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Can Children Thrive in Modern Family Structures?

What is important in families to support healthy psychological adjustment and gender development for children? Is family structure the crucial factor? That is, does parents’ gender, number, their sexual orientation and genetic connection matter for children’s development? What role is also played by other factors such as the quality of relationships in the family, warmth, levels of interaction, openness of communication and methods of discipline?

Research conducted by Susan Golombok, Professor of Family Research and Director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, in her recent publication, ‘Modern Families – Parents and Children in new Family Forms’ (Cambridge University Press, 2015), evidences that the presence of fathers in children’s lives is not essential per se. More controversially, children can, it seems, also do fine without a mum.

Child and Family Blog reports that this research examines the impact of new family forms on parenting and child development, specifically lesbian mother families, gay father families, single mothers by choice and families created by assisted reproductive technologies including in vitro fertilisation (IVF), donor insemination, egg donation and surrogacy.

For a long time, people believed that the traditional two-parent family, with married heterosexual mum and dad, biologically related to their children, was the optimum structure for children. Single-parent families or stepfamilies took second place, at best. More recent variations or ‘new family forms’, such as same sex parents have also experienced stigma.

This research into new family forms gathered over the last 35 years has shown that children in these families do just as well as children raised in traditional families. The evidence also reveals that boys are no less masculine in terms of identity and behaviour, and girls are no less feminine, when they grow up with parents of a single or the same gender.

Whilst controversial, these findings are hardly surprising. Children in these new family forms are typically very loved and wanted children with very committed parents. These parents have often gone to great lengths to have children or overcome significant prejudice. Some studies find more positive relationships in these family forms even than in traditional families.

However, the research does not indicate that all children in new family forms always flourish. It simply demonstrates that they are just as likely to do as well or just as likely to have as many problems as children in traditional families, depending on other key factors such as the quality of parenting, the children’s own personal characteristics and, importantly, the social environment in which they are raised. That includes society’s attitudes towards the family. It can often be prejudice and stigmatisation which can harm these children rather than anything in their families intrinsically that puts them at risk.

Single parent families also do not necessarily have an adverse effect on children’s development. Although research does indicate that children from single parent families (whether the mothers are unmarried or divorced) are more at risk of psychological problems than are their counterparts from homes where the father is present, this difference is largely accounted for by factors that often accompany single parenthood, such as economic hardship, maternal depression and lack of social support, as well as factors that came before the transition to a single-parent home, such as parental conflict. When the research controlled for these factors, differences in psychological adjustment between children with and without fathers largely disappeared.

The evidence suggests, therefore, that the presence of fathers in children’s lives is not of itself essential. However, research also suggests the presence of a mother is not essential for children’s well-being or their development of sex-typed behaviour. Although only a small number of studies have been conducted, the available findings show no evidence of raised levels of child adjustment problems or atypical gender development between children with two-parent gay father families and children from either two-parent lesbian or two-parent heterosexual homes. Children can, it seems, also do fine without a mum.

These findings challenge widely held theories of child development. They question the importance of the traditional family in providing boys with fathers and girls with mothers on whom to model their behaviour. Research into new family forms confirms that children do fine regardless of family structure if they are well cared for. Most controversially, perhaps, the emerging research on father-headed families challenges the centrality of the mother. This clearly has a bearing on how families make arrangements for their children following divorce, and evidences that children absolutely can continue to thrive, despite the breakdown of their parents’ relationship.

If you have any questions about arrangements for your children or any other family law issue, you can call us on 01223 443333 and make an appointment to speak to Simon, Adam, Tricia, Sue, or Gail.