On Raising Progressive Children

The other day my daughter asked me why I wear a ring. I told her it’s because I’m married, and I called my husband over and showed her his ring, too. I told her that when two people get married they wear rings.

But of course this meant I had to explain what “getting married” meant. So I told her that when two people love each other very much and want to be life partners, they get married. I told her that when she grows up and finds someone she loves very much and wants to share her life with, she can get married too.

I watched my language carefully. I carefully avoided using male pronouns. I wanted her to know that she would marry someone she loved very much, but that that person didn’t necessarily have to be male.

And yet, as my daughter and I finished our conversation about getting married, my husband chimed in to add something else I had completely failed to think about:

“But if you don’t want to, you don’t have to get married. Not everyone gets married.”

Here I was trying so hard to avoid being heteronormative, but I still couldn’t avoid making marriage normative and thus excluding people who choose to remain single. And I’d also excluded polyamorous individuals as well.

Raising progressive and inclusive children can be hard, especially when that’s not how I myself was raised. It means I have to be on my toes and watch what I say. It means I have to avoid the programming in my head and instead think about what I say.

The other day we were watching a TV show and there was a sex scene. It wasn’t very explicit, but my daughter looked very confused about what was going on. So I told her that they were having sex. But of course, that didn’t mean anything to her, so I had to find a way to explain to her what sex was.

I carefully avoided the pre-programmed language playing in my head – “sex is something mommies and daddies do” or “sex is how babies are made” – and told her that sex is something grown-ups do, and that when she grows up she can have sex too, if she wants to.

Similarly, the other day she was pointing to my belly and talking about how she’s not “big enough” to have a baby in her belly yet. I told her that when she grows up – when she’s twenty-five or thirty or thirty-five – then she will be big enough to have a baby in her belly. And then, I hastily added, only if she wants to.

That brings up something else, though. I tell her I have a baby in my belly, her baby brother. But technically, it won’t be a baby until it’s born. But how do I explain this to a young child? The word “fetus” would mean nothing to her. Not saying anything makes no sense – I want her to be prepared for her new sibling. This is one where I’ve thrown up my hands and decided there’s time enough to help her understand the intricacies of fetal development and the politics of female reproduction when she’s older.

Don’t think I’m paranoid for being so careful about how I phrase things around my daughter. I grew up in an extremely traditional home and had traditional messages fed to me from the get-go. I want to avoid sending my daughter those same traditional messages, but even our very language makes that difficult to do. And rather than feeling paranoid or worrying about messing my daughter up, I see this as a challenge and an opportunity. In thinking carefully about what messages I send my daughter, I have one more opportunity to grow, think, and process myself.

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