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If you're a single parent, you may be told that kids need role models who share their gender, but not yours, to become fully functional adults. Does that mean your child is at a disadvantage if you don't have an opposite-sex parent in your home?

Children and adults alike learn a lot by imitation — very diverse things like dancing, how to write a proper introduction to a school paper, how to deal with conflict, and what slang words to use can all be picked up by observing how people around us act. 

Single parents, especially those who don't have an opposite-sex ex partner in their lives, and same-sex parents may find themselves wondering whether their children need opposite-sex role models to emulate, people who share the child's gender but not their own. Others in their lives will also, almost certainly, voice this idea at some point — "you need a man (or woman) around", "boys need fathers", or "how will your daughter learn about relationships with men if you're not in one?", for instance.

So, is there any truth to this? Do male children need male role models to learn to be a good man, and do female children need female role models to learn to be a good woman? Do male children need female role models to be able to interact with women properly, and do female children need male role models to know how to interact with men?

What are role models, anyway, and do children need them?

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry defines a role model simply as "a person who serves as an example by influencing others". They're people a child looks up to and that can offer either a positive or negative example, instilling, for instance, a love of science or fitness, or the idea that smoking and drinking are cool. 

All sorts of people can serve as role models for children, and this will include those your child knows personally and those they don't — parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, singers, artists, models, famous scientists, fictional characters, writers, teachers, coaches, and on.

Though children typically spend their younger years wanting to be just like a parent, they then grow up in search of their very own identities. Even at this point, your child is silently (or not so silently) watching you go about your life, absorbing aspects of your philosophy and behavior — no matter what you do, you'll be a significant "role model" in your child's life, in the sense that you're literally modeling a role.

Helping your children decide who to emulate and what kinds of role models to steer clear of can be part of this job. If you're pretty cool with who your child looks up to because you think they promote healthy values, you can discuss this. If you're not, you can also talk about what you're seeing in someone who has become a role model to your child that you are very much not on board with. 

Do children need models who share their gender but not yours?

"Need" is, let's face it, a relative term in this context — not, for instance, on the same level as the need for food and water. They do come in handy, however.

One study showed that girls were less likely to drink alcohol if a role model of the same sex shared anti-alcohol messages, while boys had a lower risk of drinking if a male role model delivered the message, to name one example. It's not that far of a reach to also assume that children may relate better to someone of the same sex or gender when it comes to other important life choices, from motivation to study hard to relating to romantic partners in healthy ways. 

The good news for single and same-sex parents? Potential role models who don't share your particular gender are everywhere, though whether your child looks up to them and seeks to emulate them is mostly up to them. Single mothers don't need a male partner, or father figure, living in their home for their sons to be able to have male role models, and the same holds true for single dads with daughters.

What you really wanted to know, though, is whether girls need to be around women, and boys around men, to become fully functional women and men themselves. One study showed that being raised by lesbian parents has no impact whatsoever on whether a child identified more with masculine or feminine traits, nor even on their perception of gender roles.

The authors wrote: 

"We found no empirical evidence that the associations between gender role traits and adolescent psychological well-being were different for girls and boys, or for those with or without male role models. These findings contradict the claims of scholars who, based on  social learning theory, assert that male role models, particularly for  boys, play a critical role in the development of healthy psychological well-being."

Don't children need their father (or mother, though)?

Children get the best chance to thrive when they're raised in stable, loving, and emotionally healthy families that don't struggle with severely stressful events on a regular basis. Two-parent households do come with some advantages, things like:

  • Having two people to potentially provide financially for a child
  • Sharing the considerable duties of parenting among two people may reduce the risk that the child only has access to a stressed-out parent
  • With two parents around, there may be higher odds that a child gets to spend more quality time with at least one of them

Research makes it quite clear that having two good parents offers advantages over having just the one, but also that having one good parent trumps having two neglectful or abusive ones. This, itself, has little to do with the gender of a parent, and more with just having access to more caring people. 

The bottom line

Unless you live in a one-gender only community (and I'd have to look to something as far-fetched as The Walking Dead's Oceanside colony, which was nearly exclusively female because most males had been murdered, to see how this would even be possible), your child will have role models that don't share your gender. Your child will also, inevitably, pick up on expected gender roles and ideas about what it means to be a man or woman in the society they live in — because they live in that society.

You don't need a man or woman living inside your home to enable this process. Because fostering positive relationships with people who share your child's gender and provide healthy examples for them does seem to have some impact on your child's emotional development, though, working on this is always a good idea.

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