All 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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