What matters for children
Patterson studies diverse families.
Posted July 2004
Photo by Stephanie Gross.
How does the changing face of American families affect children? As diversity among families increases, Charlotte J. Patterson, professor of psychology, is studying children from varied family environments. “I try to find out what really matters for children,” she said.
In the early 1990s Patterson started the Bay Area Families Study of young children who had been born to or adopted early in life by lesbian mothers. She wanted to learn more about how they were growing up and how their experiences compared with those of other children. Although some families reported discrimination, the overall findings suggested the children were developing well. Patterson is now revisiting the children from the study to learn how they have fared as adolescents and young adults.
Her Contemporary Families Study follows the development of children who were conceived using the resources of a sperm bank, to either lesbian or heterosexual parents. She has also been analyzing data on adolescents living with same-sex parents, from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.
While children raised in same-sex parent families may encounter special challenges, Patterson said, “Most of what they experience is very similar to what other children go through,” and most develop well.
“Like other children, those who grow up with lesbian and gay parents are likely to hear derogatory comments about lesbian and gay people, and like other children, they need to learn how to cope with these kinds of incidents,” she said.
“Teasing is a part of most children’s experience growing up. Children tease one another about lots of things — being too fat, too thin, too tall, too short, whatever they can think of, really,” she said. “Research suggests that children with lesbian mothers are not teased more than other children, on average, but if they are teased, it may be more likely to focus on ways in which their family is different.”
In a longstanding collaboration with Kerry E. Bolger (MA, Psychology ’92, PhD ’96), now a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin, Patterson also studies children who have been victims of child abuse or neglect. In particular, she is interested in learning more about how some maltreated children manage to develop in positive ways, in spite of their early misfortunes. “One of the big issues we’ve been studying here is the question of how to help children move away from the kinds of risky outcomes that they might otherwise be likely to encounter.”
The research reveals that friendships help these children cope. “If maltreated children are able to make and sustain peer friendships during the elementary school years, their self-esteem stays at higher levels, and adolescent outcomes like delinquency and victimization become less likely,” Patterson said.
Patterson is an active member of the University community. She was a founding co-chair of the Advisory Board for the University’s growing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center. “It’s wonderful to have this center for students, faculty and staff,” she said. “It has been exciting to see the entire University community pull together to make it a reality.” Patterson has also served on the Faculty Senate and was a founding member of U.Va. Pride, an organization that works to promote a more accepting atmosphere for sexual minority students, faculty and staff at the University.
“Across the country and around the world, family diversity is a growing reality,” Patterson said. “I hope that our research will help to highlight the key ingredients of family life that support and nurture healthy children.”