We live in an increasingly diverse society and children will inevitably have contact with people from many different cultures, ethnicities and family compositions. Parents play an important role in teaching children tolerance and appreciation of difference in order for them to flourish and succeed in their communities and the wider world as they grow up.
Children brought up in families with one mum and one dad will usually assume that this is the same for everyone, as that is what they will most often see. However, it is likely that when children start nursery or school they will have many friends whose family background or composition differs from their own. Before thinking about this further it can be useful to think about talking with children about difference in more general terms.
Children living in multicultural cities may initially be less likely to comment on difference as it is all around them but children in less diverse communities or those with an inquisitive mind may ask questions when they see people who look different to them and their families. Typically questions such as “why is Danny brown?” or “why is that man so fat?” can feel awkward or embarrassing for parents, especially when they are asked loudly in public. However, telling a child to be quiet or trying to change the subject gives the message that they are wrong to be curious. Explaining in a matter of fact tone that people have different skin colours and come in different sizes is likely to be enough for most young children, although elaborating that people are different in many ways (eye colour, hair colour, height, dress sense etc) may also be helpful. Questions about disability or other physical differences sometimes can’t be answered and it is fine to say you don’t know why someone needs a wheelchair or has a scar on their face. If appropriate it might be ok for the person to explain to your child themselves. Children can be wary of people who look or behave differently and it is important to think about the example you set yourself. Even before they can speak, children closely watch and copy their parents, looking for cues about how to treat other people.
Unless the information is offered, differences between families are often less immediately obvious than cultural or physical differences. Children may be friends for some time before they learn that Joshua doesn’t see his dad, Sally has a brother who doesn’t live with her, or Alex and his sister have two mums. Young children are often accepting when they do realise and it is only as they get older, around 4-6 years, that they may start asking questions about why.
Questions are usually very straight forward and answering the question honestly and simply works best. Trying to explain everything in one go is likely to be confusing and it is best to follow your child’s lead, answering questions as they come up rather than overloading them with long winded explanations.
Even children who do not know where babies come from are likely to know that you need a mummy and a daddy to have a baby and babies grow in a mummy’s tummy. You can explain that children can’t be born without a mummy or daddy but that not everyone grows up with both their parents. Some mums or dads can’t manage to look after their children because they are too ill or they don’t live nearby or they just don’t know how to be a good parent. When that happens children might have only one parent or they might get another parent or different parents who can look after them well.
When talking about gay couples it is important that children know that the two mummys / daddys are together because they love each other and want to be a family together with their children. Saying they ‘like’ each other or are ‘attracted’ to each other may be confusing, lots of friends like each other but that doesn’t mean they are gay or wish to be a couple. There is no need to go into any further detail about the nature of a gay relationship, in the same way that you wouldn’t feel the need to explain any more about a straight relationship.
Children whose parents are still together may struggle to understand why their friend’s parents decide to live apart and may have fears about whether that could happen in their family. It is helpful to explain that some arguments and difficult times are normal in families and are recoverable. If you can truthfully reassure then you might want to tell your child that your family is very happy all being together and that you plan for it to stay that way. If you don’t wish to tell your child that then you can let them know that even when parents separate, both parents still love their children very much and it is up to parents to manage the situation so that the children can still be well cared for and see both their parents as much as possible.
We all have different backgrounds and upbringings ourselves. As a parent it is important to be aware of your own feelings towards families who differ from your own family and any prejudices or ambivalence you may have yourself, which you may inadvertently pass on when talking to your child. If you have strong feelings about gay marriage or other family set ups then it is best to think in advance about how you will talk to your children so you have thought it through before the topic inevitably comes up.
By Dr. Natalie Cheatle and Dr. Annika Clark at The Parent Space