This study examines how the public perceives of five types of “atypical” parents in the United States—single mothers, single fathers, lesbian couples, gay couples, and adoptive parents—including, critically, the factors that contribute to these perceptions.
Although a handful of studies have considered attitudes toward atypical parents, virtually no studies have considered why people hold the attitudes they do. In addition, few studies have compared multiple types of parents simultaneously, to understand the direction and magnitude of people’s perceptions of alternative families.
The authors designed and conducted a national phone survey (N = 827). Respondents were randomly assigned to an experimental condition corresponding to one of these five types of parents. Then, respondents were asked how well the parent(s) can: bring up a child (i.e., an overall perception item), provide for children’s basic needs, have a warm relationship, and teach important values, compared to their normative counterparts.
Respondents are by far the most receptive toward adoptive parents across all four of these items. Perceptions of single parents are most strongly shaped by beliefs about economic resources. Perceptions of same-sex parents are most strongly shaped by beliefs about morality. We also find key gendered perceptions within these parent groups. For example, emotional considerations shape perceptions of gay couples, but not lesbian couples.
Adoptive parents are broadly accepted in the United States, but much resistance toward single parents (on mostly economic grounds) and same-sex parents (on mostly moral grounds) remains.