Do children of same-sex parents need role models of another sex?

Parenting Styles   |   Age: 6 weeks

Do children of same-sex parents need role models of another sex?

One of the biggest and most persistent concerns raised about same-sex parents is, of course, the monster-under-the-bed question of how it might affect children to miss out on having a parent of the opposite sex from the parents they do have. No matter what your family's path towards parenthood has looked like, there’s a good chance you’ve faced this question in one form or another already.

Ideas this widespread can get stuck in your head, though, even if you don’t mean for them to. Sometimes this can happen for new parents who were raised by a happy and supportive mother and father. And sometimes new parents who felt like they were missing out by growing up without a mother or father can also be concerned about the idea of passing on that feeling to their children. No parent wants to feel like their child will be missing out.

Mental and emotional well-being in the children of same-sex couples

The overwhelming majority of reputable scientific and sociological research on the children of same-sex couples - including a longitudinal study published in 2012 by the Williams Institute and a 2007 study by Abbie Goldberg and Katherine Allen - show that these children not only don’t seem to have been hurt by their upbringing. As a whole, these children also don’t seem to have been socialized that differently - in terms of gender norms and roles - from their peers who are in families with opposite-sex parents.

Both studies have the same limitation that research about same-sex parenting has had since this research started - they focus on families with two moms, and don’t do much to address how two-dad families are doing. But one of the most important ways the two studies address this fear of missing out is by pointing out that role models don’t need to be parents and that families don’t generally exist in isolation - most two-mom households have potential male role-models nearby in the form of friends, extended family members, teachers, or community leaders. The same is true for families with two dads and, for that matter, in single-parent households, too.

The fact that different-sex role models are such a key part of these studies, though, seems to say that these role models themselves are important, which comes back around to the original question.

Does my child need a strong male or female role model?

“Need” is one of those words that comes up a lot in more emotional discussions of parenting, but it’s not always clear what it means. What children need in order to survive is a lot more easily defined and less frequently argued about - largely because the limits of having a human body are pretty hard to argue with. What’s a bit more controversial is what children need while growing up to help them develop into happy, healthy adults.

Various studies suggest that having someone to look up to who is the same sex or the same race as they are can have a positive effect on children, whether this is an academic role model or a more social one. The presence of these types of figures in children’s lives - either as a closer presence, like someone they know personally, or as a more distant figure, like professional athletes, musicians, and figures from history or pop culture - is thought to be important for showing children all of the possibilities that are open to them as they grow. For example, a lack of role models is sometimes cited as one of the problems that comes up in trying to address the lack of women in STEM fields.

The other reason it can be a good idea to make sure there are male and female influences in a child’s life is just familiarity and understanding. For the same reason that many parents try to expose their children to a wide range food, making sure they meet and get to know a wide range of people with a wide range of gender-identities can help them grow into empathetic people who are comfortable talking to and spending time with people of all kinds. This doesn’t mean that all of these influences need to be as big of a part of your baby’s life as the term “role model” implies, but giving her a wide range of experiences with many different people can help her feel comfortable and confident meeting new people and having new experiences as she gets older.

So does your baby need a strong male or female influence in her life? No, probably not, but it can be a good idea anyway.

How can I make sure there’s a strong male or female role model in my child’s life?

Discussions about populating your child’s life with a varied cast of “good role models” can sound a little intimidating, and a little forced, but it doesn’t have to be. The best role models in your baby’s life are going to be the people she feels comfortable with, which means that they’re probably people you feel comfortable with and people who feel like a natural part of your family’s lives. Especially when your baby is very young, this often means people who are already a part of your life. Your siblings, parents, or friends are pretty ideal candidates for the position of “role model for your baby,” especially since there isn’t really anything they have to do besides be the positive part of your life that they already are.

As your baby gets older, you can also make a point to try to get her teachers, babysitters, or coaches that aren’t your sex - and your baby will probably start picking out a few role models of her own for herself!

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