaeys et al., 1995; Cameron, 2006; Cameron & Cameron, 1996; Erich, Leung, Kindle, & Carter, 2005; Gershon, Tschann, & Jemerin, 1999; Paul, 1986; Ryan & Cash, 2004; Tacher, 2009).

Some manuscripts included in previous reviews were also excluded from the current meta-analysis for having no relevant data (Kweskin & Cook, 1982; Miller, Mucklow, Jacobsen, & Bigner, 1980; Rand, Graham, & Rawlings, 1982), for having no quantitative data at all (Lyons, 1983; Turner, Scadden, & Harris, 1990), or for collecting quantitative data but not reporting any in their results section (Bigner & Jacobsen, 1992). However, when data were provided, it was included in this analysis, even when it was of less than ideal quality. For example, perhaps the most fundamental assumption of the general linear model is that data come from independent sources. The independence assumption was violated in several of these studies that treated information from siblings in the same home as independent (evidenced by the reported degrees of freedom in these studies; Erich, Kanenberg, Case, Allen, & Bogdanos, 2009; Green, Mandel, Hotved, Gray, & Smith, 1986; Huggins, 1989; Javaid, 1993; Tasker & Golombok, 1995; Vanfraussen, Ponjaert-Kristoffersen, & Brewaeys, 2002; Vanfraussen, Ponjaert-Kristoffersen, & Brewaeys, 2003), yet in the interest of thoroughness (and consistency with the prior meta-analyses which chose to include them), they are also included here. Other examples include Regnerus (2012) which appeared to conflate parent sexual orientation with familial instability, and Gartrell and Bos (2010) who reported an effect of family structure on academic achievement (r = .81) which vastly exceeds any documented parenting effect. Of the over 1200 documents, 84 met the inclusion criteria. Three of those studies were ultimately excluded for having insufficient data to calculate an effect size (Leung, Erich, & Kanenberg, 2005; Sullins, 2015; Tasker & Golombok, 1998). Effect sizes for the New Family Structures Study come from a commentary on the original article by Regnerus (Amato, 2012). Amato reported an aggregate effect size across five outcomes (i.e., educational attainment, physical health, overall happiness, (low) depression, and current relationship quality), and that estimate was used in the current study.

The second step of the search procedure was a detailed inspection of the references cited by those 81 documents. This produced no additional studies. Finally, the four existing meta-analyses on this topic were also reviewed for additional studies. This resulted in one additional study by Ostrow (1978). However, Ostrow’s dissertation consisted of qualitative interviews and was consequently excluded. This resulted in a final total of 81 documents from 57 independent samples (Table 1), designated with asterisks in the references. This is larger than Allen and Burrell’s (1996; k = 18), Crowl, Ahn, and Baker’s (2008; k = 19), and Fedewa, Black, and Ahn’s (2014; k = 33). A total of 2,713 children raised by homosexual parents and 22,781 children raised by heterosexual parents were represented in these studies, as well as additional studies based on the U.S. National Health Interview Survey, the U.S. census, and the Canadian census.

Table 1: Study Characteristics and effect sizes

Authors

Year

Unique

nsg

nog

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

Allen

2013

Yes

census*

census*

-.25

Allen et al.

2013

NoA

census

census

-.06

Averett et al.

2009

Yes

155

1229

-.02

.04

Baiocco et al.

2015

Yes

40

40

.31

.16

.10

.30

 

 

 

 

 

Baum

2000

Yes

22

47

-.24

Bigner & Jacobsen

1989

Yes

33

33

.20

.14

Bos

2010

Yes

36

36

.09

.04

.00

.23

Bos & Sandfort

2010

NoB

63

68

-.04

-.11

-.20

Bos et al.

2013

NoC

78

93

.00

-.11

Bos et al.

2007

NoB

100

100

.07

.08

.05

.08

Bos et al.

2015

NoB

51

51

.16

.14

.25

.06

 

 

 

.05

 

Brewaeys et al.

1997

NoD

30

38

.21

.21

.16

-.12

Canning

2005

Yes

11

21

-.16

-.03

-.14

 

 

-.29

 

 

 

Chan Raboy et al.

1998

NoE

55

25

-.06

-.11

-.05

Chan Brooks et al.

1998

NoE

16

30

-.02

-.09

-.07

Crouch et al.

2014

Yes

315

0

-.04

.11

.01

Crowl

2010

NoF

35

35

-.02

-.08

-.04

Drexler

1998

Yes

16

14

.08

-.10

Erich et al.

2009

Yes

27

125

.19

-.01

Farr & Patterson

2013

NoG

54

50

-.03

Farr et al.

2010

NoG

56

50

.05

.06

.03

.08

Fedewa & Clark

2009

NoF

35

35

-.02

-.08

-.07

Flaks et al.

1995

Yes

15

15

.28

.02

.04

Fulcher et al.

2008

NoH

33

33

-.15

-.36

Gartrell & Bos

2010

NoC

78

93

.02

.18

.11

.80

Gartrell et al.

2005

NoC

78

0

.03

.09

.14

Gartrell et al.

2011

NoC

74

434

.06

-.08

Gelderen et al.

2012

NoC

78

78

.18

.10

Giammattei

2007

Yes

31

26

-.07

.06

Goldberg & Smith

2009

NoI

78

56

-.04

Goldberg & Smith

2013

NoI

75

45

.04

.04

Goldberg et al.

2011

NoC

78

78

-.28

Goldberg et al.

2012

NoI

78

48

-.24

Golombok & Badger

2010

NoJ

20

63

.08

.15

.00

.16

-.16

.19

Golombok & Tasker

1996

NoK

25

21

-.25

Golombok et al.

2003

NoL

39

134

.01

-.02

-.05

-.06

-.38

-.03

-.05

Golombok et al.

1983

NoK

27

27

.18

-.19

.06

Golombok et al.

1997

NoJ

30

83

.60

.20

.64

.17

.24

Golombok et al.

2014

Yes

81

49

.07

.12

.06

.06

Green et al.

1986

Yes

50

40

-.22

-.39

Harris & Turner

1986

Yes

23

16

-.35

Hawkins

2010

Yes

84

67

-.22

-.14

Hill

1981

Yes

26

26

-.48

-.28

Hoeffer

1981

Yes

20

20

-.02

-.32

Huggins

1989

Yes

9

9

.01

Javaid

1993

Yes

13

15

-.30

Kirkpatrick et al.

1981

Yes

20

20

-.20

Kunin

1998

Yes

47

47

.05

.05

-.28

.21

Lichtanski

2004

Yes

33

31

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

.21

.21

Macatee

2005

Yes

17

33

-.06

-.10

MacCallum & Golombok

2004

NoJ

25

76

-.10

.00

-.02

-.02

.17

.24

McNeill et al.

1998

Yes

24

35

-.25

Miller et al.

1982

Yes

34

47

-.02

Mucklow & Phelan

1979

Yes

34

47

.11

Murray & McClintock

2005

Yes

37

63

.13

 

.12

 

 

-.52

 

 

 

Perry et al.

2004

NoL

38

131

.02

-.04

.06

Potter

2012

Yes

158

18971

.08

Pruyear

1983

Yes

15

16

-.15

-.45

Rees

1979

Yes

12

12

-.13

.05

.05

Regnerus

2012

Yes

236

116

-.08

-.08

-.08

-.08

Rivers et al.

2008

Yes

18

18

.07

-.08

-.33

Rogers

1995

Yes

21

20

-.04

Rosenfeld

2010

NoA

census

census

.04

Sackett

2007

Yes

9

11

 

 

 

.04

 

 

 

 

 

Sarantakos

1996

Yes

58

58

-.60

-.32

-.22

Scallen

1981

Yes

20

20

.03

Schwartz

1985

Yes

35

70

.10

-.07

Shechner et al.

2011

Yes

36

40

-.18

.04

.04

.25

-.05

Sirota

1997

Yes

68

68

-.32

-.38

-.30

-.40

-.22

Steckel

1985

Yes

11

11

-.04

-.13

Sullins

2015

Yes

512

206495

-.09

-.09

-.11

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sutfin et al.

2008

NoH

29

28

-.30

-.29

Tan & Baggerly

2009

Yes

24

24

-.16

-.10

-.20

Tasker & Golombok

1995

NoK

25

21

-.12

.30

-.34

Vanfraussen et al.

2003

NoD

24

24

.06

Vanfraussen et al.

2002

NoD

24

24

.00

.11

.03

Van gelderen et al.

2015

NoB

67

67

.07

.00

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wainright & Patterson

2008

NoM

44

44

.21

-.07

Wainright & Patterson

2006

NoM

44

44

-.07

.06

Wainright et al.

2004

NoM

44

44

-.19

-.02

.09

-.09

-.14

Zweig

2000

Yes

56

111

 

 

 

 

 

-.37

 

 

 

Note. 1=Internalizing, 2=Externalizing, 3=Social competence, 4=Positive relationships, 5=Academic competence, 6=Gender development, 7=Gender socialization, 8=Control, 9=Warmth. *Canadian Census. U.S. Census, nsg gay/lesbian parents nog heterosexual parents. Studies from the same dataset have the same subscript.

 

Comparison Families

Many studies included data which allowed for comparisons of gay or lesbian parents and heterosexual parents in similar family structures. In cases where data were available on multiple heterosexual comparison groups, children from gay or lesbian single-parent families were compared to children from heterosexual single parent families, and children from divorced families now living with a gay or lesbian parent were compared to children from divorced families now living with a heterosexual parent. For instance, in a study like the New Family Structures Study (Regnerus, 2012) in which many children raised by a gay or lesbian parent(s) had experienced parental divorce, the comparison group for these analyses was children of heterosexual parents who had either experienced a divorce or been continuously single. Our intention was to create a group of baseline studies in which the homosexual-parent and heterosexual-parent groups were very closely matched, so it could be used as a reference group in the moderator analyses.

Outcome Variables

Outcome variables were combined into nine categories based on face validity and how they were interpreted in the original manuscripts. The nine categories included six child outcomes (i.e., internalizing problems, externalizing problems, social competence, positive relationships, academic competence, gender development) and three parenting outcomes (i.e., gender socialization, control, warmth). Lists of all outcome variables represented in each category are available in Appendix A. Effect sizes were coded positive if living with gay or lesbian parents was associated with better child outcomes (or better parenting behavior).

Moderator Variables

I examined 14 potential moderators of these nine outcomes, based on concerns expressed in prior reviews on this topic. Each of the studies was coded by the author, and independently coded by a research assistant. Percent agreement was above 90% for all study information; disagreements were resolved by discussion. Moderators are presented in Table 2.

Table 2 Study Characteristics and Moderators for Independent Samples

Study

Year

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

Allen

2013

Yes

No

-

Yes

No

Low

Yes

No

No

Low

19.5

No

n/a

n/a

Allen et al.

2013

Yes

Yes

-

Yes

No

High

No

No

No

High

10.5

No

n/a

n/a

Averett et al.

2009

Yes

Yes

No

No

No

High

No

Yes

Yes

Low

9

Yes

n/a

n/a

Baiocco et al.

2015

Yes

No

Yes

No

Yes

High

Yes

Yes

Yes

Low

4

n/a

n/a

n/a

Baum

2000

No

Yes

Yes

No

No

Low

No

Yes

Yes

Low

15

No

No

n/a

Bigner & Jacobsen

1989

Yes

Yes

-

No

No

High

Yes

No

No

Low

11

Yes

Yes

Yes

Bos

2010

Yes

No

Yes

No

Yes

High

Yes

Yes

Yes

Low

6.5

Yes

n/a

n/a

Bos & Sandfort

2010

Yes

No

Yes

No

Yes

High

Yes

Yes

Yes

High

10

Yes

No

n/a

Bos et al.

2013

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

High

Yes

Yes

Yes

High

17

Yes

No

n/a

Brewaeys et al.

1997

Yes

No

Yes

No

Yes

High

Yes

Yes

Yes

High

5.2

Yes

No

n/a

Canning

2005

No

Yes

-

No

No

Low

No

Yes

No

Low

15

No

No

n/a

Chan Raboy et al.

1998

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

High

Yes

Yes

Yes

High

7.6

Yes

Yes

n/a

Crouch et al.

2014

Yes

No

-

No

No

High

Yes

No

No

Low

4

n/a

n/a

n/a

Crowl

2010

No

Yes

-

Yes

No

Low

No

No

No

High

6.8

Yes

n/a

n/a

Drexler

1998

No

Yes

-

No

Yes

High

No

Yes

Yes

Low

7.5

No

No

n/a

Erich et al.

2009

Yes

Yes

No

No

No

High

Yes

No

No

Low

13.7

Yes

n/a

n/a

Farr & Patterson

2013

Yes

Yes

No

No

Yes

High

Yes

Yes

Yes

High

3

Yes

n/a

n/a

Flaks et al.

1995

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

High

Yes

Yes

Yes

Low

5.8

Yes

No

Yes

Giammattei

2007

No

Yes

-

No

Yes

Low

No

Yes

Yes

Low

11.6

No

No

n/a

Goldberg & Smith

2009

Yes

Yes

No

No

Yes

High

Yes

Yes

Yes

High

1

No

n/a

n/a

Golombok et al.

2003

Yes

No

Yes

No

Yes

High

Yes

Yes

Yes

High

7

Yes

Yes

n/a

Golombok et al.

2014

Yes

No

No

No

No

High

Yes

Yes

Yes

Low

6

n/a

n/a

n/a

Green et al.

1986

Yes

Yes

-

No

No

High

Yes

No

No

Low

-

Yes

Yes

Yes

Harris & Turner

1986

Yes

Yes

-

No

No

High

Yes

No

No

Low

18

No

No

Yes

Hawkins

2010

No

Yes

-

No

No

Low

No

No

No

Low

15

Yes

n/a

n/a

Hill

1981

No

Yes

Yes

No

No

Low

No

Yes

No

Low

8.5

No

No

Yes

Hoeffer

1981

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

No

High

Yes

No

No

Low

7.5

Yes

Yes

Yes

Huggins

1989

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

No

High

No

Yes

No

Low

16

Yes

Yes

Yes

Javaid

1993

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

No

Low

Yes

No

No

Low

14

Yes

Yes

No

Kirkpatrick et al.

1981

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

No

Low

Yes

No

No

Low

8.5

Yes

Yes

Yes

Kunin

1998

No

Yes

Yes

No

No

High

No

Yes

No

Low

13.3

No

No

n/a

Lichtanski

2004

No

Yes

No

No

No

High

No

Yes

-

Low

7

No

No

n/a

Macatee

2005

No

Yes

-

No

No

Low

No

No

No

Low

28

No

No

n/a

MacCallum & Golombok

2004

Yes

No

-

No

Yes

High

Yes

Yes

Yes

High

12

Yes

No

n/a

McNeill et al.

1998

Yes

Yes

-

No

No

Low

No

No

No

Low

-

Yes

Yes

n/a

Miller et al.

1982

Yes

Yes

-

No

No

High

Yes

No

No

Low

-

No

No

No

Mucklow & Phelan

1979

Yes

Yes

-

No

No

Low

Yes

No

No

Low

-

Yes

Yes

Yes

Muray & McClintock

2005

Yes

Yes

-

No

Yes

High

No

Yes

-

Low

30

No

No

n/a

Potter

2012

Yes

Yes

-

Yes

No

High

Yes

No

No

Low

7

No

n/a

n/a

Pruyear

1983

No

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Low

No

No

Yes

Low

9.3

Yes

Yes

Yes

Rees

1979

No

Yes

Yes

No

No

High

No

Yes

No

Low

14.1

Yes

Yes

Yes

Regnerus

2012

Yes

Yes

-

Yes

No

Low

No

No

No

Low

28.5

No

n/a

n/a

Rivers et al.

2008

Yes

No

-

No

No

High

Yes

No

No

Low

13.5

Yes

n/a

n/a

Rogers

1995

No

Yes

Yes

No

No

Low

No

Yes

No

Low

7

No

No

No

Sackett

2007

No

Yes

-

No

-

High

No

No

-

Low

28

No

No

n/a

Sarantakos

1996

Yes

No

Yes

No

No

Low

No

Yes

No

Low

-

No

No

No

Scallen

1981

No

Yes

Yes

No

No

Low

No

No

No

Low

14.5

Yes

Yes

Yes

Schwartz

1985

No

Yes

Yes

No

No

High

No

No

Yes

Low

24

Yes

Yes

Yes

Shechner et al.

2011

Yes

No

Yes

No

Yes

High

Yes

Yes

Yes

Low

6.5

No

n/a

n/a

Sirota

1997

No

Yes

-

No

No

Low

No

No

No

Low

29

No

No

n/a

Steckel

1985

No

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Low

No

Yes

Yes

Low

4

No

No

No

Sullins

2015

Yes

Yes

-

Yes

-

Low

Yes

Yes

-

Low

8.5

-

-

-

Sutfin et al.

2008

Yes

Yes

-

No

Yes

High

Yes

Yes

Yes

High

5.3

Yes

n/a

n/a

Tan & Baggerly

2009

Yes

Yes

No

No

Yes

Low

No

Yes

Yes

Low

5.4

No

n/a

n/a

Tasker & Golombok

1995

Yes

No

-

No

No

High

Yes

No

No

High

18

Yes

Yes

Yes

Wainright et al.

2004

Yes

Yes

-

Yes

No

High

Yes

Yes

No

High

15

Yes

Yes

n/a

Zweig

2000

No

Yes

-

No

No

Low

No

No

No

Low

25.2

No

No

n/a

Note. 1- Study published, 2- U.S. based sample, 3- child biologically related to at least one of the parents, 4-probability-based sample, 5-child living with parents since infancy, 6-researcher allegiance to “no differences” hypothesis, 7-author has multiple publications on children of gay/lesbian parents, 8-comparable family structure, 9-couple's relationship predates child's entry into home, 10-impact of dataset, 11-age of child, 12-included in meta analysis conducted by Fedewa et al, 13-included in meta analysis conducted by Crowl et al, 14-included in meta analysis conducted by Allen et al. Dash-information not available, n/a- study not published at time of prior meta analyses. In cases where multiple publications are available from the same dataset, the information presented is for the first study listed in Table 1.

 

Child gender. Considering the gendered nature of some of the child outcomes central to this literature (e.g., gender identity), many studies separately report child outcomes by gender. Where data for boys and girls were reported separately, they were recorded separately. Some studies contained information on only boys or only girls; this was recorded as well.

Gender of same-sex couples. Where data for gay fathers and lesbian mothers were reported separately, they were recorded separately. Some studies contained information on only gay fathers or lesbian mothers, this was recorded as well.

Data reporter/source. We recorded effect sizes for child outcomes and parenting behavior by reporter (i.e., parent report, child report, teacher report, other report) so reporters could be compared with each other.

Age of child. Mean sample age was coded for most studies, and for studies in which only the lowest and highest ages were reported (e.g., “children ranged from 9 to 18”), we used the average of those two points.

Stability in home environment. We coded whether children of gay or lesbian parents had been living with the homosexual parent(s) since infancy (i.e., 24 months; 1 = yes, 0 = no). We also coded whether the homosexual couple’s relationship predated the child’s entry into the home (1 = yes, 0 = no).

Biological relatedness. Studies in which the children were biologically related to one of their parents were coded as “1”, and studies in which the children were adopted were coded as “0”. 

Comparable family structure. We coded whether the families in the heterosexual comparison group were of the same family structure (i.e., single parent) as the families in the gay or lesbian group (1 = yes, 0 = no).

Sampling quality. Studies in which the sample could be considered a probability-based sample were coded as “1”, and studies based on non-probability samples were coded as “0”.

U.S. based sample. Studies conducted in the United States were coded as “1”, and studies conducted outside the United States (typically in Western Europe) were coded as “0”.

Researcher allegiance. Following the procedure of Glass, McGaw, and Smith (1981), we coded whether the authors appeared biased in favor of the “no differences” hypothesis (coded as 1) biased against the “no differences” hypothesis (coded as -1), or did not appear biased (coded as 0). The author independently rated each study on researcher allegiance and a group of research assistants (n = 8 per study) independently rated all of the published studies, as well as the first 10 pages, hypotheses, method, and last ten pages of each unpublished study. Only one study was rated as biased against the “no differences” hypothesis, so it was combined with the “not biased” group. This produced an observed range from 0 to 1. The intraclass correlation was rIC = .75 suggesting that it was possible to reliably determine experimenter allegiance from the tone and substance of the research report. The modal rating was used in moderation analyses. A second measure was to code whether or not any authors of a particular document had presented data (i.e., via conference or publication) more than once on homosexual parents (1 = yes, 0 = no).

Publication status. Documents were coded as “0” (unpublished) or “1” (published).

Impact of manuscript. The first assessment of manuscript impact was based on the journal impact factor (coded using 5-year averages when available), with unpublished manuscripts receiving a score of zero. Impact factors averaged 1.73 (range: 0 – 5.44). The second assessment of manuscript impact was based on citation rate, or the number of times it had been cited per year since publication, according to Google scholar and Publish or Perish (Harzing, 2007). Citation rates ranged from 0 to 28.

Impact of dataset. An additional moderator is whether the dataset has been used in more than one publication (1 = yes, 0 = no).

Manuscript year. Studies were coded by year they were produced.  Although not tested as moderators, to help assess the adequacy of these comparisons across family type we recorded the differences between gay or lesbian couples and heterosexual couples in income and educational attainment, as well as differences in pre-adoption characteristics in adoption-based samples.

Effect sizes were all transformed to Fisher Zr values for analyses, then back-transformed for interpretation. In cases where authors provided multiple effect size estimates from the same reporter on the same sample, or where multiple assessments were available over time for the same samples, we averaged the effect sizes into a single estimate (Matt & Cook, 1994; Rosenthal, 1994). Effect sizes more than 1.5 the interquartile range were windsorized for moderation analyses (Hastings, Mosteller, Tukey, & Winsor, 1947; Lipsey & Wilson, 1999), and we used a random effects approach using the software Comprehensive Meta-analysis (Borenstein, Hedges, Higgins, & Rothstein, 2007). Additional checks for publication bias were conducted in R (R core team, 2013).

Results

Descriptive Data

We conducted several preliminary analyses to determine the degree to which there were baseline differences between households headed by gay or lesbian couples and those headed by heterosexual couples. This was important because socioeconomic differences could potentially account for any observed difference between children living with gay or lesbian couples and children living with heterosexual couples (Gates, 2013). Gay or lesbian couples in these studies made on average 10.9 thousand dollars per year more than heterosexual couples (based on 13 datasets that included the data needed for direct comparison). Gay or lesbian parents were on average 1.5 years more educated than heterosexual parents.

It was also possible that preadoption differences could potentially account for any observed differences between adopted children living with gay or lesbian couples and adopted children living with heterosexual couples. Many of the studies based on adopted samples controlled for age of adoption by matching heterosexual couples and gay or lesbian couples based on age of adoption (e.g., Farr, Forsell, & Patterson, 2010; Farr & Patterson, 2013; Goldberg & Smith, 2009; Goldberg, Kashy, & Smith, 2012; Tan & Baggerly, 2009). When we combined results from the three studies that allowed for a direct comparison of age at adoption (Averett, Nalavant, & Ryan, 2009; Golombok et al., 2014; Erich et al., 2005) children adopted by gay or lesbian couples were slightly younger than children adopted by heterosexual couples (r = -.10). Among the other studies, there was no evidence of gay or lesbian couples adopting more special needs children (Farr & Patterson, 2013), no difference in preadoption history between children adopted by gay or lesbian and heterosexual couples (Golombok et al., 2014), and no difference in age of adoption (Goldberg & Smith, 2009).

Within-Study Moderators

The next set of analyses involves three within-study moderators: child sex, parent sex, and reporter of the data. There was no difference in the magnitude of association between parent sexual orientation and child/parenting outcomes between boys ( = .00, range = -.36 - .40) and girls ( = -.04, range = -.47 - .83), based on the 16 studies that provided data for girls and the 13 studies that provided data for boys, Z = 0.63, p = .26. Consequently, I combine results from boys and girls in the remaining analyses.

There was no difference in the magnitude of association between parent sexual orientation and child/parenting outcomes between lesbian mothers ( = -.02, range = -.45 - .40) and gay fathers ( = -.05, range = -.40 - .23), based on the 37 studies that provided information for families headed by a mother who was lesbian and the 13 studies that provided information for families headed by a father who was gay, Z = 0.30, p = .38. Consequently, results from children of gay fathers and children of lesbian mothers are combined in the remaining analyses.

The average effect size across outcomes was compiled for each reporter. I then compared those four mean rs via pairwise comparisons (e.g., parent report compared to child report, parent report compared to teacher report, etc.). There was no difference across reporters (i.e., child report (k = 19), parent report (k = 46), teacher report (k = 11), other report (k = 10)) in the magnitude of association between parent sexual orientation and outcomes: mean Z = 0.93, range: .23 - 1.49). Consequently, results are combined across reporters in the remaining analyses.

Mean Effect Size Analysis

In cases where multiple manuscripts reported effect sizes using the same data, they were averaged into a single estimate. For example, child grade retention from the 2000 U.S. census as reported in Rosenfeld (2011) and child grade retention from the 2000 U.S. census as reported in Allen, Pakaluk, and Price (2013) were combined into a single estimate. Effect size estimates and 95% confidence intervals for all studies per outcome are available in Appendix B.

Table 3 contains aggregate effect sizes for all nine outcomes. Positive effect sizes reflect a benefit from living with a gay or lesbian parent, and negative effect sizes reflect a benefit from living with a heterosexual parent. For example, the 25 studies that contained measures of internalizing problems produce an aggregate effect size of r = .012. The test for heterogeneity is also significant for internalizing problems, meaning that these estimates of internalizing problems across studies come from more than one population. This supports tests for moderation of this aggregate effect. Tests of heterogeneity are significant for all outcomes except gender socialization and parent control. Aggregate probabilities for significant effects correspond to Z = 9.40 for gender development, and Z = 7.29 for gender socialization. To assess publication bias, PET-PEESE (Stanley & Doucouliagos, 2013) was run on all nine outcomes. The PET-PEESE results offered a different picture of the data. The associations that were significant (gender development and gender socialization) were no longer significant, whereas three associations that were not significant became significant (internalizing problems, externalizing problems, and social competence).

Table 3 Effect sizes across outcome, and heterogeneity tests

95% CI

  95% CI

Outcome

k

r

LL      UL

Q

p

LLʹ    ULʹ

 

 

 

Internalizing problems

26

.012

-.038    .062

76.96

< .001

-.089

-.096    -.082

 

 

 

Externalizing problems

23

.006

-.049    .061

86.12

< .001

-.089

-.096    -.082

 

 

 

Social competence

28

-.046

-.099    .006

66.61

< .001

-.090

-.100    -.082

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Positive relationships

19

.014

-.080    .108

65.19

< .001

-.125

-.403    .154

 

 

 

Academic competence

10

-.049

-.168    .071

59.76

< .001

-.064

-.530    .401

 

 

 

Gender development

19

-.226

-.306   -.143

56.14

<.001

-.301

-.624   .021

 

 

 

Gender socialization

5

-.275

-.366   -.178

4.65

.46

-.071

-.211   .070

 

 

 

Parental control

16

-.003

-.061    .056

19.21

.20

-.031

-.297    .233

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parental warmth

14

.006

-.091    .103

34.81

.001

.042

-.355    .439

Note. k = number of independent samples; r = average effect size; CI = confidence interval; Q = test of heterogeneity; p = probability that heterogeneity across studies is due to chance; rʹ = average effect size based on PET-PEESE; CIʹ = confidence interval based on PET-PEESE.

Between Study Moderators        

Between-study moderators are presented in Table 4. The intercept represents the effect of parent sexual orientation conditional on the moderator. For example, the intercept for the first model (b = -.04) reflects a small, positive association between living with gay or lesbian parents and internalizing if the child had not lived with gay or lesbian parents since infancy. This estimate has a standard error of .03 and an associated probability of .23. The coefficient for the moderation effect is .12, suggesting that among children who lived with gay or lesbian parents since infancy, the average effect size was .06. This reflects a small, negative association between living with gay or lesbian parents and internalizing. Children of gay or lesbian parents showed better or worse outcomes depending on whether they lived with the homosexual parent since infancy (significant in 2 out of 6 tests), whether the parent’s same-sex relationship predated the child’s entry into the home (significant in 2 out of 6 tests), whether the heterosexual comparison group was matched on family structure (significant in 3 out of 6 tests), whether the sample was probability-based (significant in 1 out of 6 tests), whether the same was based in the U.S. (significant in 3 out of 6 tests), whether the researcher was rated as high on allegiance to the “no differences” hypothesis (significant in 5 out of 6 tests), whether any of the authors had published more than once in this area (significant in 3 out of 6 tests), whether the manuscript was published (significant in 2 out of  tests), whether the sample was used for multiple publications in this area (significant in 1 out of 6 tests), and whether the manuscript was cited comparatively often (significant in 1 out of 6 tests). Gay or lesbian parents showed comparatively higher or lower levels of parenting behaviors depending on child age (2 out of 3 tests), and whether the heterosexual comparison group was matched on family structure (1 out of 3 tests).

Table 4 Moderation of Associations between Parent Sexual Orientation and Child/Parenting Outcomes

Outcomes

Moderator

k

b0

SE(b0)

p(b0)

b1

SE(b1)

p(b1)

    Internalizing problems

Child lived with parent since infancy

25

-0.04

0.03

.23

0.12

0.05

.011

Couple together before child entered home

24

-0.06

0.04

.14

0.12

0.05

.024

Probability-based sample

26

0.04

0.02

.13

-0.14

0.05

.008

U.S.-based sample

26

0.07

0.04

.036

-0.11

0.05

.014

Researcher allegiance

26

-0.10

0.04

.019

0.14

0.05

.004

    Externalizing problems

Age of child

23

0.08

0.05

.075

-0.01

0.00

.040

Couple together before child entered home

21

-0.08

0.05

.11

0.12

0.06

.028

Similar family structure as comparison group

23

-0.12

0.09

.057

0.16

0.08

.048

U.S.-based sample

23

0.09

0.04

.020

-0.14

0.05

.005

Researcher allegiance

23

-0.09

0.01

<.001

0.14

0.02

<.001

Manuscript published

23

-0.16

0.07

.011

0.20

0.08

.011

    Social competence

Researcher allegiance

28

-0.16

0.03

<.001

0.19

0.04

<.001

Multiple publication on gay/lesbian parenting

28

-0.13

0.04

.005

0.14

0.06

.018

    Positive relationships

Age of child

18

0.20

0.09

.027

-0.01

0.01

.028

Child lived with parent since infancy

18

-0.08

0.06

.15

0.22

0.09

.011

Couple together before child entered home

18

-0.06

0.06

.32

0.16

0.09

.085

Similar family structure as comparison group

19

-0.11

0.06

.062

0.23

0.08

.005

U.S.-based sample

19

0.18

0.06

.002

-0.29

0.08

<.001

Researcher allegiance

19

-0.19

0.05

<.001

0.33

0.07

<.001

Multiple publication on gay/lesbian parenting

19

-0.18

0.05

<.001

0.32

0.07

<.001

Manuscript published

19

-0.20

0.08

.008

0.30

0.09

<.001

Sample used for multiple manuscripts

19

-0.05

0.06

.33

0.20

0.10

.034

Manuscript citation rate

19

-0.12

0.07

.10

0.01

0.00

.067

    Academic competence

Age of child

9

0.16

0.04

<.001

-0.02

0.00

<.001

Child lived with parent since infancy

10

-0.10

0.07

.13

0.30

0.16

.064

Couple together before child entered home

10

-0.10

0.07

.13

0.30

0.15

.057

Researcher allegiance

10

-0.20

0.04

<.001

0.25

0.06

<.001

Manuscript citation rate

10

-0.20

0.07

.008

0.01

0.00

.02

    Gender development

Age of child

18

-0.10

0.07

.18

-0.01

0.00

.027

Multiple publication on gay/lesbian parenting

19

-0.34

0.06

<.001

0.17

0.08

.042

Manuscript citation rate

19

-0.30

0.06

<.001

0.01

0.00

.053

    Parental warmth

Age of child

13

0.17

0.05

.001

-0.01

0.00

.003

Similar family structure as comparison group

14

-0.14

0.08

.058

0.21

0.09

.019

Note. b0 = intercept; b1 = unstandardized regression coefficient; SE = standard error; k = number of studies contributing to each test.

 

Based on the coefficients from Table 4, under the most favorable circumstances the benefit of living with gay or lesbian parents is indexed by an average effect size of .048 (range: -17 to .15). Under less favorable circumstances, the benefit of living with heterosexual parents is indexed by an average effect size of -.15 (range: -.07 to -.34). Results from continuous moderators (i.e., child age, citation rate) were not included in these averages.

Impact factor was significantly correlated with average effect size (r = .38, p = .0010). Studies published in more widely-cited journals tend to report more positive effects of being raised by gay or lesbian parents. Neither the year a manuscript was produced, nor whether the child was biologically related to the parents significantly moderated any of the outcomes. Compared to unpublished studies, published studies were not more likely to use probability samples (p = .35), larger samples (p = .31), to include families where the child lived with the parents from infancy (p = .19), to have the heterosexual group matched on family structure (p = .92), or to include families where the parents’ relationship predates the child’s entry into the home (p = .54). Published studies were more likely than unpublished studies to be rated as high on allegiance t(54) = 3.78, p < .001, and written by authors who had produced additional research on children of gay or lesbian parents t(54) = 11.42, p < .001.  

A final series of tests compared studies included in the previous meta-analyses with studies excluded from those meta-analysis. The meta-analysis by Allen et al. included more studies which supported the “no differences” hypothesis with regard to social competence, t(6) = 3.57, p < .001. The meta-analysis by Fedwa et al. included more studies which supported the “no differences” hypothesis with regard to social competence, t(25) = 3.29, p < .001, and gender development, t(19) = 2.82, p = .005. The meta-analysis by Crowl et al. was not significantly more or less likely to include studies which supported the “no differences” hypothesis.

Discussion

The first purpose of this investigation was to assess whether children of gay or lesbian parents are different or not different compared to children from heterosexual parents. The answer is, it depends. Without correcting for publication bias, there are differences in both gender development and gender socialization. After correcting for publication bias, there are differences in internalizing problems, externalizing problems, and social competence. In these studies, children of gay or lesbian parents were similar to children of heterosexual parents across most outcomes, but these aggregate estimates contained significant variability, suggesting that interpretation of this aggregate effect is less informative than identifying the conditions that modify the aggregate effect. That is, children living with a gay or lesbian parent appears to be systematically associated with positive outcomes for some families, and negative outcomes for other families.

The second purpose of this investigation was to identify potential explanations of differences between children of gay or lesbian parents and children of heterosexual parents. Moderation tests identified conditions under which the aggregate null effects became significant. For example, living with a gay or lesbian parent was associated with positive outcomes for younger children and negative outcomes for older children. Perhaps children are unaffected by their parents’ sexual orientation until they reach adolescence and have the cognitive capacity to actively explore their own identity, or become increasingly aware of others’ negative assessments of nontraditional families.

Both measures of stability (i.e., relationship of same-sex couple predates child’s entry into the home, and child lived with the same-sex couple since infancy) together moderated three of the six outcomes. This is the first study to document such moderation and suggests that one reason children raised by gay or lesbian parents may show differences in internalizing problems, externalizing problems, and positive relationships in some studies is because they experience more instability than children of heterosexual parents. For instance, children raised by an openly gay or lesbian parent from infancy never deal with the process of thinking their parent is heterosexual and learning otherwise. According to Harris and Turner (1986), this is not a pleasant experience for most children; they write, “Not one subject in the present study reported that a spouse or child showed a positive reaction to the discovery that the subject was gay (p. 112)” Although additional research is needed to definitively identify the reason for this moderation, there was modest support for the role of instability in accounting for some of the differences between children raised by gay or lesbian parents and children raised by heterosexual parents.

Whatever causes the differences observed in these samples between children raised by gay or lesbian parents and children raised by heterosexual parents, it is not parenting behavior. Neither control nor warmth varied between gay or lesbian parents and heterosexual parents, even after accounting for publication bias. Although this finding conflicts with previous conclusions that “Sexual preference of fathers produces qualitative differences in self-reported parenting behavior (Bigner & Jacobsen, 1989, p. 185)” it was replicated in the current analyses across child reports of parenting, observer ratings of parenting, spouse reports of parenting, and self-reports of parenting. The only evidence for an effect of parent sexual orientation on parenting behavior was less warmth expressed by homosexual parents toward older children, and less warmth by homosexual parents when compared to heterosexual-parent families not matched on family structure. The former finding merits further study. The latter could be due to unobserved confounds, and is potentially more a reflection of the quality of literature on gay or lesbian parents than of the parenting behavior of gay or lesbian parents.

The one consistent exception to this overall lack of evidence for parenting as a potential explanatory mechanism for differences between children of gay or lesbian and heterosexual parents involves gender development. Gay or lesbian parents were more likely than heterosexual parents to show support for an open attitude about gender and sexuality, which may explain the lower level of normative gender development among children living with gay or lesbian parents. Fulcher et al. (2008) interpreted this difference to mean “…that sexual orientation can predict parental attitudes which in turn may predict flexibility in children’s own attitudes” (p. 339) whereas Gartrell et al. (2011) wrote “The offspring of lesbian and gay parents might be more open to homoerotic exploration and same-sex orientation” (p. 1205). One alternative explanation is that differences in normative gender development are to be expected if one’s parent is gay or lesbian, as homosexuality has a heritable component (Långström, Rahman, Carlström, & Lichtenstein, 2010), but this biological explanation would imply a stronger link between parent and child gender development in families in which children and parents are biologically related, which was not the case. Considering the strong empirical support for behavioral mimicry (Chartrand & Lakin, 2013), is it logical that children of gay or lesbian parents would be more likely to show less adherence to gendered behaviors and stereotypes. An important caveat is that associations were no longer statistically significant after accounting for publication bias.

One potential explanation for these differences between children with gay or lesbian parents and children with heterosexual parents was disparities in socioeconomic status, as same-sex couples (in the U.S.) are generally socioeconomically disadvantaged (Gates, 2013). However, the small socioeconomic differences among the families represented in these studies favored the gay or lesbian parents. Parenthetically, this shows that the gay or lesbian parents upon which this literature is based (mostly drawn from snowball samples) do not represent the general population of gay or lesbian parents. A second potential explanation for these observed differences in child outcomes by family type is pre-adoption differences between children adopted by gay or lesbian couples and those adopted by heterosexual couples. However, there was no evidence for such differences among the adopted children represented in these studies. A third potential explanation, based on theories of gender development (Leaper & Friedman, 2007; McHale, Crouter, & Whiteman, 2003), has to do with the presence of a parent of the same or opposite gender as the child. There was, however, no support for this explanation. Children raised by gay fathers were no different than children raised by lesbian mothers, and the differences associated with parent sexual orientation did not vary between boys and girls.

A fourth explanation for potential differences is that children of gay or lesbian parents likely experience more teasing or bullying as a result of discrimination (Patterson & Redding, 1996). There was no evidence that this was the case in most of these studies (see MacCallum & Golombok, 2004; Tasker & Golombok, 1995; Vanfraussen, Ponjaert-Kristoffersen, & Brewaeys, 2002). The lack of reported discrimination, as well as its lack of consistent effect among these families (compare van Gelderen, Gartrell, Bos, & Hermanns, 2012 with van Gelderen, Bos, Gartrell, Hermanns, & Perrin, 2012), does not offer strong support for its role as a mechanism to explain any differences. Nevertheless, future research may show that cultural attitudes and social context account for some observed differences, as studies conducted in the U.S. showed differences from non U.S. studies on three of the six child outcomes. At the very least, this suggests that studies on this topic do not necessarily generalize across cultures.

A third purpose of this investigation was to address concerns previously expressed regarding literature in this research domain. One concern involves the potential influence of methodological differences on findings in this area. For example, there was no evidence that the magnitude or direction of effect varied across reporters (e.g., parent, child, observer, teacher). Although some of these parents were highly invested in advocating for recognition of gay or lesbian parents (see Harris & Turner, 1986; Miller, Jacobsen, & Bigner, 1982), this investment did not translate into discrepancies with other reporters. This finding contradicts the findings of Crowl et al., who noted how gay or lesbian parents report having better relationships with their children than heterosexual parents, but the children themselves report no difference in the parent-child relationship. It may be that the inclusion criteria of Crowl and colleagues resulted in a larger proportion of the highly invested parents referenced by previous researchers (Harris & Turner; Miller et al.). Alternatively, it may be that the discrepancy in findings can be explained by which effects were counted in the category “positive relationships.” The current study includes all relationships, whereas Crowl et al. focused specifically on parent-child relationships.

Another concern involves the degree of equivalence between gay or lesbian and heterosexual comparison groups. There was some evidence (significant for two out of six child outcomes) that studies in which the samples are matched on structure (e.g., 1-parent vs. 2-parent) produce smaller differences in externalizing problems and positive relationships. This could be interpreted as evidence that poorly matched comparison groups inflate (or create) differences between children raised by gay or lesbian parents and those raised by heterosexual parents. There was also limited evidence (significant for one out of six outcomes) that when compared to data from probability samples, data from convenience samples produces smaller differences in internalizing problems between children living with gay or lesbian parents and children living with heterosexual parents. Samples of convenience (which are the vast majority in this research domain) may produce under-estimates of the difference in child internalizing associated with parent sexual orientation. 

The next concern addressed in this meta-analysis involves researcher expectancy effects (Rosenthal & Rubin, 1978). The allegiance of the authors to the no difference hypothesis was consistently associated with effect size. One plausible interpretation is that researchers who are more invested in a given topic may be more experienced in that topic and conduct their research with higher methodological rigor. That is, what we coded as allegiance could be indirectly tapping study quality. However, there was no evidence of methodological superiority in studies coded high on allegiance, either in terms of sampling techniques, measurement strategies, analytic decisions, or accuracy of statistical interpretations. Another plausible interpretation is that authors who repeatedly find empirical support for the no differences hypothesis will eventually show high allegiance to this hypothesis. However, there was no evidence that authors had one expectancy in early research and changed their expectancy over time. It is almost as though researchers are studying two distinct, relatively homogenous groups of gay or lesbian parents: one group (studied by researchers high on allegiance) parents exceptionally well and has well-adjusted children, the other group (studied by researchers low on allegiance) shows deficits in both parenting as well as child adjustment. Future research based on adequately-powered probability-based samples, with appropriate safeguards against researcher bias, is needed to determine which of these two groups is more representative of the larger population of gay or lesbian parents.

The fourth concern involved publication bias. Almost forty years ago, immediately after the American Psychological Association adopted a resolution to support the American Psychiatric Association’s decision to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders, one psychologist reflected that the APA’s active gesture of support for people who are gay or lesbian could influence the perception of what is considered acceptable scholarship until eventually “We might begin to see research reflecting a homosexual bias- for example, that gays often function better than straights” (Morin, 1977, p. 631). Year of publication was not a significant moderator so narrowly speaking, the concern voiced by Morin that changes in institutional views towards homosexuality itself could have influenced scholarship over time was unfounded. However, there does appear to be bias. The overall estimates of effect size change markedly after accounting for publication bias. Studies on children of gay or lesbian parents which are published are more likely to report smaller differences between children of gay or lesbian parents and children of heterosexual parents (significant for two out of six outcomes). Studies published in high-impact journals are more likely to report smaller differences between children of gay or lesbian parents and children of heterosexual parents. It is unusual to have publication bias operate in favor of small nonsignificant effects. These multiple indicators of bias do not necessarily suggest any deliberate attempt to manipulate the literature. They are equally likely to be a reflection of the institutional assumptions described by Morin. Such expectancy effects and researcher artifacts, although unintentional, can dramatically and consistently influence scientific findings (Rosenthal & Rosnow, 2009).

Unfortunately, this bias is further compounded in that the samples from which most of the published work is based show smaller differences between children of gay or lesbian parents and children of heterosexual parents (significant for one out of six tests). This is important because this research domain has been strongly influenced by several high-profile studies. For example, the combined impact factors of published articles from the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (less than 100 lesbian-headed families) is greater than the combined impact factors of all the studies that have resulted in a single manuscript (over 1,000 families headed by lesbian or gay parents). Finally, studies which offer support for the “no differences” hypothesis are more likely to be cited, which is the canonical measure of scientific interest.

The literature on children of gay fathers and lesbian mothers represents the hard work and dedication of dozens of researchers, who faced the complicated task of studying a new family structure as it emerged. With the growing cultural support for gay and lesbian parents, there is an opportunity for researchers to take a more critical look at a possible disconnect between what this literature shows and what we may assume it shows. Regardless of social and political allegiances, ideally scientists strive to support parents, including gay and lesbian parents, by providing them accurate information about what the data show. It is important that scientists supplement this information with equally accurate conclusions. As one early researcher of differences between the children of gay or lesbian and heterosexual parents advised, “It is imperative that decisions that affect the lives of children be made on the basis of empirical data rather than assumptions or personal emotions” (Huggins, 1989; p. 123). It appears that some children of gay and lesbian parents are in need of help, yet without acknowledging that need, interest in and funding for such help is unlikely. The time has come for scientists to move this field of study away from overstated conclusions based on poorly measured constructs administered to non-representative samples, away from endless narrative reviews and amicus briefs based on a literature that cannot support their weight. This field desperately needs high quality data: interdisciplinary teams collaborating to maintain the integrity of the sampling approach, construct measurement, and data analysis. Social scientists will best serve the children of gay and lesbian parents the same way we serve all other children, by working together, and not letting our assumptions outpace science.

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Appendix A

Internalizing problems combines scores on the following:  internalizing problems (k = 18) emotional problems (k = 4) depression (k = 3) anxiety (k = 4) symptom count (k = 2) affective problems (k = 2) emotional disturbance (k = 1) hostility (k = 1) concerns (k = 1) level and intensity of distress (k = 1) interpersonal sensitivity (k = 1) high SDQ score (k = 1) serious emotional problems (k = 1)

Social competence includes scores on the following:  social competence (k = 10) prosocial behavior (k = 3) self-worth (k = 4) self-esteem (k = 6) social adjustment (k = 2) life satisfaction (k = 2) locus of control (k = 2) quality of life (k = 1) social functioning (k = 1) emotional intelligence (k = 1) self-acceptance (k = 1) well-being (k = 1) friendly/cooperative (k = 1) communality (k = 1) tolerance (k = 1) moral reasoning (k = 1) moral maturity (k = 1) self-concept (k = 1) self-control (k =1) self-image (k = 1) interpersonal affect (k = 1) object relations (k = 1) ego function (k = 1) independence (k = 1) sociability (k = 1) narrative coherence (k = 1) structural themes (k = 1) lability (k = 1, reversed) regulation (k = 1) learning disability (k = 1, reversed) intellectual disability (k = 1, reversed) in special education (k = 1) receiving services from a doctor or mental health professional (k = 1)

Gender development includes scores on the following:  sex-typical gender role behaviors (k = 5) sex-typical play/toy preference (k = 4) heterosexual sexual orientation (k = 5) sexual questioning (k = 5, reversed) heterosexual sexual attraction (k = 3) heterosexual sexual preference (k = 3) heterosexual choice of sexual partner (k = 3) attitudes regarding gender transgressions (k = 2) heterosexual sexual identity (k = 2) heterosexual gender identity (k = 2) heterosexual sex role identification (k = 1) gender stereotype knowledge (k = 1)

Parent warmth includes scores on the following: warmth (k = 10) aggressive/anger/harsh/rejecting parenting (k = 5, reversed) emotional involvement (k = 3) nurturance (k = 2) acceptance (k = 2) responsiveness (k = 2) interactiveness (k = 2) supportive presence (k = 2) hitting/physical abuse (k = 2, reversed) communication (k = 2) helping (k = 1) holding/touching child (k = 1) intimacy (k = 1) sensitive responding (k = 1) reciprocity/ cooperation (k = 1) enjoyment of play (k = 1) good-natured/easygoing (k = 1)

Externalizing problems includes scores on the following: externalizing problems (k = 18) use of alcohol/tobacco/other drugs (k = 4) conduct problems (k = 4) hyperactivity (k = 4) sexual problems (k = 1) behavior problems (k = 1) age at first sex (k = 1) teen pregnancy (k = 1) contraceptive use (k = 1)sexual activity (k = 1)

Positive relationships includes scores on the following: relationship with parents (k = 10) peer relationship quality (k = 5) attachment to parents (k = 4) peer support (k = 2) number of friends (k = 1)time with friends (k = 1) relationship with stepparent (k = 1) worries about peer relationship (k = 1, reversed) peer problems (k = 2, reversed) bullying (k = 1, reversed) peer acceptance (k = 1) parent-child disputes (k = 1, reversed) emotional involvement (k = 1) parental concern (k =1, reversed) satisfaction with parent-child relationship (k = 1) family support (k = 1) relationship problems with parents (k = 1, reversed) attachment to peers (k = 1)

Academic competence includes scores on the following: academic achievement (k = 2) grade retention (k = 2, reversed) gradepoint average (k = 1) trouble in school (k = 1, reversed) school connectedness (k = 1) academic competence (k = 1) school functioning (k = 1) academic interest/effort/confidence (k = 1) grades in language, math, social studies, and sports (k = 1) math assessment scores (k = 1) high school graduation rate (k = 1) school support (k = 1)

Gender socialization includes scores on the following: encouragement of sex-typed toys (k = 2)parent pressure regarding gender (k = 1) sex training (k = 1) expected sex role (k = 1) attitudes about gender-related behaviors (k = 1) gender stereotypicality of bedroom décor (k = 1)

Parent control includes scores on the following:  respect for/encouragement of autonomy (k = 4)appropriate discipline (k = 2) limit setting (k = 2) power assertion (k = 2 reversed) home-school partnership (k = 2) behavioral control (k = 2) induction (k = 3) support with homework (k = 1) involvement in education (k = 1) educational communication/aspirations (k = 1) supervising/chaperoning (k = 1) overall parenting (k = 1) authoritative (k = 1) task-centered (k = 1) teaching about morality (k = 1) monitoring (k = 1) reasoned guidance (k = 1) societal model (k = 1) problem solving (k = 1) promotion of independence (k = 1) parenting skill (k = 1) ineffectual parenting (k = 1 reversed) emotional abuse (k = 1 reversed) amount/quality of interaction (k = 1) frequency/level of battle (k = 1 reversed) avoidance (k = 1 reversed) cooperation (k = 1) indulgence (k = 1 reversed) democratic participation (k = 1) corporal punishment (k = 1 reversed) nonreasoning/punitive (k  = 1 reversed) directiveness (k  = 1 reversed) lack of follow-through (k  = 1 reversed) ignoring misbehavior (k  = 1 reversed) self-confidence (k  = 1 reversed)

 

Note. Some studies included more than one of these measures for a given construct.

 

Appendix B

Figure 1. Pearson r-based Effect Sizes and 95% Confidence Intervals for Internalizing Problems

 

Figure 2. Pearson r-based Effect Sizes and 95% Confidence Intervals for Externalizing Problems

 

Figure 3. Pearson r-based Effect Sizes and 95% Confidence Intervals for Social Competence

 

Figure 4. Pearson r-based Effect Sizes and 95% Confidence Intervals for Positive Relationships

 

Figure 5. Pearson r-based Effect Sizes and 95% Confidence Intervals for Academic Competence

 

 

Figure 6. Pearson r-based Effect Sizes and 95% Confidence Intervals for Gender Development

 

Figure 7. Pearson r-based Effect Sizes and 95% Confidence Intervals for Gender Socialization

 

Figure 8. Pearson r-based Effect Sizes and 95% Confidence Intervals for Parental Control

 

Figure 9. Pearson r-based Effect Sizes and 95% Confidence Intervals for Parental Warmth

 

Additional Assets

Showing 1 Reviews

  • Placeholder
    Marcus Crede
    0

    I am a researcher at the same institution as the author of this
    manuscript (although in a different department) and was asked to comment on
    this meta-analysis because of my experience with conducting meta-analyses in
    another field. I know very little about the subject matter at hand and will
    therefore restrict my comments and suggestions to the methodology and analyses.
    However, it does seem that the need for such a meta-analysis is well
    articulated and the topic appears to have clear scientific and public policy
    implications.

    Overall I find the meta-analyses to be well done. The
    literature search was thorough, coding decisions were well justified, the
    moderator analyses was well described and presented, and most of the analytic
    decisions were in line with what I would consider to be meta-analytic best
    practices. I also find the inclusion of all coded data and the display of
    effect sizes in the Appendix to be particularly valuable. This greatly
    increases the transparency and replicability of this manuscript. I do have a
    number of suggestions that might further improve what is already a very strong
    manuscript. I outline these below.

    1.      
    I would encourage the author to make additional literature
    searches to ensure that sources from what is sometimes referred to as the “grey”
    literature are not omitted. Searches of dissertations databases and general
    internet searches may yield additional sources. In my own field these searches
    often double the number of data sources that are obtained.

    2.      
    I would like to see a more detailed description
    of what is meant by “within-study” and “between-study” moderators. It was not
    clear to me what the difference is.

    3.      
    I would suggest a more detailed description of the
    PET-PEESE publication bias analysis. I am not familiar with it and would like
    to see some justification of this approach over alternative methods such as
    Egger’s test.

    4.      
    The author uses Q-statistics to test for
    heterogeneity of effect sizes. This is largely similar to a significance test
    and has all the problems associated with null hypothesis testing. That is, it
    has low power for small number of studies. Further, when the number of studies
    is large then even trivial departures from homogeneity are indicated as
    significant. That is, it is difficult to know how to interpret Q statistics as
    an indicator of moderator effects. Instead I would recommend reporting an
    effect size measure of heterogeneity such as SDrho value or credibility
    intervals (rather than confidence intervals). This should provide readers more
    information about the size of any undetected moderators.

    5.      
    The author appears to have not made corrections
    for unreliability in the dependent variables. I assume that these outcomes were
    not assessed with perfect measurement precision and I would encourage the
    author to take unreliability into account. Unreliability not only attenuates
    effect sizes downward but also increases the observed variability in effect
    sizes.

    6.      
    I imagine that there is relatively good
    likelihood that the examined moderators are somewhat confounded with each
    other. In such circumstances it might be a good idea to try to disentangle the
    relative effects of each moderator by regressing the observed effect size onto
    more than one moderator variable using a weighted-least-squares regression
    approach in which individual studies are differentially weighted according to
    the inverse-variance of each effect size.

    7.      
    This is not my area of research but I wonder if the
    year of publication (or year of data collection) might be another reasonable
    moderator variable to examine. My personal sense is that parenting by gay or
    lesbian parents has become more widely accepted over time such that the
    obstacles presented by society in the forms of the attitudes from schools,
    teachers, other children, other parents etc. might have be reduced over time. This
    might in turn, suggest, that any observed differences are reduced over time.

    8.      
    Similarly, I wonder if it might be possible to
    examine if the country (or state) in which data was collected might also be
    examined as a moderator by perhaps importing data on the acceptance of gay and
    lesbian parents in that country or state. Right now the researcher has only
    coded US versus non-US but there are probably a lot of relevant variability
    within the US (across states) or between other countries that could be captured
    in some way.

    9.      
    I think the understanding of readers of this
    manuscript would be further enhanced if some easy-to-understand explanation of
    the effect sizes were to be included. Something like a bivariate effect size
    illustration may be helpful.

    Thank you for the opportunity to review such a well-executed
    study on such an important and interesting topic. I have no conflict of
    interest to declare although I do work at the same institution as the first
    author.

    Marcus Crede, PhD

    Department of Psychology

    Iowa State University





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