Although I knew the “right” answers to these questions, I did not know how to phrase my answers in a way that my elementary school-aged children would understand and that would encourage them to accept their peers and their peers’ families in a positive, non-judgmental way. I also realized that although our family knows several gay people we had never before discussed it with our children.
Knowing that many parents struggle with discussing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues with young children, Olivia Higgins drew on her experience as an elementary school teacher and mother of two children to found Queerly Elementary, an organization that instructs educators, families, and school districts on the best way to encourage children to embrace the diversity of their communities.
Higgins suggests discussing LGBT individuals and issues with young children in a casual manner and stresses that casual, affirming comments can send the message that you are okay with gay people and encourage acceptance in your children.
There are many ways in which parents can raise LGBT issues in the context of everyday life. Some examples Higgins suggests are:
1. Identify LGBTQ friends, neighbors or relatives who are out to your children. Tell your children: “Joe and Steve are coming to dinner. Did you know that they are gay?” This might sound awkward, but many young children aren’t aware that gay couples are actually couples and not just good friends. Or, if a friend of your child’s has same-sex parents, mention that they are gay in a neutral way. Just knowing that people they know and like are LGBT can promote acceptance.
2. If you have a close friend or relative who is LGBT and is comfortable talking about their life, ask them to talk with your child. It can be as simple as a person describing how they fell in love with their partner. Chances are the story will sound a lot like the way you and your child’s other parent fell in love and seem completely normal.
3. Share stories in your life when you broke typical gender expectations and address stereotypes when you hear them. Telling children “I like football and I’m a girl” or “Grandpa likes to bake cookies” during conversation and in direct response to a stereotype your child sees can help break down traditional ideas of what girls and boys “should” do.
4. Address any hateful or discriminatory statements immediately. If your child or his friend says something derogatory, respond in a similar way that you would if your child used a negative word toward another group of people by telling them such language is hurtful and inappropriate.
Similarly, if your child hears a derogatory term used by another adult or on TV, identify and respond to the comment. A good response is “When Aunt Sue said that Mary and Lisa are freaks and shouldn’t be able to get married, that made me upset because it shows that she doesn’t respect people who are gay and think they should have the same rights as Dad and I do to marry whomever we love. I want you to know that in our family we don’t think any less of people because of who they are or who they love.”
5. Go to a Gay Pride celebration or event during Gay Pride month in June, such as the annual Capital Pride parade in D.C. There are events geared towards families each year and they offer a great opportunity to begin discussions about acceptance with your children.
6. Use current events or TV shows as a way to inspire a conversation. When Michael Sam kissed his boyfriend on live TV after being the first out gay man drafted to the NFL, you can say something as simple as “I bet his boyfriend was really proud of him being drafted into the NFL.” Similarly, discussion of the gay couples on TV shows such as Modern Family like “Cam and Mitch really find nice ways to show how much they love each other” send the message that you accept gay people just as you do anyone else.
7. Reading books that have LGBT families, stories and themes send a powerful message to young children that LGBT people are just a typical part of the human experience. These stories will also open the door to allow for your child to ask questions or make observations. Higgins recommends: “The Family Book,” by Todd Parr, “The Great Big Book of Families” by Mary Hoffman, “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parneff, “This Day in June” by Gayle E. Pitman, “What Makes a Baby” by Cory Silverberg, and “I am Jazz” by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings.
8. Respond to questions and concerns with a short, clear, and positive answer. Answer the question the child is actually asking without assuming what the larger question is. Some examples are:
- If a child asks “Can two men get married?” the answer is “Yes.” Going into details about the legality or illegality of same-sex marriage may confuse or even frighten some children who may think that it is a crime to be gay in some places.
- If your child asks a more complex question, such as whether it is possible for a boy to change into a girl you may to ask “What makes you ask that?” or, “I want to make sure I understand what your question is. Can you tell me a little more about your question?” It may be that your child is wondering if a boy in his class with long hair is turning into a girl. If your child really does want to know about transgender issues a simple answer such is still the best approach.
- Questions about why some boys like pink or why some girls like trucks can be answered with a simple “Because that’s what she likes!”
- If your child asks about how two women can have a baby they are likely not asking about reproduction but about the different ways in which families can be made. A simple answer that includes love for the child is a good way to answer this type of question. Some children might also benefit from a brief explanation of different ways in which a family can be made, such as through adoption or blending families.
Discussing lifestyles different than their on early on with children can go a long way towards promoting life-long acceptance.
The author is a Washington D.C. based mother of four.
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