[NOTE: It was blogging for lgbt families day yesterday! Finally, after about three years, we actually managed a post on a day vaguely near the day itself and this seems like a worthy contribution so I’m going with it. Check out lots of other great posts here, and many thanks to Mombian for rounding everyone up!]
It has gradually been dawning on Gail and me that we might be on the “more information sooner is better” end of the spectrum in terms of talking to our kids about reproduction. When we were at family week last summer at a workshop about supporting kids from GLBT families in the schools, I asked a question (on topic for the conversation) about how to avoid or handle possible awkwardness with the school or other parents due to our kid knowing a lot about reproduction, should she start explaining things extensively to her classmates. We had assumed it was sort of a matter of course that she needed to know quite a few of the details, but the moderator visibly blanched and stammered a bit of a response. Apparently her 7 year old didn’t understand all that much and she made it pretty clear she thought we were jumping the gun. Many thanks to the mom with a school-age daughter who pulled me to the side later saying they take the same approach and offering some tips.
We’ve also started to notice conversations going by about how to explain “where babies come from” to kids Leigh’s age. It seems that often the answers encourage sharing less information, e.g. “make sure to only answer what your kids is asking.” And while yes, there’s benefit to making sure you’re answering the question your kid is actually asking, and they might not be asking what you think at first, we’ve also found there to be a lot of benefit to jumping on any opportunity to have these conversations, on this and related topics (where babies come from, how they get out, adoption, donor conception, etc), so our kid(s) know these topics are absolutely open. I think this is particularly beneficial for kids whose families differ somewhat from the norm (e.g. adoptive families, GLBT parents, donor conception, etc), and are thus perhaps less likely to find accurate or helpful answers to their questions in the outside world (say, at school). I do think most of us do genuinely want our kids to be able to ask questions about the hard stuff, but if there’s an air of silence around a topic (and frankly, reproduction can be a pretty uncomfortable topic in a family where one parent isn’t genetically linked to the kid), kids pick up on it. They won’t know the topic is open unless it really is open, and the only way to make sure is to actually talk about it. We’ve taken the approach that in general, sooner is better in this regard. This is likely partially due to our particular kid (Leigh really will not let anything she doesn’t understand rest, due to that alone a different kid might have less info at this point), the parental personalities involved (Gail really will talk about everything), and our family structure (I found I was able to loosen up once I’d given birth, too).
So how do these conversations happen? The first thing we did was to start referencing the donor out loud when talking to each other around the kids. We realized before Ira was born that we rarely spoke about him around Leigh. Every now and then we’d even mention a physical characteristic she likely got from the donor (say, when a neighbor commented on her lovely tan, which, no offense to Gail, she probably got from the donor). Even that felt like a big step. We also got Leigh a book recommended by an education and preschool savvy friend, “It’s not the Stork,” by Harris and Emberley. We got it for Leigh at almost four, and she pretty much couldn’t get enough of it. It’s a book that hits just the right note for this age, explaining differences between girls and boys bodies, some good scientific details about how sperm meets egg, and how families are built. The illustrations are great (lots of different skin tones, hair and body types), and the book is inclusive of single parents, adoptive families, queer families, and families built by alternative reproductive methods (an explanation of IVF is included as a matter of course). When we first got it, we figured it would just sit around for a while, but Leigh was all over it. She was able to understand WAY more than we expected. It’s still one of her favorite books, and has started countless interesting conversations while handily demonstrating age appropriate explanations for us as parents that we can emulate when discussing topics not covered in that book (there are not extensive details about donor conception for example). We made the mistake of loaning the book to a friend a few months ago, and Leigh asked every few days for a month when it was coming back (we don’t loan it out anymore.) The same authors have books for older kids and teenagers, and we’ll definitely be getting those.
The last thing we do is to jump on any opportunity for conversation. It’s pretty much the opposite of “answering only what your kid is asking.” We try to understand what she’s really asking and answer that, but then also steer the conversation to any remotely related topic. It helps that we’re genuinely interested to see what she gets at this point, what does and doesn’t make sense to her. Leigh has definitely come up with some awkward questions, and will surely come up with more, but I love that we’ve talked about all of this enough that she’s really asking, and I’m not getting my own discomfort all over the topic. I’m not sure Gail ever had much discomfort, but I definitely did, and I can honestly say I don’t now, and she’s not quite five. Ask me again in a few years, especially once we’re working through this stuff with a son, but for now these topics are open and the more-information approach appears to be paying dividends. I highly recommend it.