The meaning of family

A local developmental psychologist is researching same-sex couples who are parents and finds more in common with families of all compositions 

By Suzanne Rent

Dan Séguin has a unique of experience of mixing his work and personal life. He’s an associate professor at Mount Saint Vincent and is currently researching same-sex couples as parents. 

Séguin is in a same-sex relationship himself. He and his husband have four kids together, and blended their families six years ago. Three of their children, a 10-year-old and two 16-year-olds, live at home. A 20-year-old has gone to university.

“We did it rather seamlessly because we had a lot of good planning beforehand on how to bring the families together,” Sequin says. “We find with our children, they’ve been exposed to so much diversity. I think it’s something we teach them as parents as well.”

But he often read and heard from the students in his developmental psychology classes that the parenting skills of same-sex couples were much different, and often more negative, than those of opposite-sex couples. 

Séguin says readers of newspapers, for example, can get mixed negative messages about same-sex parents. “But it’s not always right,” he says. “You have to look into the research to see what’s actually there. In development psych, [we] look for concrete evidence, and the outcomes point to positive outcomes. It’s not saying same-sex parents are any better than opposite-sex parents, but rather there are no negative outcomes for having same-sex parents.”

Where do the negative messages about same-sex parents come from?

I think it comes from people’s own ideas about what may or may not happen with respect to how same-sex couples parent. A lot of people think if you don’t have a father figure or a mother figure in the home then there must be something missing. And granted, perhaps there are elements missing, but from a research perspective, an empirical perspective, when there is a figure missing of the opposite sex, or the same sex, the parents often compensate for that missing figure, so that we don’t see necessarily the impact of that.

How do they compensate?

They often compensate by encouraging the kids to understand there is more diversity and more opportunity. And often times there is additional love that is thrown into the mix that we see. Just because a couple is same-sex or opposite sex doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be anything necessarily missing.

You blended your families. That is not unlike a lot of other families, including those with opposite-sex couples. So, those challenges are the same?

They were. We had a five-year-old up to a 15-year-old, so our family was a relatively young family. So the challenges that came, if there were any, were integrating schedules because all of a sudden we had four kids’ schedules to account for. But our integration happened rather seamlessly perhaps because my husband and I are very much in tune with the kids, so we talk to our kids a lot. We keep open communication and we’ve always told them if there were any concerns or problems you come to us, we can talk about it.

Those are good skills for any parents or any family.

Exactly. People look at us and think perhaps we aren’t the normal, average family, when in fact, we are. We have the challenges any family would have. It just happens there are two dads in the home. There really is no difference. That’s part of the reason I decided to kind of dispel the myths. My results haven’t come out yet, so I’m not sure. But from my past research, there is really no difference in terms of the challenges, either same sex or opposite sex, feel or have with their kids or even the outcomes for their kids. There have been scattering of research that suggests for kids of same-sex parents in terms of learning about diversity and education in certain areas. But that’s because those studies have looked at those areas specifically. It all depends on what you’re look at with your variables.

What have you learned so far about same-sex parenting that surprises you?

We can’t necessarily always rely on things we’ve learned in the past. Oftentimes when I am talking in my developmental classes when I am talking about sex differences, I will have a presentation of slides on what we think we know about the differences between boys and girls and what we really know about the differences between boys and girls. For instance, if I were to say, “Who’s more emotional, boys or girls?” someone’s mind is more likely to go to little girls. However, we know that’s not true. We know in the research that’s not what’s found all the time…depending on context, boys can be more emotional than girls. Sometimes we make this grandiose statement without knowing the context or how things got to where they are. One of the things I found that is surprising, so far, is we have to not necessarily bite our tongues, but we have to be cautious in making big statements about families and the composition of families and really look into the hardcore research, the literature, to see if there is any basis for our thoughts about things.

What is this research teaching you about what family really means?

Families are changing. Back in 1990 when I took intro to sociology…I remember the prof said, “You know this thing called a nuclear family,” and it was the first time I heard the term, and it’s a mother and father and two and a half children. And that was the standard back then. And that’s not the standard anymore. In that relatively short period of time, we now know that family composition is so different and family doesn’t always mean a mother, a father, and X number of children. It could be a mother and two children. It could be a father and a child. It could be a mother and a mother. What I learned is to be flexible in my own understanding. 

What have you learned that you’re using in your own family?

It’s very hard sometimes to separate it. I think by nature and by personality, I am a talker so what I do with my kids is encourage that discussion as well. And our kids do talk. They are open to communication and if things are bothering them they do talk. Sometimes I have to go back to what I know theoretically to try to solve any problems we may have in the home. But the problems in our home have been relatively minimal. We say every day how lucky we are. Our children are so well adjusted. And that’s sort of a pat on the back for the parenting, but it’s also their temperament. 

What do you think the research will mean for the children in families where the parents are a same-sex couple?

My research results aren’t out yet, but we hypothesize what we might think, and what I’m thinking is we won’t find any difference but if I do find differences in emotional components between opposite and same-sex parents it might be slightly in favour of same-sex parents, but I don’t know. But just to encourage the children of same-sex parents to recognize that diversity is fantastic and that just because your family composition might not look like your friend’s family doesn’t make it any less a family. That’s one of the messages I like get out there. 

What do you want same-sex parents to know?

There will be challenges sometimes. I had one situation in my life that was based on homophobia and it wasn’t necessarily family related and it was something that kind of shook me to the core because it hadn’t happened before. Challenges are real, challenges are there, but for parents to recognize there is support out there. It doesn’t matter if you have all the support in the world. Parenting is not an easy task; it’s one of the hardest things anyone will have to do because children are always changing. Just when we think we know our children, they will change. And I say that to everyone. It’s the same for everyone. I think one of the main messages but the challenges we face are really no different.