Three-year old children raised in an adoptive family by two lesbian mothers show less gendered behavior than do children adopted by two gay fathers or by heterosexual couples. Boys’ behavior is less stereotypically masculine and, to a lesser extent, girls’ behavior is less stereotypically feminine. However, in all types of adoptive families—no matter whether the parents are lesbian, gay, or heterosexual—boys’ behavior becomes more stereotypically masculine between three and six years.

This research casts light on how children are socialised into gender roles, contributing to an understanding of how boys and girls develop and how they can best be supported to thrive. It also adds to the debate about gender equality and how differences between men and women emerge from early childhood onwards.

The researchers, Abbie Goldberg and Randi Garcia at Clark University in the USA, studied 181 adoptive families, 56 lesbian, 48 gay male and 77 heterosexual. They asked parents to rate how their child plays at three points: ages 3, 4 and 6. Parents also answered 24 questions about their children’s toys and activities and how they played (e.g., avoiding getting dirty, participating in rough and tumble).

Studying adopted children removes the potential for genetics to influence the results. We know from other research that children can exhibit gender-stereotyped behaviors from the age of about 18 months, with boys and girls choosing different kinds of toys to play with. These preferences become more rigid through the age of five. Boys tend to be more rigid than girls, avoiding cross-gendered toys and activities more than girls do.

Lesbian and gay parents may create different home environments from those created by heterosexual parents – buying different toys and encouraging different behaviors. This research suggests that such differences might occur more often in lesbian two-mother families than in gay two-father families. Are lesbian mothers more likely to resist stereotypically masculine behavior in boys more than gay male parents are? Could the absence of stereotypical father behavior, such as rough and tumble play, be a factor in explaining the difference in behavior of boys raised without a father? We do know from other research that fathers in heterosexual families are more likely to be intolerant of cross-gender behavior, particularly in sons.

Header photo: Richard Leeming. Creative Commons.


Goldberg AE & Garcia RL (2016), Gender-typed behavior over time in children with lesbian, gay, and heterosexual parents, Journal of Family Psychology