Of course, younger children are going to not necessarily understand the issue at all. And older teens may blush and go silent. In either case, parents can take this opportunity to show they are open to talking about issues like sexual orientation, and sex. That we are there to help our kids define terms. It's a chance to explain what we know about loving relationships. We have an opportunity here, if we're willing to take a deep breath and seize it.
Lots to think about!
Poli Ansieta, Ottawa: How can a parent give a child a solid explanation on something if she isn't sure where she even stands on the issue?
Michael Ungar: Hi Poli, Thank you for such an honest question. I suspect there are many parents just like yourself who are figuring this issue out just like their kids. And now you're expected to lead your child through a thoughtful discussion! That's difficult.
It can be a bit easier the more transparent one is. If you yourself aren't sure where you stand on the topic of homosexuality, be honest with your kid about how your feel. But share your questions as well as your opinions. I like to think of this as an exercise in bracketing. "I'm not sure how to respond," you might begin. "On the one hand I can see reasons to think nothing of this. It shouldn't be a big deal." Once you've laid out that side of the argument, you can move on to what's troubling you about this.
Now, I'm assuming your child is old enough to discuss this. A teenager will likely appreciate you arguing both sides of your feelings. You are modelling some great lessons here! First, you are demonstrating tolerance for diversity by being open to another's point of view. And second, you are demonstrating integrity. You are allowed to have your own beliefs, up to the point that those beliefs don't build walls around others. For me, the seeds of this discussion are not much different than other times in history when we as people have had to challenge our beliefs and fears of 'others'. History tells us that once we stop showing tolerance, and at least questioning our beliefs openly, we are destined to make grievous errors against minorities.
Of course, with younger kids, maybe it's best to just explain what the words mean. Gay means men who love each other and have a special relationship. Younger kids don't need details about the 'plumbing'. But they are watching how you set the tone.
Telling them, "People in our church think…" and completing that sentence is okay as long as you are able to at least tell your child, "Though other people think differently about this too." If you really want to raise a caring child, one who adds to the solutions, not the problems, then I think we need to help cultivate a spirit of critical analysis. Of questioning all values, even those of their parents.
Amanda Cockshutt, Canada: I notice that school aged children often use the word 'gay' as an insult, especially for boys. Once, after hearing my 9 year old son refer to something as gay, I asked him not to. I went on to ask him if he knew what it meant, and he didn't have a clue. I had obviously plunged myself into that conversation without any forethought. I think that given his developmental stage he was more than a little confused by my description of sexual interactions between individuals of the same sex. Can you give some pointers on how to discuss this with kids who are older than those who will be satisfied with a non-sexual description, but younger than a teenager who has a better understanding of sexuality outside of reproduction.
Michael Ungar: Hi Amanda. Yup, those tweens are a tough age to discuss this with. But one thing I've learned…they often know more than we think, and less than they think they know. You are definitely on the right track by first defining the terms. I'd then focus in on relationships and what it means when two people love each other. You might think in terms of concrete descriptions of what people do (like holding hands, living together, raising kids). But the question might really be, "So what?" What's the fuss, right? Why is it important that Dumbledore is gay? We haven't put on the news that Harry is straight? This is where it gets tricky, because you will likely want to explain to your kids that some people look at being gay as something bad. And for a long time, people who have been identified as being gay (or GLBT) were treated very badly. Still are!