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Co-operative Parenting, Not Sexual Orientation of Parents, Matters to Children

A new study of adoptive families recognises that regardless of whether parents are same-sex or heterosexual couples, greater levels of support for one another and satisfaction with the sharing of parenting tasks are what generate good behavioural outcomes for children. This is an interesting insight for people working with adoptive families and adds to the ongoing conversation about parenting models and what works for children.

Previous research indicates that when parents co-parent (have a co-ordinated, agreeable approach to parenting) and are supportive and warm in their relationship with their children, children are likely to have fewer behavioural problems. This new study, by Dr Rachel Farr at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Professor Charlotte Patterson at the University of Virginia and reported in Child Development, is the first to examine the differences and similarities in co-parenting among lesbian, gay and heterosexual adoptive couples and any associations with child behaviour.

Researchers observed 104 diverse families and found that while lesbian and gay couples divided parenting labour differently to heterosexual parents, what contributed to positive child behaviour for all parents was satisfaction with the division of labour, and having supportive co-parenting interactions, such as greater pleasure and engagement between the couple, and less parental conflict. So while it doesn’t appear to matter which parent does what, it does matter to the children that parents have a harmonious relationship with each other.

In his 2011 report, For Kids’ Sake, Professor Patrick Parkinson, from the University of Sydney advocated for the commitment of marriage being the preferred couple relationship within the family. While his paper acknowledges that children are particularly badly affected by exposure to destructive conflict between parents, he called for the Australian government to support the “overwhelming evidence from research…that children do best in two-parent married families”, and to review its current direction on family policy, which is to “treat all families alike without reference to family structure.”

However, this recent study by Farr and Patterson, challenges the notion that a traditional  family structure – a married, heterosexual couple with children – is the ideal environment in which to raise children.  Their research showed that regardless of family type, couples who demonstrated supportive co-parenting also had children with fewer behaviour problems.

Some factors associated with supportive co-parenting:

  • A bond or alliance in the parenting role
  • Agreement about and satisfaction with the division of jobs relating to looking after the children and household
  • An agreed and consistent approach to routines (e.g. bedtime) and discipline
  • Support for each other’s parenting decisions, without undermining them
  • Co-operation and interaction in everyday family tasks
  • Actively supporting each other in parental interactions with the children
  • Pleasure, playfulness, warmth and humour when interacting with each other and their children

Some factors associated with good parent-child relationships:

  • Sharing of love, warmth and affection
  • High parental involvement and interaction, without ‘overparenting’
  • Paying attention to a child’s cues and responding appropriately
  • Having clear and reasonable expectations of each other
  • Connection built on trust
  • Having a secure attachment – being a responsive and dependable parent
  • Prioritising time with your child
  • Good communication – listening, having empathy, being respectful, being positive and non-critical.

In Australia, the dominance of the conventional nuclear family continues to decline and the diversity of families is evident in the growth of non-traditional family structures.* Significantly, this new research puts family dynamics, not family structure, as the more important indicator of positive family relationships and good child outcomes.

*Reference - Research paper from the Australian Institute of Family Studies

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