Commentary

It Does Matter to Children Whether They Are Raised by Heterosexual or Same-Sex Parents

Lynn Wardle
By Lynn Wardle | April 18, 2016 | 12:11 PM EDT

(AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Dr. Mark Regnerus is a University of Texas Sociologist who rocketed to fame – or infamy, depending on one’s views of homosexual parenting – in 2012 with the publication of his study about how well children are doing.  Regnerus's study was based upon a new data source: his New Family Structures Study, that involved a sample of 2,988 randomly selected Americans between the ages 18 to 39, including 175 adults with lesbian mothers and 73 with homosexual fathers. The study investigated the respondents’ social and economic behaviors, health behaviors, family of origin, and current relationships. Mark Regnerus, How Different Are the Adult Children of Parents Who Have Same-Sex Relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study, Social Science Research, vol. 41 [July 2012]: 752-70. 

Regnerus first reviewed the existing social science literature.  He found that the studies that found “no differences” between children raised by LGTB parents and those raised by intact heterosexual families were “based on non-random, non-representative data often employing small samples that do not allow for generalization to the larger population of gay and lesbian families.” In other words, the “no difference” conclusion was scientifically premature, dubious, and unreliable.

Regnerus reported that the 248 adult children who reported parental homosexual behavior prior to age 18 differed from their peers from six other family-of-origin types. The children of lesbian mothers differed especially. Compared to their peers from intact families, those children raised by lesbians reported significant risks of unfavorable outcomes in twenty-five of the forty measures of well-being. All but one of those disparities were statistically significant. Children raised by gay men reported statistically significant difference in eleven measures.

Children raised by parents who engaged in same-sex relationships were more likely than children raised in intact biological families to experience numerous negative life outcomes, including:

  • Poorer educational attainment
  • Overall lower levels of mental and physical health
  • More use of counseling or mental health therapy
  • Greater experience of depression
  • Suicide ideation (statistically significant only for children of gay fathers)
  • Experience of sexual molestation
  • Unemployment or part-time employment as young adults
  • Having pled guilty to non-minor legal offenses
  • Having lived in homes with lower income levels (statistically significant only for children of lesbian mothers)

Regnerus’ report received a lot of attention in the national and internation media, and overnight, Mark Regnerus became a target of LGTB activists and extremists.  He was subjected to vicious abuse, extraordinary investigation, and intense hostility – to a degree seldom seen in academia. Yet Regnerus’ study withstood the criticism and remains a break-through example of serious social science research dealing with a volatile, politically-charged topic.

For example, a Canadian economist with expertise in family and family policy issues concluded:

“The study published by Professor Mark Regnerus this week certainly has some flaws, and many of the comments made about it have some merit. However, as a matter of intellectual honesty, it needs to be recognized that virtually all the studies of same-sex parenting that have been conducted thus far fall far short of any standard of scientific testing.”

Another Canadian review of Regnerus’ 2012 study summarized its values, noting that: “What distinguishes this study from prior research on the same topic is the study sample, which is nationally representative, large and random.”  That review added:

“How children fare in different family forms is an obviously sensitive area of research because parents of all kinds are seeking to do the best they can. However, it is a valid area of inquiry. This study represents one of the best efforts we have to date on this difficult topic. … [T]to ignore it is to turn a blind eye to the sometimes troubling lived experiences of adult children who were raised by parents in same-sex relationships.”

Now Regnerus has published another debunking study.  In Media Gush over New Study, Only to Find Same-Sex Parents More Irritated with Their Children, Public Discourse, 15 April 2016 (seen 18 April 2016), Regnerus challenges “no differences” (between children raised in same-sex and heterosexual homes) conclusion of the latest media-heralded social science report. Regnerus notes that the study involved a nationally-representative sample, and focused properly on continuously coupled households. The study Regnerus examined asked gay/lesbian parents how often in the past month they had:

- Felt that their child is much harder to care for than most children his/her age.

- Felt that their child does things that really bother you a lot.

- Felt angry with their child.

The results confirmed that lesbian and gay parents struggle more as parents in those areas than heterosexual parents.  While the study authors tried to brush over those findings by labeling them as mere “parenting stress,” Regnerus notes that the study showed that parents raising children in LGBT homes experience more trouble with:

“health problems, emotional difficulties, coping behavior, and homework habits [problems] of children. To be sure, they find no direct effect of household ‘type.’ What they do find, while failing to admit its implications, is a strong deleterious effect of ‘parental stress’ on each of these outcomes except general health.”

The findings of Regnerus work are not unique.  Back in 1994, two other sociologists, Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, hinted at a similar outcome in their own research.  They wrote: “If we were asked to design a system for making sure that children’s basic needs were met, we would probably come up with something quite similar to the two-parent family ideal.” Indeed, most statistically valid studies have shown that children raised by married biological parent families have the best outcomes.

One tragedy of the LGTB movement has been the social/peer/media pressure it exerts to ignore risks to children being raised by LGBT parents.  Regnerus has performed a valuable service to scholars and policy makers by continuing to call attention to the defects in the social science that purports to support the “no difference” conclusion.  In reality, it does make a different, it does matter to children whether they are raised in a home of heterosexual parents or same-sex parents.  For the sake of the children, we must not ignore those differences.

Lynn D. Wardle is the Bruce C. Hafen Professor of Law at Brigham Young University.  He is author or editor of numerous books and law review articles mostly about family, biomedical ethics and conflict of laws policy issues. His publications present only his personal (not institutional) views.