Parenting LGBTQ+ Kids Can Accelerate Adult Development
Research reveals five ways that raising LGBTQ+ kids catalyzes maturity.
Psychology Today cross-published this essay.
- A survey of 142 parents of LGBTQ+ children revealed their lives were positively transformed in five major ways due to their child’s influence.
- Parenting LGBTQ+ children has been shown to increase personal growth, positive emotions, activism, social connection, and relationships.
- Parenting an LGBTQ+ child can reduce controlling parenting dynamics, increase a sense of moral relativism and diminish political apathy.
Poet Ocean Vuong healed generations when he reframed queerness as a gift rather than a curse, writing, “Being queer saved my life. Often we see queerness as deprivation. But when I look at my life, I saw that queerness demanded an alternative innovation from me. I had to make alternative routes; it made me curious; it made me ask, ‘Is this enough for me?”
Researchers captured this empowering counternarrative in a study that explored, at the broadest level, how parenting can shape adult development. Existing research shows that while children learn from parents, parent-child interactions also present parents with opportunities for positive transformation and growth. These instances can increase cognitive flexibility and creativity, emotional sensitivity, and attentiveness to personal values (Dillon, 2002). Furthermore, facilitating a child’s development can result in deepened connections with others, greater self-acceptance and authenticity, and stronger perspective-taking skills (Luvor, 2011).
The Question: Why Parents of LGBTQ+ Children?
First, “while much of the literature focuses on the struggles of some parents during and after a child’s coming out, for many, and perhaps most parents, the experience inspires positive transformation and growth.”
This first rationale speaks to how queerness is rarely ever portrayed as an asset to communities, families, schooling, spirituality, history, the future, etc. Below, however, quotes from parent interviewees attest to how queerness can cultivate the courage, diligence, and empathy necessary to strive for creating a more equitable and inclusive society — one not built upon a foundation of exploitation, hierarchy, and a pervasive “us v. them” ideology.
Secondly, the authors of this study posit that raising an LGBTQ+ child — specifically awakening to the danger and hypocrisy of society’s heterosexism and transphobia — might offer a rigorous, yet generative, opportunity to mature, as one grapples with complex questions concerns ethics, human rights, and personal and philosophical values.
Other researchers agree. Manners, Durkin, and Nesdale (2004), for example, theorized that a key to facilitating adult development is the sort of engagement with complex and novel experiences that leads to the restructuring of one’s assumptions, mental frameworks and schemas, and reference points. Pfaffenberger (2005) also identified a similar developmental path to reaching one’s potential: confrontation with life experiences that results in rejection of widespread, yet oppressive, social norm, following in‐depth self-exploration.
Thematic analysis of an open-ended online survey with 142 parents of LGBTQ+ children — 83.8% mothers and 16.2% fathers — revealed five areas of positive transformation and growth in connection to their child’s influence: Personal Growth (open-mindedness, new perspectives, awareness of discrimination, and compassion); Positive Emotions (pride and unconditional love); Activism; Social Connection; and Closer Relationships (closer to child and family closeness).
Regarding personal growth, parents described the overall benefits of stretching themselves and stepping outside of their comfort zones. The result was becoming more open to new experiences and perceiving growth in themselves. One 68-year-old mother of a queer female reported increased appreciation for difference, as well as a subsequent reduction in self-righteousness:
“In every way I can think of, I stepped way outside of my comfort zone, and really, out of my own closet, to become educated, meet new people, confront ignorance, and expand my own acceptance, understanding, and celebration of difference. My daughter’s coming out and its implications affected me in ways I never expected. It changed how I think about people whose lives and views of the world are vastly different. I have to question (and then revise) my opinions and judgments — not just about LGBT people, but universally. I’ve become insecure, less certain that I’m ‘right’ — and that’s very positive indeed.”
Concerning “awareness of discrimination” and “deepening compassion,” the last two sub-categories of personal growth, interviewees revealed that parenting an LGBTQ+ child led to increased open-mindedness toward all minoritized groups, as well as a more frequent re-evaluation of their own biases and prejudices. A 78-year-old mother of a gay male reported, “We were forced to re‐examine cultural ideas that we had never questioned before, and we found them to be limiting and unjust. This led us to a sense of freedom, the quality of which we had never dreamed existed.”
Parents also mentioned becoming more flexible, or less rigid in their views. A 53-year-old mother of a lesbian disclosed, “[My daughter] has made me more aware of people’s feelings, which helps me to not pigeonhole people.” Similarly, a 77-year-old father of a gay male shared that having an LGBTQ+ child “has led my wife and I to rethink many of our biases. We are far more sensitive to the inequalities faced by other marginalized groups and recognize the advantages that white heterosexuals have in our culture.”
Among 33% of parents, increased personal growth correlated with increased levels of parental activism, and this particular subset of parents also reported that activism gave a new purpose to their lives. A 75-year-old father of a gay male recounted, “Working for a cause that we strongly believe is right has given added purpose and meaning to our lives.” One 68-year-old mother of a queer woman illustrated the vast range of activist endeavors taken up by parents, stating, “I started to share my experience with friends and acquaintances. I wrote letters to local media, appeared on local public access TV and public radio, and participated in five years of training for school personnel under Safe School grants from the state.”
Many parents also reported enhanced positive feelings toward their child, specifically a sense of pride and unconditional love. Responses suggested that open-mindedness led to realizing their child’s strength, despite the cultural stigma and institutional/systemic barriers.
A 56-year-old mother of a lesbian reported, “We know her life will be whatever she wants it to be and we are proud of all she has accomplished.” And a 57‐year‐old mother of a gay male echoed this same sentiment, sharing, “We are proud of our son and he enriches our lives in so many different ways. Any worries we may have had have been replaced with the expectation of a bright future.”
For some parents, positive emotions increased over time, whereas for others, they were an extension of prior feelings. The latter camp expressed puzzlement that a parent would ever consider not loving their child unconditionally, under any circumstances. “I will always love him. I know who he is: a kind, intelligent, sensitive lover of beauty and art and literature. He is a gift to the world,” said one 68-year-old mother of a gay male.
Social Connection and Closer Relationships
Finally, parents associated having an LGBTQ+ child with increased closeness to their child. A 73‐year‐old mother of a gay son attributed this closer bond to cultivating more transparency with him, stating, “When he [my gay son] ultimately trusted me with his deeper truth, it only deepened our relationship.” Another parent, a 61‐year‐old mother of a gay male connected the closer connection to the shared experience of confronting cultural sigma together, sharing:
“Going through the experiences of my son’s coming out, facing stigma at times with him, bonded us — strengthened us — as a family — taught us all how to cope better, stand up for ourselves, face a sometimes hostile world. We can now talk about just about anything since the bonding we did during the early coming out period of my son.”
The significance of these findings lies in the fact that the interviewed parents indicated that their LGBTQ+ children enhanced and enriched their own lives and well-being. Moreover, their fidelity spoke to the innate assets and strengths of their LGBTQ+ child, not just the sentimental notion of “a mother’s love.” The choice was intentional and, according to what they expressed, felt genuinely rewarding and worthwhile, even enlightening and healing.
Across responses, I noted three major psychological shifts within the parent participants.
First, the parents shed controlling and overbearing power dynamics that are inherent in patriarchal approaches to parenting. They became receptive to learning from their children, as a result of not seeing them as emotionally and intellectually inferior. Nor did they seem to regard their children as human projects expected to become replicas of their parents, and devoid of autonomy.
Second, the parents embraced contextual thinking and moral relativism, rather than the legalistic moral absolutism characteristic of religious fundamentalism. While they admitted to needing to unlearn many biases and prejudices, they also suggested that adding nuance to their moral compass facilitated this process. For a hyper-religious parent, an example might be considering contextually relevant scriptures, such as 1 Timothy 5–8 — “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” These compassion- and human-centered scriptures might offer the “disequilibrium” necessary to evolve and mature beyond the selfishness of Biblical literalism.
Lastly, the parents transcended individualistic political apathy. My activism and clinical work have shown that many LGBTQ+ folks feel marginally tolerated by supportive relatives, rather than fully accepted. This sentiment can often be traced back to the fact that parents often cope by viewing their LGBTQ+ child as exceptional — the circular logic of, “My child won’t face the same hurdles as other LGBTQ+ people, because they’re my child.” As a result, many parents of LGBTQ+ folks overlook how their child’s livelihood is implicated in the fate of the broader LGBTQ+ demographic.
And yet, arguably the most significant takeaway from this study is the parents’ realization that they could’ve cared a lot more about anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice and discrimination before they felt the sting personally.
Araya Baker is a counselor, suicidologist, and policy analyst. Baker holds a M.Phil.Ed. in professional counseling from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and an Ed.M. in human development and psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Learn more at arayabaker.com.
Parents In Process via The Reformation Project, for Christian parents of LGBTQ+ children
PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays)