Talking to Children About Our Families (page 2)
The Family Equality Council (formerly Family Pride) -- the national organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer parents and their children since 1979 -- created this guide to help parents discuss their family structures with their child/children in an age-appropriate way. Like all children, our children wonder where they came from. As they grow older and gain information about biology and how babies are conceived, they may come to ask questions about the creation of our families. The presumption of a mother and father creating a child (which may be valid for some of our children) is one with which our children will be saturated through their daily interactions with children's books, the media, school personnel, peer discussions and exposure to various family models.
Very young children are not naturally inclined to make judgments about family structure. They see family configurations as a matter of fact. As children become a part of the larger peer culture, they will be exposed to other peoples' judgments of their families. The earlier children are given appropriate information about their lives and their families, the easier it will be for them to understand and appreciate them.
The information that follows is divided into developmental stages based on the types of needs children have at different ages. It is intended to support parents in responding to their children's (spoken and unspoken) questions as they come to understand who they are in the context of their family and who their family is in the context of their community.
Children Under 3 Years Old
Babies and most toddlers do not ask us questions about their families. However, they do notice what goes on around them, and those observations form the basis of their thinking about families. Here are some of the thoughts they may have:
"Who are these people who take care of me?"
Infants and toddlers are focused on developing relationships. Their families are and will remain the most important relationships they have. Their sense of self is connected to their sense of family, and their way of being in the world is modeled through these early relationships. Infants and toddlers view their families as extensions of themselves.
"I call her my 'mima' but my grandmother calls her my 'mommy'."
As children learn to talk, they need to have their significant adults speaking the same language as they are. The terms used by others to discuss family members need to be consistent with those that are familiar to the child.
Parents can inform other people about the name or names they use to refer to family members. Childcare providers, extended family and friends should all use the same language to name the members of the child's family.
"These people are fun to be with. My moms seem to be having a good time with them."
People in a child's extended family and community are important in the child's life. If possible, create a community of other gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer families similar to yours or who are supportive of your family. Doing so can create a network of people who communicate warmly and positively to children about their families and reflect similar family structures.
For example, this is possible when children who visit a family just like their own have adults who point out and reflect on the similarities between families by saying something like, "You have a daddy and a papa and so does Juan." The more they see and hear about similar families, the more it reinforces who families can include.
"Who is mine? Who is yours?"
Anyone who has been around toddlers knows that they are learning about and focused on "mine." This is a natural part of their development and of coming to know who they are. This is a good time to begin talking about who "belongs" to them.
Children need to hear about their families from an early age and be told who is in their family. They never tire of hearing who loves them and how they are wanted. Simple language and family pictures can help children become aware of how their family came to be.
When they become older toddlers, they will be interested in other families. Specifically, they will want to know who belongs to whom. Talking about the many ways to be a family becomes important, as in: "Thomas has two moms, and Evan has a mom and a dad. You and Kati have two dads." Children learn about the world through their own personal experiences and therefore, think all families are like their own. These simple statements help children develop a concept of "family" that includes others' as well as their own.
Children Ages 4 to 7
One of the keys to talking to children in this age group is finding a balance between too much information and too little information. Giving long-winded answers may often result in confusing children. Assuming that children who don't ask questions don't have questions may lead to children thinking that there is a need for or expectation of silence about their families. Here are some of the spoken and unspoken questions our children may have:
"Where did I come from? ...I meant what place?"
Responding to a question with a question often gives us the information we need to determine what it is the child wants to know. "What do you think?" or a similar question will help you understand exactly what is being asked and help the child clarify his original question.
Offering honest, simple answers is the best strategy for answering the many questions that children will ask during these years. Children will naturally push for more information if what you have offered is not enough.
Children who are adopted can be told the story of meeting their adoptive parent or parents for the first time, including the ways in which their family wanted and planned for them. Books with related themes can be used to help the child relate to other similar experiences. Donor insemination.
Sometimes adults have a hard time discussing things like donor insemination (once known as alternative insemination.) Preparing simple answers ahead of time to the questions you know are coming can help you feel more comfortable, such as: "Your mommy and I wanted to have a baby. You grew from a special people egg in mommy's body in a place called a womb."
If pressed further, you can discuss the introduction of sperm by saying, "We also needed a seed from a man, which is called sperm, to help the egg grow into a baby. Our doctor helped us find someone who wanted to help us make a baby. The seed and egg grew to be you."
Surrogacy can also be handled with a simple explanation such as, "Your daddies wanted to have a baby. You grew in a woman's body in a special place called a womb until you were ready to be born. Then daddy and I were able to bring you home to our house." Later, language like "birth mother" can be included to help the child understand the relationships.
Note: Because children at this stage associate mother and father as relationships that children have with people, be cautious about using terms like "father" or "mother" to describe sperm donors or surrogates unless you have made the decision to include them in a parenting relationship.
Children in blended families from previous heterosexual or gay or lesbian relationships need to be able to talk about their families of origin as well as the relationships they have with the people with whom they currently live. If you are able to discuss your new relationship honestly and openly by saying things such as, "Christine and I love each other and want to live together," it will help the children understand how their family has changed. Children need to hear that former partners still love them and that they can still love all their parents without hurting anyone. Allowing children to develop in their relationship with a new partner at a comfortable pace and using language that they choose (such as, stepfather, "Mom's friend," "my other Mom") gives them a sense of control over their relationships. Adults can point out language that might be suitable such as, "Do you think he's your step-dad, like Eric is your friend Emilia's step-dad?"
Reprinted with permission from Family Equality Council. © Family Equality Council.
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