Gay and Lesbian Parenting: What to Tell the Children

lesbian couple with young boyAll children want to know about their origins. As their minds develop and their understanding of the world grows, their questions go deeper. Toddlers ask where babies come from; teenagers want to know where they came from. It is part of their identity development. For gay parents (and all adoptive and foster parents), the answers to those questions can be complicated.

Gay parents do not become parents in the usual way (unless they had their children while in a heterosexual relationship). They may use donor sperm or eggs; lesbian mothers may have each carried a child, or all the children may have been carried by one of them; gay male parents may use sperm from both, or just one of the men. And with both gay men and lesbians, they may have used either strangers or people known to them during the reproductive process. Yeah, complicated. So what DO you tell the kids when they ask questions?

The two most important factors in responding to any questions children have are (1) understanding their age/developmental level and (2) sticking to the truth. (I am reminded of the old joke in which 7-year-old Jimmy asks his dad where he came from. Caught off guard, Dad awkwardly tells Jimmy about the birds and the bees. After which Jimmy replies, “Oh. Davey came from Ohio.”)

Very young children require only a few words to satisfy their curiosity. When your 4-year-old asks where babies come from, they simply want, “They grow inside a woman’s body,” not a sex education lecture. Later, at around seven to 10 years of age, their expanding minds may start wondering how that baby got in the woman’s body. Even then, they are usually satisfied with, “The man’s seed started it growing there.” It is not usually till the preteen years when kids get curious about sex. So, don’t overwhelm your child with what you think they need to know or what you assume they want to know. If you’re not sure what they are looking for, get clarification. Then give them the simplest answers and if they want to know more, they’ll ask.

Children also want to know about their personal story. They like to see younger versions of themselves in the family photo album. Depending on the family, they may also see pictures of the orphanage they were adopted from, their pregnant surrogate, or their biological parents. This does not “confuse” young children—whatever they grow up with is normal to them. Even when they start school, children accept differences because the adults in their world do. In fact, children have to be taught by older kids or adults that differences are “wrong.” It is then that they may start questioning their origins or the make-up of their family.

It is best to know beforehand how you will respond to your children’s questions so when they come to you, you can be calm and assured. Your children will pick up on your feelings; if you are uncomfortable, they will sense that something is wrong or that this is a taboo subject. They may even transfer that awkwardness to themselves, thinking there is something wrong with them.

Many parents, both straight and gay, avoid the truth in talking to their children because they are not comfortable with certain subjects, or they think there are things the child is better off not knowing. While every good parent wants to protect his or her child, keeping secrets makes it seem like there is something shameful that needs to be hidden. And it is virtually impossible to keep secrets in a family forever. At some point, someone is going to let something slip. Or the adult child may need genetic information, or may find out through testing that he or she is not biologically related to one or both parents. There are few things as destructive to a parent-child relationship as betrayal.

Children can handle almost anything if they are given the information by someone they trust, in a positive way, in words they can understand. You and your partner or spouse should plan for this ahead of time. Sharing the story of how you became a family can be a special bonding experience.

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  • dianna

    February 27th, 2014 at 11:44 AM

    You probably won’t have to tell them much of anything if you wait too long because there will be plenty of other people willing to fill in the blanks for you. You don’t want that to be the case. You give them their story, in a way that lets them know how proud you are to be their parents and in a way that makes them proud to be your child. That is what any child of adoption or any child period wants to feel, and it shouldn’t matter that you happen to be homosexual.

  • Dori

    February 28th, 2014 at 3:42 AM

    You have to be honest with them. They aren’t stupid and they will know that their family is different from other families. But you have to assure them that that’s okay, it just makes you guys a little more special than the rest!

  • janice

    February 28th, 2014 at 1:53 PM

    Talking about this is such an important topic today. Twenty years ago maybe we didn’t need to have this conversation quite so much, but today, in our society, it is something that we all need to realize is here and even if your family is not one with gay or lesbian parents then your own children are going to know why theirs is different and you need to have some straight forward answers ready for them.
    I try not to get all preachy but just be honest with my children and I would hope that other familes were on the same wavelength. This is not something to criticize but to celebrate the fact that even more couples now have the opportunity to have children and raise them in a matter that is consistent with what I am sure is their own family values. The strengthening of the family,no matter what kind of family this is, is so important, and I am happy to know that we are talking about things now that in the past would have been considered taboo.

  • Jock

    March 1st, 2014 at 5:43 AM

    If you are good parents, then you are good parents and that has nothing to do with whather you are gay or straight.
    Sure, the kids may want to know about their past, and that’s fair. We all want that, need that. But at the same time I think that when you are good to your kids and honest and fair, then those are the things that they mare going to be proud of and will want to share with others.
    And you show then that this is how others should be treated as well. So great life lessons all the way around is kind of where I am headed with this.

  • yasmine

    March 3rd, 2014 at 3:54 AM

    I am atill hopeful that there is a day coming very soon where no explanantion is necessary. If no differences are seen, then why should there have to be explanations?

    OK so these families could be a little different and the children will want to know their backstory, but it should never be in a way that they have to stick up for the family to prove that there is nothing wrong with the family they are with. It should just simply be that their is a little different from mine, the end.

    With stress being placed on the fact that just because they are different from us doesn’t mean that they are wrong or that there is any less love in the home.

  • Zoe

    March 4th, 2014 at 3:50 AM

    Unfortunately for many children who are adopted there are no easy answers. How do you tell a child that they have been adopted because their real mom could not take care of them? Or that they were not really wanted so they were given up? I think that there has to be some line that adoptive parents don’t cross while still being truthful with your children. I think that you focus on the love that they now have in your family and not the lack of love or money or whatever that brought them to you. There are things that they can find out for themselveslater on, and not necessarily something that you are going to want to share with a child at an age that is so vulnerable and impressionable.

  • Meghan

    March 5th, 2014 at 3:57 AM

    Whatever it is it needs to be developmentally appropriate.
    Clue into your kids and recognize what stage of development they are at and how much information they can process.

  • Susan J. Leviton, MA, LMFT

    March 6th, 2014 at 4:38 PM

    I wish I could say that a loving and nurturing family is all it takes for a child to grow up happy and confident. In truth, family support is necessary but not sufficient. Once children enter school, their peer groups have a stronger influence on them than we do. (If they are constantly teased about their ears sticking out, no amount of reassurance from mom & mama or dad and papa is going to make it okay.)However, a loving family can help children understand that just because someone wants to hurt us, it doesn’t make them right.
    Also, when families are open to discussing subjects like bullying and being different, kids can become stronger.

  • mjb

    April 18th, 2015 at 5:38 PM

    lies from the pit of hell

  • Darren

    February 23rd, 2018 at 10:24 AM

    What do you mean?

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