A new study has found that children with same-sex parents do better academically than those with different-sex ones. This is yet another study among dozens that show our children do as well as—or better than—those with different-sex parents, based on various metrics of well-being. Such studies have been vital in fighting for our rights in courts and legislatures—but often the “better than” results lead to a flurry of headlines asking if same-sex parents are better than different-sex ones. Sure, I’d like to believe in my family’s superpowers—but there’s a danger in jumping to that conclusion.
The latest study, by Australian researchers Jan Kabátek and Francisco Perales, published in the journal Demography, used data from the Netherlands, one of the few countries where researchers can link anonymous data from many administrative sources covering the entire population, and not have to rely on a possibly skewed “convenience sample” of volunteer participants. Also, because the Netherlands has had a long-standing acceptance of same-sex relationships (in 2001 it became the first country to enact marriage equality), the country offered a “best case scenario” for looking at the impact of same-sex vs. different-sex parents, without the muddying influence of factors like stigma and discrimination.
The researchers looked at 13 consecutive cohorts of primary school students, which included more than 1.4 million children raised by different-sex couples and more than 3,000 raised by same-sex couples. They statistically eliminated factors like the higher average education and lower average incomes of same-sex parents, in order to focus solely on the effects of parental structure.
The results? In a nationwide standardized test of language, mathematics, and general learning ability, given to all eighth-grade students, children in same-sex-parented families scored higher by 13 percent of a standard deviation (SD). This difference is “comparable to the advantage of children whose parents are both employed as opposed to being out of work,” they say in an article on their study at theconversation.com. Children with same-sex parents were also on average 21.6 percent more likely to enter an academic high school track, 1.5 percent more likely to graduate from high school, and 11.2 percent more likely to enroll in a university.
The researchers also looked specifically at children who lived part of their lives with different-sex parents and part with same-sex ones, and found that “Children who had some exposure to same-sex parenting attain higher test scores than children who had none,” an association that “grows stronger among children who have more exposure to same-sex parenting.”
Why the differences? The current study did not allow the authors to identify specific reasons, but they hypothesize that overcoming greater obstacles to parenthood may strengthen [same-sex parents’] commitment to parental roles.” Additionally, they say, because same-sex couples are less likely to become parents through accidental pregnancies, “this can result in more positive parenting practices.”
The authors conclude that their results “support the idea that in sociopolitical environments characterized by high levels of legislative or public support, children in same-sex-parented families fare at least as well as children in different-sex-parented families.” The Netherlands “provides robust legislative support structures for same-sex couples, such as the right to adopt children, equal access to IVF treatments and formal recognition of both parents,” they say. Countries that are currently without such support could also see such successful outcomes, “should they direct comparable efforts towards the inclusion of sexual minorities.” (This is yet another reason for the U.S. to pass the Equality Act and for more states to update their parentage laws.)
Can we go further and say that same-sex parents are better than different-sex ones? No. The authors’ judicious “at least as well as” is key. Their study has several limitations, they admit, including that they only looked at standardized testing at one point in time. Additionally, because there are few male same-sex parents in the Netherlands, the results for their children are less precise.
Also, I would add, academic outcomes aren’t everything. And although more than 70 previous studies of children with same-sex parents also show them doing as well or better on various academic and psychological measures of well-being (according to the What We Know project at Cornell University), we should not conclude that we are categorically “better.” Nor should we want to. As I’ve written before, that’s unfair to us as individuals—and more importantly, to our kids—as it sets a standard that any given person may or may not achieve. Not only that, but saying that same-sex parents are better means we must discredit bisexual and transgender parents who are in different-sex relationships. The most we can and should say is that as parents, same-sex couples are no worse than any others and perhaps have strengths in certain areas, generally speaking (and different-sex couples and single parents may have strengths in others, without any type being “better” overall).
I understand why we’ve needed studies to show that children with same-sex parents do at least as well—but we shouldn’t fall into a game of “Who’s better?” Not only does that set unreasonable expectations, but it can lead to the conclusion that certain parents should be favored (say, in foster care and adoption), simply because of the category they belong to, and not on their individual merits. We LGBTQ parents have been on the negative end of that approach. Let’s not propagate it forward.
The study is “Academic Achievement of Children in Same- and Different-Sex-Parented Families: A Population-Level Analysis of Linked Administrative Data from the Netherlands,” in Demography, 2/15/2021.