My son, who is 3½, is obsessed with families. His stuffed animals come in clans, his cars and trucks in family units. When he sees characters in books or movies, a bug on the ground, or a bird in the sky, his go-to question is, “Where is his mommy?”
But up until fairly recently, his concept of family meant one mommy, one daddy, and now, one baby brother. Like ours. The fact that I, his mother, have met my biological father only once in my memory and have no siblings confounded him. But figuring out how to explain to him that families come in many shapes, in a way that would stick with him, confounded me.
Probably because, to be honest, I hadn’t really tried.
To put this dilemma in context, let me provide some background. I consider myself a straight ally: After graduating from journalism school in 2004, I spent several years working in the LGBTQ media, at an LGBTQ newspaper and at a community paper that served a Boston neighborhood with a strong gay identity. I covered marriage protests at the Massachusetts State House, wrote about the frustrations of gay and lesbian Christian Scientists and queer Star Trek fans, and profiled the Goodridge plaintiffs a year after that momentous decision. I spent a deeply affecting week blogging from an R Family cruise to Canada; I don’t even like Melissa Etheridge all that much, but I still cried when she sang “Lucky” on the last night of the trip. The freedom to love who you want and be recognized and supported in that love is incredibly important to me.
So when I had our two boys, I guess I assumed that my convictions would simply seep into their brains by osmosis. Or maybe I thought genetic predisposition would take care of it for me. Or perhaps I thought we’d have more LGTBQ friends and family near us, so that same-sex-headed families would be part of the fabric of my kids’ lives. Or—and this is far more likely—I didn’t think anything at all; I certainly didn’t think I needed to do anything. I was wrong.
My sin was one of omission: Most of the children my oldest son knows in our leafy suburb of London have a mommy and a daddy; that’s a reflection of geography and our changing sources of friends. But I wasn’t actively telling him about the diversity of families, at least not enough that it was getting through. Tossing out a, “Hey, you know some kids have two daddies, right?” every once in awhile wasn’t cutting it.
Children begin developing their attitudes toward societal groups as early as 3 years old, Deborah A. Byrne wrote in Teacher, They Called Me a ___!, her oft-cited 1995 book about strategies for dealing with discrimination in the classroom. She confirmed this to me an email. Between ages 3 and 6, children can recognize discrimination. Between roughly 6 and 10, they can begin to apply it. Other research indicates that their opinions are largely informed by the attitudes of the trusted adults around them, even if those attitudes conflict with what the child has actually experienced. Up until about age 7, researchers Sonia Kang and Evan Apfelbaum told the Atlantic, what parents and caretakers say to them matters most. At around the age of 10, children are beginning to rely more on their own experience and on input from their peers to inform their beliefs and prejudices.
Kang and Apfelbaum were mostly focused on talking to your children about race, a desperately important issue that a number of outlets, including Slate, have discussed at length. Talking to your kids about LGBTQ issues is similar but not the same as talking to them about race; it’s actually a little more difficult to find information about how to teach your children to be open and accepting of LGBTQ people.
But I needed practical help, so I turned to Dana Rudolph, better known to the LGBTQ community as Mombian. Rudolph, who has an 11-year-old son with her partner of 21 years, writes a syndicated parenting column that appears in LGBTQ media outlets across America, and she runs a popular blog with the tagline “Sustenance for Lesbian Moms.” I asked Rudolph what I, as a straight parent, should do to help my kids understand that families come in all kinds of configurations, and to generally be a better ally. “I know none of [the suggestions] is a magic bullet, and it may take an encounter with actual people that they know before it sinks in, but I think there are things that we can and should do to prepare the ground,” she told me.
Between the advice that Rudolph gave me and what I gleaned from articles and research on talking to children about race, this is what I learned:
Make the conversation age-appropriate. In a study that Kang and co-researcher Michael Inzlicht wrote about in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, they found that children formed attitudes about social groups differently at different ages. It stands to reason that how you talk about social groups will need to be adapted to your child’s age: “What this means is that, while it's important for us to talk to our children about diversity and equality, the way we do it should evolve as our kids grow,” Kang and Apfelbaum told the Atlantic. For example, my son is at an age when he’s gaining most of his information from direct instruction from adults rather than inferring it from his own experiences. He’s also deeply interested in family. It’s most fruitful for me, then, to tell him directly (and often) that families can mean, say, two mommies or two daddies.
But parents, even those with the best of intentions, have a hard time talking to their kids about people who are different than them. “The distinctive part about talking about LGTBQ issues is that people often don’t have the language, even if on some level they realize that they don’t have to talk about sex yet,” Rudolph noted. “I think people hesitate with it.” So what’s the solution? Education. Rudolph pointed to a number of resources, such as the Family Acceptance Project, that can help parents figure out what words to use (hint: not “homosexual”), but there are many more out there.
Watch your language. Language can trip us up on another level, too: Our linguistic choices reveal a great deal about our assumptions and our attitudes. Children, especially young children who are just learning language and how to use it, pick up on this. Even though I live in a country where the term partner is used with heartening frequency to refer to hetero and same-sex spouses alike, I was guilty of making linguistic choices that support a hetero-normative structure: “Mommy,” “Daddy,” “husband,” “wife,” “that little boy,” “that little girl”—these were the terms I realized I used most often to explain the world, and I was rarely, if ever, introducing any other potential ways of being. How we talk about family and represent relationships, especially in casual conversation, is part of the indirect messages we’re sending our children. “When your kid has a new friend, don’t ask ‘What do your friend’s mommy and daddy do?’ Ask what their parents do,” Rudolph said.
Make use of toys and play. Kids make sense of the world through play. Rudolph suggests making sure that the toys we buy them reflect a wider representation of the world. “If you buy a doll house, consider, if it’s within your means, getting an extra set of dolls so that you can have two moms and two dads,” she suggested.
But mental representation is even more important, I’ve found. My son recently pulled out four of his teddy bears—who are, as far as I’m aware, ungendered—and said to me, “That’s the mommy bear, that’s the daddy bear, that’s the baby bear, and that’s the big brother bear.”
“Could there be two daddy bears?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “There’s only a mommy bear and a daddy bear.”
I could have pushed it, but I didn’t. I realize that a good deal of my son’s play is about himself and his wanting to see his own family reflected back at him, and I’m not about to pick that apart. But, just as I’ve had to work to make sure that I don’t refer to each one of his totally androgynous stuffed animals as “he,” I also need to work on helping him create different family scenarios.
Play can also build empathy, a point that Kang and Apfelbaum highlight in their Atlantic article. Empathy is a hugely important skill in social development, and not just when you’re talking about trying not to raise racists or homophobes; it’s the antidote to narcissism, self-absorption, entitlement, and everything else that’s wrong with kids these days. “To develop this skill, capitalize on opportunities to ask your children how they think others feel,” they write. Playtime is an ideal opportunity, especially as they’re already engaged in imagining. “Actively prompting your kids to consider others’ thoughts, feelings, and experiences is an excellent way to help them identify situations in which someone might feel excluded or is in need of help.”
Shop for diverse books and media. To put it simply, there’s not a lot of media for children, especially young children, that portrays same-sex-headed families. I know—I looked. And I looked again. And then some more. “You’re not overlooking anything,” agreed Rudolph, “I think there isn’t a lot there.”
Too few mainstream books for children reflect diversity, period, much less diversity of family structures. When I searched for books for my son that featured children who just happened to come from same-sex-headed families, I didn’t find much online; I didn’t find any at all at my local bookstore. But they do exist—Rudolph suggested I check out the American Library Association’s GLBT Round Table, which publishes a “Rainbow List” of books with LGBTQ content, ranging from board books to YA. The list published in February 2015 includes I Am Jazz, a book based on Jazz Jennings, a child who says she has a “girl brain in a boy body,” and Not Every Princess, a book about defying stereotypes.
On the film and television front, there is even less. “I’ve been bemoaning for years that Sesame Street, for all that it really is the best show out there for showing diversity, has never taken the step of clearly showing or talking about same-sex-headed families,” said Rudolph. “I hope they do. That kind of representation is really what’s needed to show kids that these kinds of families exist, that if they don’t have them in their lives, they have at least some exposure to them that feels natural.” It is changing—Rudolph pointed to the ABC Family show The Fosters, which features two moms and their children, as progress—but there’s not much out there yet for very young children.
So, in the meantime, we do what we can.
And here’s something we can do: Bemoaning the lack of LGBTQ-inclusive media in private isn’t really helpful; doing it at the local library or bookstore, or even on Twitter (provided you have more followers than I do), is. Because one of the best ways to teach your children that it’s more than OK to have two mommies or two daddies is to be, as Rudolph suggested, “an advocate in your community.”
And a vocal one. If your child’s school sends home a form asking for “Mom’s” and “Dad’s” signature, ask that they change it to “Parent” and “Parent.” If your local library doesn’t carry the new, 25th anniversary edition of Heather Has Two Mommies (now with no crying!), ask them to stock it. Homophobia and a lack of representation is a “systemic problem,” Rudolph told me. “Part of [addressing it] is doing things in one’s own family, but part of it is working to create representation and visibility across the board.”
When I first sat down to write this article, I wasn’t sure how I would be able to express what was worrying me, especially without sounding like I’m just crippled by liberal guilt. “Teaching tolerance” comes close, but I dislike the word tolerance, because it sounds like I’m asking my children to “put up with” something negative, rather than to simply and even joyfully accept that there are differences among people.
And perhaps I’m worrying needlessly. But I don’t think so. As Kang’s research highlighted, at some point in the too-near future, my husband and I will no longer be the informing force behind our sons’ opinions, biases, and judgments. Without a strong foundation in what it means to be a good ally, they can be more easily swayed later in life. This is a real fear—as recently as 2010, 75 percent of the kids at a British elementary school that put specific emphasis on inclusivity reported hearing homophobic bullying or language. That’s not who I want my sons to be.
I cannot rely on my opinions informing my children’s if I don’t let them know what those opinions are. But I can rely on other people to step in where I have failed, and not always in a way that I would like. Prejudice is learned; some of the kids my sons will be going to school with are already learning it. It’s important to give our sons a strong base of tolerance (ridiculous word that it is) to work from, to counterbalance the increasing amount of homophobic vitriol they’re likely to hear as they grow up.
It’s obviously not too late—my older son isn’t even 4, and his concept of reality is so fluid that it admits the possibility that he has a team of feline personal assistants who fly his private jets, keep all his money, and manage his property in Tokyo. And in truth, he no longer thinks that families only come in one variety. But this largely changed after we became friends with a lesbian couple whose son attends the same preschool. It took a living example to make that connection in a way that our words, or books and toys, couldn’t.
“If even at first our kids aren’t picking up on the breadth we’d like them to pick up on, I think we have to realize how deep some of these roots go in our society, how many of the fairytales that our kids are exposed to are about the girl marrying the boy,” said Rudolph. “But I think it’s important for us to keep trying, not in a pointed, lecturing kind of way, but to keep exposing them to variety, because you never know when it’s going to hit their awareness. … We prepare the ground and hope that at some point the seeds take root, even if it may take awhile.”
And that brings me to the other thing I learned, the one about myself—because really, whenever you sit down to write about your kids, you’re basically writing about yourself. Belatedly, I understood that the LGBTQ community shouldn’t bear the burden of responsibility to shift attitudes. “We in the LGBT community can talk about it, but it really helps to have allies,” Rudolph told me, gently. So here’s what I really learned about how to talk to my kids about “homosexuality”: Being an ally takes effort. I wasn’t making an effort. Now I am.