I have just been invited to a conference in London on 22nd July called Modern Families in Britain: Is the law keeping pace with medical and research advances? It is being run by the Association of Lawyers for Children who are presumably concerned about the fundamental understandings about what constitutes a functioning family, when judges are making decisions about the welfare of children in non-heterosexual couple families. I look forward to attending, but the invitation reminded me of an important paper that has been brought to my attention recently.
The conclusions of this 2012 paper, Mothers, Fathers, Families and Circumstances: Factors Affecting Children’s Adjustment by Professor Michael Lamb of the University of Cambridge are not going to please those who believe that any family constellation other than that of heterosexual mum and dad, is bad news for children. I can do no better than to type out the abstract as an introduction to the scope of this research –
“The burgeoning empirical literature exploring the factors accounting for individual differences in psychological adjustment is reviewed. Many studies have shown that adjustment is largely affected by differences in the quality of parenting and parent-child relationships, the quality of the relationships between parents and the richness of the economic and social resources available to the family; more recent research signals the importance of congenital differences as well. Dimensions of family structure – including such factors as divorce, single parenthood, and the parents’ sexual orientation – and biological relatedness between parents and children are of little or no predictive importance once the process variables are taken into account, because the same factors explain child adjustment regardless of family structure. These findings have important social and legal implications, especially in relation to decisions regarding foster-care and adoption, as well as those concerning children’s well-being following family dissolution.”
Professor Lamb starts by explaining about factors that determine ‘adjustment’, first of all defining what he means by this term. I know some donor conceived adults dislike the word because they feel that those who would like to see them accepting their status as donor conceived without complaint, sometimes say that they have failed to ‘adjust’. But Professor’s Lamb’s criteria for ‘adjustment’ leave a huge amount of room for individual and cultural difference and concentrate more on “those who have developed (or not)sufficient social skills to get along well with others (at school, in work) to get along and comply with rules and authority and to establish and maintain meaningful intimate relationships.” Lamb’s essential argument is that these criteria of adjustment can be accomplished in single parent, lesbian and gay families as well as those with a heterosexual couple at the head, IF there is a warm, safe and supportive relationship between parents(s) and child, the relationship between the adult carers is positive and the family has access to economic and social resources. He has scotched the myth that children ‘need’ parents from each sex for optimum adjustment, “…there is no evidence that sex differences in parental behaviour have any implications for children’s adjustment, or that adjustment is affected in any way when parents do not assume traditional sex-typed parenting styles”.
On the question of whether biological ties are important, Lamb says that children in single parent (not by choice) or step families are at higher risk for adverse outcomes but this is not because of being raised by non-bio parents, but because of the trauma that children may have endured from relationship breakdown, on-going conflict in the family and/or poor social and economic circumstances. Of the increasing number of studies of those using donor conception or surrogacy, Lamb says, “They consistently show that these children tend to be as well-adjusted, on average, as children raised by biologically related parents, and that such parents are at least as competent as parents raising their biological children; indeed, many studies show that these ‘non-traditional’ parents are more competent or committed in some respects.” “Children who lack a biological link with their parents also benefit when there is open communication with parents about the circumstances of their birth.”
There is much that I cannot reproduce here, for this is a long and nuanced article, but it reinforces everything that I have come to understand as both a parent of donor conceived (adult) children and as a counsellor with a strong leaning towards developmental psychology.
I certainly hope that those organising the conference on 22nd know about it, even if the judges don’t. If not, I’ll be letting them know.
Mothers, Fathers, Families and Circumstances: Factors Affecting Children’s Adjustment by Michael E. Lamb, University of Cambridge: Applied Developmental Science, 16:2, 98-111, DOI: 10.1080/10888691.2012.667344