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On Talking with Young Children about Their Nontraditional Families

Robert Alexander Simon


  • Empirical data strongly demonstrate that children do fine in diverse family structures as long as the family provides love, acceptance, understanding, nurturance, psychological safety, and encouragement.
  • Children rarely ask questions for which they are not ready to handle the answer.
  • Parents can prepare for conversations by considering possible questions and answers.
On Talking with Young Children about Their Nontraditional Families
Carol Yepes via Getty Images

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It is no secret that the nature of families in America has changed and continues to change. A diverse tapestry reflecting what it means to be a family has replaced the image of a family as a male parent, a female parent, and their children. The “modern family” includes single parent families, same-sex parent families, multi-ethnic families, three-parent families, and, of course, the “traditional” family.

There are many reasons for the changes in the modern family. They are the result of many other changes, including changes in the divorce rate, attitudes towards same-sex relationships, attitudes about ethnicity and race, and attitudes towards single adults choosing parenthood. And then there are the dramatic advances in assisted reproductive technologies and America’s increased geographic mobility.

A quick perusal of websites such as 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.

Might it be best to not discuss with my children how they came into being and how our nontraditional family was formed? Why not let sleeping dogs lie? Won’t they feel different or odd? 

Children have a right and a need to know where they came from, how they became your children, how your family came into being, and what it is about them and your family that is both like and not like other people. Such dawning realizations allow children to begin to form their identities, their sense of who they are and how they are like and not like others. Healthy self-esteem and a positive identity are the building blocks of a happy and successful childhood. Children will normalize what you tell them if you tell them in a straightforward, loving, and supportive manner. Talk with your children in a loving manner and be sure to tell them, every day (if not more often) that you love them and respect them.

When should I tell my children about how their nontraditional family came into being?

Providing your children with this information is a continuous and ongoing process. This is because coming to understand who we are is a life-long process. The level of detail and sophistication that they are able to understand will change as they grow, mature, and are able to handle more complex cognitive and intellectual tasks. I suggest that the reality of the child’s conception and how the family became a family be a part of discourse within the family from the very beginning. Using words like “adoption,” “gay,” and “in vitro fertilization” as a matter of day-to-day reality is fine. The more these types of words are used, as appropriate, the more the child will normalize them. Certainly, when children ask questions, this is a signal that they need information and wish to make sense of something that they do not yet fully understand. Use your child’s question- asking as opportunities to provide him or her with information. Remember: not answering their questions in a straightforward and developmentally appropriate manner will more likely than not signal to your child that something is wrong or that there is something to fear or be embarrassed about. Fear and embarrassment lead to shame, which, in turn, leads to self- rejection and poor self-esteem.

What if my child has questions I don’t have answers for?

There is not a parent alive who has answers for everything! Indeed, our children will continually reveal to us our areas of ignorance and discomfort. If your children ask you a question that you don’t have the answer for, tell them that you don’t know but you’ll find out (and do find out and make sure to tell them what you’ve learned). If your child asks you a question or wants to discuss something that creates discomfort for you, that’s okay. In fact, it is bound to happen, given how complex parenting and child-rearing is. This happens to all of us. If you feel too uncomfortable to talk at that moment, tell your child that you are glad that he or she asked the question and that it is a good question, but find a simple way to defer answering, such as, “That is a complicated thing and we don’t have time to talk about it right now.” Then, sort out your discomfort (make it a priority!) and go back to your child and have the discussion.

What if I think my child can’t handle the information?

Children rarely ask questions for which they are not ready to handle the answer. Remember that children are more accepting and less hampered by the kind of anxieties that often accompany adult life. Remember, too, that if your child asks a question and you don’t answer it, he or she will fill in the blank and come up with a possible answer that is more likely than not to be wrong, to create discomfort for them, and to make them fearful or ill at ease. So, if your children ask, they are telling you that they are ready for information. Of course, be mindful of your child’s age and development and provide information in a manner consistent with his or her intellectual and emotional development. You wouldn’t answer a question the same way for a five-year-old as you would for a ten-year-old.

What should I do if someone voices disapproval about how we became a family or how our family is constituted?

Everyone has an opinion. The only one that counts in your life is yours. If you feel at ease with who you are and with your choices, then rely on this. However, when others voice misunderstanding and disapproval, you may wish to view  this as an opportunity to educate and to create bridges of understanding. You can do this by explaining that you respect their opinions as true for them and that you respect the choices they make in their life. You will not succeed in helping others embrace ideas they do not currently accept by making them wrong, criticizing them, or challenging their beliefs. You may succeed in creating “teachable moments” by being nondefensive, nonaggressive, straightforward, and self-respecting. Don’t expect their understanding and don’t make their understanding you your goal. Instead, make your goal showing them that you respect their life choices and explaining yours simply and transparently. Thank them for the opportunity to exchange views and ideas.

Should I lie to my children if I’m asked something I don’t think they should know about?

When we lie to our children, we teach them that we cannot be fully trusted. One of the most important gifts we can give our children is the gift of trust, since trust leads to emotional safety and security. Remember, too, that when we lie, we implicitly teach our children that it is okay to lie. So: don’t lie. Instead, try to answer your child’s question in a more general way that is truthful but perhaps not as direct or detailed as you might otherwise answer. Also, ask yourself why you don’t think your child should know the answer. If after thinking this through you come to understand that you can give your children the information they seek, go to them and recall the conversation and provide them with a more complete answer.