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Denise Balkissoon (Kevin Gonsalves)

Denise Balkissoon

(Kevin Gonsalves)

The 7 habits of highly effective lesbian families Add to ...

Every parent wants their child to become a self-confident, self-aware being who deals well with challenges and can get the most out of life. What if female couples have found the secret?

A series of studies in Canada and elsewhere over the past decade has found that the children of lesbians aren't just well-adjusted – they excel. On average, kids with two moms seem to be more confident and less aggressive than those raised by a mom and a dad. They are open-minded, affectionate and less susceptible to anxiety and depression.

The research is still very new, and there aren't yet any definitive long-term, single-study comparisons of kids raised by lesbian and heterosexual couples. There is even less data on children of gay dads: In Canada, almost a quarter of married lesbians live with children, while only 9 per cent of married gay men do. But the signs seem to indicate their kids, too, are at least as successful as those with heterosexual parents.

It's quite a switch from the many accusations made against gay parents, warnings that their children would be raised in household instability and into gender confusion. Just a few decades ago, a parent who left a heterosexual marriage and came out would most likely lose custody.

Legal recognition has been piecemeal by province: It was in 1999 that Alberta courts first agreed to let same-sex partners adopt each other's biological children. Gays and lesbians in New Brunswick have been able to adopt legally only since 2004.

Considering all that, and the fact that women on average earn lower salaries, one might assume that kids raised by lesbian couples would have tougher lives. And yet it seems it is not so.

What do female couples know or do that some others don't? Here are seven lesbian lessons in raising happy, healthy kids.

1. Have an equal, loving partner

Two-parent families, regardless of parents' orientations, tend to raise happier children. Two adults bring more financial resources into the house and can trade off duties to recharge.

“There's a greater demand on single mothers and single fathers,” says Paul Hastings, a psychologist at the University of California Davis. “It's more challenging to accomplish.”

He adds: “The caveat is that if the two partners are in a highly conflicted, dysfunctional relationship, that's not better for the kids. … But in a good marital relationship, there are lower rates of child stress and conflict.”

And there, same-sex female couples may have at least one advantage: While straight men are getting better at doing unpaid housework and child care, the division of labour is still far from equal. The 2006 Canadian census found that only 21.8 per cent of men did 30 or more hours of child care a week, compared with 47.3 per cent of women.

Deborah Foster, a women and gender studies scholar at Alberta's Athabasca University, has found that two-mother families are happier with the emotional support and chore-sharing in their families than are moms in straight couples.

And when things don't work out, most put the kids first: The 25-year report of the U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS), released in 2010, found that while just over half the couples separated (after an average of 12 years together), the vast majority – more than 70 per cent – went on to share custody.

2. Don't hit them

Zero. That's the risk of child abuse in lesbian households, according to the NLLFS, led by the Williams Institute, an affiliate of the University of California at Los Angeles. Granted, the sample size was small, and the 79 adolescents interviewed could have been reluctant to cast their families in a negative light. Still, it does seem likely the real level of abuse is very low.

“Lesbian mothers spank less than heterosexual parents,” says Prof. Hastings, who was enlisted in 2004 (while teaching at Concordia University in Montreal) to write a Department of Justice report comparing children from homosexual- and heterosexual-led families. “It's a pretty consistent finding.”

In heterosexual families, it is fathers who most often use physical discipline.

“Fathers tend to be more strict and authoritarian,” Prof. Hastings says, though how much that applies to gay dads isn't yet known.

Canada's Criminal Code allows the use of “reasonable force” in disciplining children. But if parents are following the lesbian example, it just isn't done.

3. Tell them where they came from

“Oh, I've known that for years,” 12-year-old Caleb Foster says when asked how he came into the world. “My uncle gave sperm and Mommy had me.”

Mommy is his birth mother, Beth Foster; Mama is her partner, Lesley Fellows (moms who aren't biologically related to their children often use the term “co-mother”). His DNA-donor “uncle” is a close family friend, but for Caleb, the word “parents” refers to his moms.

“I've got my family and I'm going to keep it,” says the Montreal karate blue belt, who enjoys playing Dungeons and Dragons.

For such families, the story of conception is rarely simple. Athabasca University's Deborah Foster and other researchers have noted that children are less anxious about their uncommon family structures when they're told early about divorce, adoption, donors or the other ways they might have been conceived.

“Most children of lesbians know at a very young age,” Prof. Hastings says.

His research found that in cases of assisted conception, lesbians were less secretive with their children than straight parents were, with positive effects on family relationships. “Offspring who don't find out until adolescence or adulthood feel more negatively.”

Mikaela Graham-Radford, 21, and her twin sister, Zoë, were adopted from Romania as infants. Through their childhoods, their mothers, Jan Radford and Lindsey Graham, were frank, welcoming questions and encouraging them to write to their biological relatives. When the twins were about 11, the foursome travelled from Burnaby, B.C., to Romania. The families still exchange photos and e-mails.

This “helped me accept who I am and not be afraid or not be shy,” Mikaela says.

Families who conceive the more conventional way also have opportunities to ground kids in their backgrounds and identities. Prof. Hastings says African-American parents, for example, who share honest history with their kids – even the painful parts – tend to raise resilient offspring who confront prejudice with education and don't let it affect their self-esteem.

4. Stand up for them – and teach them to stand up for themselves

Children with same-sex parents are undoubtedly bullied. A recent survey by the legal rights group Equality for Gays And Lesbians Everywhere found that 37 per cent of these teens reported verbal harassment, and 27 per cent reported physical harassment.

When Ms. Radford and Ms. Graham enrolled their twins in school, the couple decided to be pro-active about heading off curiosity and prejudice. “We went down to the school and met the principal beforehand and said, ‘This is who we are, this is our story and this is how we expect to be treated,'” Ms. Radford says.

The couple's two younger adoptive children, Heather and Hunter, 8 and 5, now attend the same school their older sisters once went to. None of the four ever had major problems with teachers or fellow students. “We've had a terrific time,” Ms. Radford says. “I think because we were really out there with who we were. People knew – they weren't guessing.”

Heather is at once nonchalant and frustrated when asked how she deals with classmates who wonder why she has two moms. “I say, ‘I just do,'” the third-grader says. “But they think I have a bigger story than that.”

This grade-school observation is at the root of the LGBT Family Coalition of Montreal's program giving seminars to child-care professionals – everyone from teachers and daycare workers to janitorial staff and the school principal. The classes aren't strictly about gay-led families, but focus on how to make the whole community comfortable with a variety of family types. The group is booked solid until next February.

“It shouldn't be on our children's backs to change the culture,” says the group's executive director, Mona Greenbaum. “It's up to the professionals that work with our kids.”

And that should hold true for any kids who face extra challenges – as families of kids with physical or learning disabilities, for example, have already learned.

When it comes to prepping kids on how to deal with teasing or bullying, different parents take different approaches. “Some are pro-active, some would rather wait – they say, ‘Why bring up a problem?' ” Ms. Greenbaum says. “I would never say which is right and which is wrong.”

“It's difficult, because when you talk to the kids themselves, they tell us about the school cultures that they live in. Although we don't like to hear it, they say that what sometimes works best is to beat somebody up,” says Rachel Epstein, the co-ordinator of Toronto's LGBTQ Parenting Network. “You don't want to encourage violence, but we have to pay attention to what kids tell us about their social context.”

“Somebody said, ‘At least I have a family,' to me,” Montreal tween Caleb Foster says. “That was probably the worst thing. I didn't say anything back. I went straight to the teacher, who reported it to the principal, who talked to the kid. I felt that was okay. We actually became sort of friends.”

5. It does take a village. So build one

Against criticisms that their children lack male role models, many lesbian moms can counter that their kids have an even greater variety of adult nurturers. These “chosen families,” sometimes formed when gay people are estranged from their own relatives, are often reinforced by their paths to parenting, so that Caleb, for instance, acquires a sperm-donor “uncle.”

As a result, many children of lesbian couples may benefit from a “village” effect, to recall the African-inspired proverb Hillary Clinton made famous.

Last year, the mothers of Tasha and Josh Lilliman (16 and 13) moved them into a large Montreal house with another lesbian couple who have a six-year-old and a three-year-old. Two mothers work, while two stay home. Domestic jobs are split up using a big chore wheel. Tasha also knows her sperm donor and his daughter, who she calls her “genetic half-sister.”

She doesn't feel thrown off by the arrangement: “I have an even bigger, loving family now. … It's interesting to grow up to see so many different types of love.”

Other families, too, might find it easier when parents don't try to handle everything alone, and help relieve the pressure by reaching out to friends, relatives and other families.

6. Let them make their own spaces too

Since the mid-1980s, when so many lesbians began pursuing motherhood that it was labelled the Lavender Baby Boom, support has become easier to find. Toronto has the LGBTQ Parenting Network, Montreal has the LGBT Family Coalition, and Vancouver has Queer Families.

There are even summer camps such as Camp Ten Oaks in Quebec's Gatineau Hills, founded in 2004 by a lesbian couple who felt their children could use a space to canoe, hike and camp without awkward scrutiny. The camp is regularly at its 64-spot capacity for its two-week run.

As its members grew older, staff created Project Acorn, a leadership program for GLBT teens and the kids of same-sex couples.

These “lavender babies,” now too old for picnics and play groups, have ideas and sexualities of their own, and they want to be seen as independent beings deserving a distinct space in lesbian, gay and transgendered communities – even if they're straight.

Some are adopting the term “queer spawn” as a label that is about them, not their parents.

“It influences every decision I make, in both positive and negative ways,” says Danielle Sutherland, 26, who grew up north of Toronto with a lesbian mother. “Job interviews, any time I talk about my family, what I did in school.” She wrote her master's thesis in social work at Ryerson University on the queer-spawn experience.

Ms. Sutherland and her friend Sadie Epstein-Fine have both been councillors at Camp Ten Oaks. Project Acorn energized and excited them, connecting them with likeminded youth in a way they hadn't before.

“My mom wasn't active in the queer community,” Ms. Sutherland says. “I kept having to explain myself to people, figuring out a way to get involved.”

Late this past summer, the two young women and five friends decided to start a group called Through Our Roots. Their goal is to make a documentary, hold conferences and events and generally give offspring a voice.

They know the term queer spawn isn't to everyone's taste. “That's why I like it,” Ms. Epstein-Fine says. “I identify with a term that's provocative, rather than something like ‘rainbow children.' ”

As with any identity label, there will be those who don't identify with it: Brandon Gibson-Jones, a 15-year-old with two fathers who lives in Bowmanville, Ont., says he doesn't feel closer to his set of friends with two moms than he does to other peers.

And like every parent, gays and lesbians have to accept that their kids' affinities might be different than their own. Dedicated parents who chauffeur offspring to early-morning lessons will some day have to accept that playing hockey or dancing ballet might not be how their children see their own futures

7. Trust that they love you – even when you stress them out

Ms. Epstein-Fine was 10 when she testified in the 2005 court case that granted Ontario citizens the right to list two mothers on a birth certificate. Growing up, she felt like a “poster child,” unable to commiserate with friends about parent-child friction.

“You can't talk about anything in your family that could be negative,” she says. “It wasn't my moms saying I had to do that – it was me feeling that pressure.”

One of her mothers is Rachel Epstein, who heads up Toronto's Parenting Network and edited Who's Your Daddy, a 2009 collection of essays on queer-parented families. “What we find is that our kids are protective,” she says. “Sometimes they don't tell us because they don't want to hurt us.”

Prof. Hastings says adolescent children do sometimes pressure their parents to be less “out.” But, of course, the adolescent tendency to pull away from parents is well-documented in studies of child development, as tweens and teens establish individual identity and seek peer approval. Kids are mortified if dad or mom tries to adopt their slang. And queer spawn say choosing to be less open about their families, that doesn't mean they're ashamed.

“I don't feel like I'm keeping a secret. I feel that I'm discreet about my personal life,” says “Darius,” a 13-year-old who prefers not to use his real name because he is not telling his classmates that he has lesbian parents.

Darius was more open in his elementary school, and he feels he was ostracized because of it. “People were avoiding me,” he says. “I often had lunch alone. I used to find it very stressful.”

So when he started junior high, he chose not to tell anyone about his moms. He doesn't have friends over to his house – not even his closest friends know.

“I think I made the right choice,” he says. “It's been my best two school years.”

Even though Darius isn't fully open about his life, he's not upset. He's never wished that he had a different type of family. “I love them, and that's it,” he says of his moms. “I just love them.”

Denise Balkissoon is a writer based in Toronto.

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