A quick perusal of websites such as Amazon.com reveals an abundance of books and narratives for children that help explain the nontraditional family. The emergence of so many of these types of children’s books is one striking kind of evidence of the evolution of the family and the morphing of the concept of family into a kaleidoscope of nontraditional forms. And, despite the insistence of those who find these changes difficult to accept, the evidence accumulated from empirical studies does not support the idea that children fare best when raised in the traditional, nuclear, heterosexual family. For example, recent evidence in a study reported by the American Psychological Association indicates that children raised by same-sex parents do at least as well, if not better, on a variety of psychosocial outcome measures as children raised in traditional families. Indeed, the accumulated empirical data strongly demonstrate that children do fine in a wide array of family structures so long as the family provides the child love, acceptance, understanding, nurturance, structure, psychological safety, and encouragement.
Whenever there is change, there is resistance to change. Change brings with it unknowns and unintended and unanticipated consequences. When it comes to the family, adults tend to worry most about children and the consequences of change for children. Adults may be concerned about how children will feel about being raised in a family that is “nontraditional,” one that reflects America’s changing social structure, cultural values, and even religious mores.
All of this, of course, begs the question: What is a family? According to the current online edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “family” is “the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children; also: any of various social units differing from but regarded as equivalent to the traditional family.” This definition reveals that there is no one meaning for family. Family is, instead, a flexible concept that may mean something different to different people. The meanings, though, share something in common: a family is a group of people that creates a sense of belonging.
While it may be true that the definition of “family” is flexible and varies, it is also true that there are some constants. Children, especially young children, gain a sense of well-being from seeing themselves as being like other people while at the same time feeling safe and secure with who they are and where they belong. Embracing how we are alike and how we are different is a fundamental key to mental health, resilience, and self-esteem. Families are made in different ways. But all children need to understand who their family is; to feel comfortable within their family because their parents love them and help them feel wanted, accepted, and secure; and to know that their family is something they can count on.
I recall being asked several years ago by two men who were considering adopting an infant and starting their family if their child would not feel awkward and badly because he didn’t have a mommy, whereas the other children he would grow up with would have both a daddy and a mommy. I assured these two prospective parents that all children at times experience themselves as somehow different and somehow apart from others, no matter what their life circumstances are and what challenges they may face. I explained that one of the key skills for parents, no matter how they became parents, is being able to help their children understand themselves, accept themselves, and come to appreciate that being who they are is far more important than being just like everyone else. Put another way, helping children come to understand, appreciate, and value their family, no matter what kind of family they are a part of, is no different than helping children develop positive self-esteem and a good sense of themselves.
Fundamentally, helping children understand the answers to such questions as where they came from and how their family became a family requires the same kinds of skills needed to help children cope with the myriad of questions and challenges they will inevitably face as they grow. The discomforts you may feel about dealing with your children and the reality of your family probably reflect some of your own misgivings, your own confused feelings, and your own lack of understanding and acceptance of these realities. Before you embark on creating a family, be sure to be honest with yourself about how you feel and what your concerns are. Sort them out before you become a parent. To the extent that you are comfortable and at ease, you’ll be much better at successfully helping your children understand themselves.
With this caveat in mind, I would like to offer the following possible questions and answers for your consideration.