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What your grade-schooler knows — and needs to know
School-age kids know something about how babies are made, and being in school opens their world to many different family models — single-parent, blended, adoptive, gay- and lesbian-parented, headed up by a grandma instead of a mom and dad ... the whole array.
"As a general rule, kids love their parents and think their family is the best," notes Arlene Lev, a family therapist and author of The Complete Lesbian and Gay Parenting Guide. "But in the 5- to 8-year-old range, they also start to get that other people have opinions." Starting in kindergarten, the attitudes of their peers and other adults start to really influence them. Grade-schoolers are curious and likely to have a lot of questions.
Whatever your own family looks like, don't shy away from these discussions; they'll help your child better understand the world and his place in it. The messages to focus on are that families come in all shapes and sizes, that your child is loved, and that no one type of family is better than another.
How to talk to your grade-schooler about different types of families
Think it through. Clarify your thoughts about how you feel about your family and other configurations of family, and think how you'll phrase the answers to questions that are likely to arise. Even if you've provided some basic information before, your child is likely to probe for more details as he grows. For example, an adopted 8-year-old might want to know not just what adoption means but where you traveled to adopt, how long you stayed there, whether he has any other siblings, and what happened to his birth mother.
Discuss it whenever the topic arises naturally. No need to sit your child down for a "talk." Use children's books, magazines, TV shows, or real families you know to spark discussion more naturally at the dinner table, in the car, or on the soccer field. Let your child know he can come to you with questions. "All parents should talk about the fact that there are different types of families," says Lev.
Keep answers straightforward. Even though grade-schoolers are beginning to understand biology and the different family models, don't treat them like little adults. They need a balance of information that's not too simplistic but that doesn't go over their heads either. "You can give much too much information," says psychologist Leah Klungness, and confuse your child. If your child asks a question about your family or others, first find out why he wants to know. (One way to do this is to ask what he thinks the answer to her question is.) Then start out with a reminder that every family is different but whole, and respond to the specific question asked.
Correct misconceptions gently. Grade-schoolers are very curious and have vivid imaginations. In some cases, a school-age child might make up wild stories because he doesn't have enough to go on, as in the case of abandonment. "People will say, 'Where's your dad?' and kids say, 'He was killed in an accident,'" even if that's not true, notes Klungness. In that case, you haven't given your child enough information and need to go over how your family came to be the way it is with more detail: "You have two moms instead of a mom and a dad. And we both love you very much."
Be positive. If your child returns from a sleepover talking glowingly about a family situation that he doesn't have — one with a dad, a mom, or lots of siblings — take it in stride. If you get upset or defensive, your child will pick up on it. Instead say, "It sounds like Sylvie has lots of fun with her daddy," or "I bet that's a lot of fun."
Tell the truth and nothing but. It might be tempting to tell your child little white lies about where he came from or where an absent parent is — especially if a noncustodial parent has abandoned the family or has struggled with drugs or mental illness. But making up a story is folly, say experts. In the age of the Internet the truth will no doubt come out eventually. That said, you don't have to get into the nitty-gritty if your child isn't ready to hear it. Rather than telling your child that his mother is strung out and homeless, you could keep it to "I'm not sure where she is, but you should know she loves you very much." Or if you're not sure that's true, add something else reassuring that you do believe: "She was so excited when you were born that she cried."
Repeat. Know that you'll likely have to return to the topic of family, providing more detail, over the years. If your child asks about the topic over and over, he's simply trying to get more specifics. Remind your child that you love him and that a family is made up of the people who love him most.
Answers to common questions about types of families
"Why does Chris have a mom and a dad?" Or, if you're in a traditional family the question might be, "How come Susie has two moms?" Begin this answer with something like "Everybody's family is different. That's what makes families so wonderful and special." Talk about the different types of families you know to illustrate. The point is to celebrate differences.
"What does 'gay' mean?" Find out why your child is asking the question so you can respond to any specific situation he's encountered. Use this opportunity to not just answer the question at hand but convey values of tolerance and acceptance in your response. Say something like "Gay means that a daddy can love another daddy just like a mommy loves a daddy." Also take this as an opportunity to be clear about the fact that words like fag or homo — which your child might hear in school — are not acceptable.
"Why was I adopted?" Explain just how much you wanted a child and how you felt when you met your child for the first time. Include any details about travel or other interesting facts that your child can understand. Your tone and enthusiasm are as important as the particulars.
"Am I going to have two daddies now?" This question may come from a child in a blended family. School-age kids need to hear about their family of origin as well as their current clan, so talk about both in a positive way. Distinguishing between a "mom" and "stepmom" or "dad" and "stepdad" gives your child the language to use.
"What is a sperm donor or surrogate mom?" These are complex topics for grade-school kids, but you can offer a relatively simple answer: "You grew from my sperm. To make you, we needed an egg, so you grew in a woman's body and then we brought you home to live with us."
Be tuned into, but calm about, any teasing. Parents from nontraditional families might worry about their kids being teased or even harassed in school. But teasing is less common and less tolerated by schools these days. Still, be on the alert for any harassment or bullying and find out how your child's school deals with it. As kids mature, they may not tell parents about every incident, especially if you get very upset. So keep your cool if something does happen and ask questions like "How did that feel?" and "What did you say when your friend said that?"
Arm your child with responses to intrusive questions. For example: "My parents love me very much but they don't live together" or "I have two dads instead of a mom and a dad." If questions from others persist to the point where your child feels uncomfortable, teach him to say, "Just ask my dad."
Read books about family types. For your grade-schooler, check out Who's in a Family, On the Day His Daddy Left, and The Red Thread: An Adoption Fairy Tale.
Join or launch a support group or club for families like yours. Ask about single parent, gay/lesbian parent, and other groups at a local parenting resource center, community center, or religious organization. The Rainbow Babies is a website for lesbian/gay/bisexual parents, and Single Rose is for single parents.