How to Talk to Young Kids About Same-Sex Relationships

How to Talk to Young Kids About Same-Sex Relationships April 23, 2014

The following post is by Jason Bilbrey, our Director of Pastoral Care here at The Marin Foundation.  You can read more from Jason at his blog,

It’s been a few years since our daughter, Norah, first encountered boys holding hands and girls kissing. That was in the summer of 2011, when our family moved from seminary housing out in California to a little place above a gay bar in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood. Exposure was just unavoidable, from the very kind, affectionate gay couple living downstairs (“the boys,” as Norah referred to them), to the colorful window display at the shop across the street featuring toys that were decidedly not for kids…and of course the prayer circles formed by suburban high schoolers on the sidewalk outside our building, asking God to “reclaim his territory.”

Norah saw all of this with wide little eyes. We weren’t trying to avoid exposure, but we weren’t seeking it out, either. Moving to Boystown presented my wife and I with a question we hadn’t yet considered as parents: How and when would we step in to explain to our daughter what she was seeing? What was the healthiest way to introduce Norah to the concept of same-sex relationships, and the debate surrounding them, in a way that didn’t demonize anyone–neither her gay neighbors nor her traditionalist grandparents?

As a write this, I realize what a luxury it is for us to decide how she encounters all this. My friends who have children with a same-sex partner, or whose own child identifies as gay, don’t have this luxury. Their kids encounter and perhaps pay special attention to conflicting and often antagonistic views of homosexuality all the time: on the news, on vacation, at school, on the internet, at church. Like a Palestinian girl living in Israel, they don’t have the luxury of blissful ignorance. And they’ll contend with messages and ideas from society that are way beyond their ability to process. (Though I should say here that I know many, many families with queer members who have done an amazing job of insulating their children from persecution and reinforced the bonds of love within their homes.)

I’ve seen how this challenge has played out in conservative circles as well. Some discussions of how to peacefully and confidently engage in conversation with the LGBTQ community are preceded by a nervous disclaimer to parents: “This might not be suitable for young ears. How about we send the kids to play in another room.” The question often posed by parents in these groups is, “How do I communicate my values to my kids–that we believe same-sex relationships are wrong–while also communicating that this is a touchy issue, and that they shouldn’t just repeat those beliefs willy-nilly?”

This concern is completely justified. With the national epidemic of school-aged bullying and suicide today, it seems increasingly clear that the messages heard at the dinner table and from the pulpit are processed, expressed and received with a heightened sense of significance by kids on the bus ride to school. Stigma is especially internalized, by both the oppressed and the oppressor, at that age. At the same time, conservative parents often feel a responsibility to “train up their child in the way they should go,” and not shy away from teaching difficult or counter-cultural values.

With all these concerns in mind, here’s the playbook my wife and I are working from with our own daughter:

1. There’s a big difference between communicating reality and value. That question I phrased at the beginning, “What was the healthiest way to introduce my daughter to the concept of same-sex relationships, and the debate surrounding them, in a way that didn’t demonize anyone?” is probably misleading because it implies that you have to introduce the concept and the debate at the same time. But you don’t. You can say, “there are some kids with two mommies or two daddies instead of a mom and a dad.” That’s just a reality. Whether it should be a reality is a totally different conversation. But communicating a reality without attaching value enables parents to introduce things to kids in an age-appropriate way without closing the door to further conversation. This is something that we do all the time with other difficult or nuanced situations. We say “this classmate lives with grandma and grandpa instead of mom and dad” when, say, both parents have died. Your children don’t need to have their perceptions of reality loaded with heavy meaning at an early age.

2. Kids are really good at observation. Check any parent’s Facebook page for a list of their child’s observational comedy. (Our latest entry with Norah, remarking on her Easter basket: “I know that its from you, not the Easter Bunny. And I know that its all stuff from the Dollar Tree.”) And with that observation comes questions. It’s obviously still up to parents to know how much information to give when they ask, but letting kids set the pace for their own exposure to the world is, I think, a good rule of thumb.

On a long car trip the other day, my daughter and I recently talked about what would happen if her mother and I both died, who she would live with, how she would get there and what would happen to all our stuff. Really heavy. I wasn’t prepared to have that conversation, but Norah made it very clear that she was. I wonder if it might have been more disturbing for her if I myself had introduced the topic a week prior.

That being said, I also have a responsibility as a parent to monitor what my child is allowed to observe. I briefly debated whether to bring Norah to last years Gay Pride Parade here in Chicago, where we do our I’m Sorry Campaign, wearing shirts and holding signs apologizing for our individual sins against the LGBTQ community. There were so many messages going on, from the celebration we shared in hugging the paraders to the sobering conversations we had with individual attendees wondering why we were sorry to the protest group behind us with their signs and megaphones. It was a lot to process, even for me, and I’m glad I didn’t bring her.

But some year I will bring her. And someday my wife and I will tell her about how mommy is bisexual, and what that means (just as she told it to me). Someday I’ll explain what I do for a living and the difficult conversations I have with people and what it means to “come out.” Not yet, though. I think she’ll tell us when she’s ready.

3. When they are finally ready, it’s a conversation that deserves nuance and balance, no matter how firm your convictions are. I certainly have firm convictions myself. I believe, for example, that a person can absolutely be both gay and Christian, that the two identities do not at all stand in contradiction. And I will certainly tell Norah that. But I’m going to do my best not to do so in a way that unfairly maligns those who don’t believe this.

That’s how we’re going about things with our child. How about you? I’d love to hear your comments about what has worked, not worked, and what remains a mystery for you as a parent talking to your son or daughter about same-sex relationships.

Much Love.

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  • My youngest son and I were in the car one day and homosexuality came up somehow. “You realize that I’m gay, right?” I asked him. He was momentarily shocked. “Really? Does Mark (my husband) know??”

    All joking aside (though this was a true story), the kids get this more than parents realize. Parents might think they are protecting kids from the concept and the debate, but I’ve observed that kids know about homosexuality to one extent or another. I’ve overheard them chatting at school when they don’t think they’re being listen to. These were 2nd and 3rd grade conversations in the middle of Iowa — not Boystown.

    I’ve found that kids are much more comfortable with nontraditional families — be they gay families or foster families or step families or grandparents raising kids, etc. — than parents are. There are always exceptions, of course. But kids are really good at accepting the reality before they understand the controversy.

    Meanwhile, my son has had the joy of others denigrating our household. He’s watched his birth parents struggle with addiction, prison, unemployment, underemployment, and poverty and openly marveled when others imply that Mark & I deprived him of a better life.

    • Jason Bilbrey

      That first story is hilarious, Jon! I love it. It’s funny, my daughter has been in a season of imagining every lego or doll household has two mommies. There’s no reason for her to think that such a family hasn’t always existed.

      I can’t even imagine how infuriating it would be if people felt the freedom and responsibility to openly scrutinize Courtney’s and my parenting or the overall validity of our family. I’m sorry that you, Mark and the kids have to deal with that.

  • I guess that last part is a swipe at the notion of reality VS. value. Neither I nor my kids need other parents and church people pondering the value of my family. Especially unknown church people who have no presence or experience with me or my children. That’s the thing that bugs me most: pseudo scientists who ponder the negative effect of my kid being raised by two dads while never even slowing to ponder the effects that an early childhood of live-in abusive boyfriends or drug exposure in the years before we ever met him.

    That’s the disparity that exists in this culture war.

    • This comment BTW comes after my other comment from the same time/date.

  • Bridget O

    [Coming from my perspective as a child of conservative parents] I agree with point #1 that you outline.However, it can be the case that often only part of reality is communicated, and it’s the part that is is consistent with the values of that person. By not communicating that loving same-sex relationships do even exist in the first place, the value is instead implicitly communicated – if they don’t exist, then how could same-sex relationships be okay/good?

    • Jason Bilbrey

      Bridget, I totally agree that a parent’s perception of reality is filtered through the lens of their own values, so that, when they see a loving same-sex relationship, they imagine it to be secretly dysfunctional. That’s what happens when a person’s values don’t leave room for reality. And sure, there are some conservatives whose distortion of reality is very real and apparent (and, I should add, progressives/liberals are not immune to this either). But I’ve been in community and in dialogue with many, many conservatives who are very aware of this danger, and often willing to let their values and experience of reality sit in conflict with each other, rather than quickly accepting pat answers. I especially conscious of these folks with my post, because they really want to get it right with their kids.

  • Anne Jordan-Baker

    One of the most surprising things to me, as a parent raising a child with my same-sex partner, has been how little direct teaching we’ve had to do about our family. Little kids–our daughter’s friends–spent about one minute of their lives processing the fact that this is a family with two moms. I think kids have other fish to fry, like eating and playing. Judgments about the quality/value of families based on the parents’ genders aren’t innate, and our experience is that kids don’t wrestle with this, at least if they haven’t been previously taught something negative. My middle schooler just said that when she tells friends she has two moms that they often say something like, “That’s so cool!” We do live in a progressive community and, just as importantly, our village is loaded with lgbtq people and couples, many with kids. So people around here see us as just the people next door.

    • Jason Bilbrey

      Hi Anne,

      Sorry to let your comment go unappreciated for this long. And a do really appreciate it. I totally agree that kids don’t instinctually have concerns about same-sex relationships without outside influence. That’s certainly been our experience overall with Norah. Living here in Chicago, we’re also a part of a diverse and progressive community where same-sex relationships are widely visible and accepted. But in my interactions with people here at the Marin Foundation, I’m reminded how much of the country is very unlike my neighborhood, and how prevalent this concern is (on behalf of our very uninterested kids) within conservative circles especially.

      • Anne Jordan-Baker

        Thank you for your response. I think it’s important to say that our experience in a progressive community can be–and is–an important example or model for how lgbtq individuals and families can find plenty of social acceptance and love in our lives wherever we may be living or visiting. We live in what’s thought of as a progressive community, but we travel as a family all the time to places most don’t consider particularly progressive, e.g. parts of Indiana, Ohio, and Arkansas. We have relatives there, and probably part of their acceptance of us as individuals and as a family is based on the fact that we are comfortable with ourselves and assume we will be treated well. We almost always are. We interact with people from all over the political map and have so far had very few negative responses. Mostly we are loved for who we are, and our child is just treated as a 12-year-old with her unique interests,abilities,etc. Illinois, where we live, allows us to have a civil union (and marriage soon), and these contribute to our comfort level with ourselves and others which, in turn, probably helps other people be comfortable with us. It’s not impossible for a child to get a nasty reaction from a nasty person about the parents’ gender, but it’s hard for a lot of people to really treat a child badly right to his/her face based on a negative belief about the parents. We find that most people, even in our travels, treat us well. It helps that we treat them well first.

        • Jason Bilbrey

          I’m really glad that’s been your experience! That’s encouraging.

  • Steve Kline

    I teach my kids in no uncertain terms that God made us male and female and that the only acceptable arrangement is one man and one woman in a marital relationship and that everything else (sex oustide of wedlock, homosexuality, polygamy, etc) is sin and unacceptable. With all of the gay agenda being pushed on us, including from those who call themselves Christians, yet who want to embrace what God has called sin, I think it highly important to indoctrinate my children before someone else does it for me. So I teach them that there are such things as homosexuals, and that there are men who think they are married to another man, women who think they are married to another woman, and that even though they call it marraige, it is wrong no matter what. We send them to a private Christian school, in large part because of that issue. I don’t want them being brainwashed in the public school system into thinking of something good that God has called an abomination and I do my best to teach them at home what God has to say about marraige and sexuality. I tell them of the huge push in our society to legitimize such relationships, the court cases, etc and I emphasize to them that the only opinion that matters is God’s, and he has called it wrong. I tell them that it doesn’t matter what the teacher says, it doesn’t matter what a judge says, it doesn’t matter what the President says..all that matters is what is written on the pages of scripture and that closes the deal right there. However, I also emphasize that one day when he is old enough, he is going to be working with those folks in the workplace and he has to be kind to them and treat them lovingly and respectfully while still acknowledging that there is no justifying or excusing the homosexual lifestyle. That’s pretty much how I address it with my kids. If the news is on, and they talk about some court or some legislature legalizing gay “marraige”, I use that as an opportunity to once again state what the Bible says, and that what the courts are doing is wrong/sin, and that the only opinion that matters is God’s and it is written for us in the Holy Scriptures.

    • I teach my kids that it’s spelled “marriage.”

    • Jason Bilbrey

      Hi Steve,

      I wonder if your concern that your kids treat LGBT folks “lovingly and respectfully” is at odds with your denigration of this same community (e.g. not true Christians like you, not truly married as you are). I think your message of truly loving your neighbor is being undermined, not by your conservative interpretation of Scripture, but by the way you are communicating it–in effect, demonizing the gay community rather than respecting it. I suspect that many of your fellow conservatives might fundamentally agree with your view of the illegitimacy of same-sex relationships while firmly denouncing how this belief finds expression in your life and childrearing.