When my daughter was 9 years old, I told her that I'm gay. She'd always been raised in a household that valued equality and acceptance, so it didn't take her long to get comfortable with the idea that I was still just like other dads in all the ways that are important. But she soon learned that not everyone feels that way. One afternoon during recess, she heard a boy tease another boy by telling him his weak baseball pitch was "gay." My daughter marched right up to the name-caller and said, "Stop that. You have no idea what that word actually means!"
While certain types of discrimination are easy to identify and help kids avoid, homophobia is one of the last types of discrimination our society still tolerates -- but teaching our kids early on that all people are equal is the best way to end it.
1. Understand Where It Starts.
For children, the word gay doesn't have meaning or connotation on its own. Gay isn't a bad word for children until they're taught that it is. Marilee Wasell, Ph.D., a San Diego psychologist who specializes in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues, and trauma, says, "Kids don't typically know something is right or wrong until they're given the message that it is."
According to Dr. Wasell, early discomfort with the idea of gayness comes from a perception about acceptable gender rules, not sexual orientation. This discomfort often starts when parents nudge their children away from behavior that may seem gender-inappropriate. "If a boy has sisters and chooses to engage in a nail polishing session with them," Dr. Wasell explains, "he may be steered away from this behavior by his parents. This establishes a value system for those behaviors." As a result, kids start to believe that nontraditional boy or girl behaviors are wrong. And because young children often confuse gender with orientation, this can take root and manifest as homophobia as kids grow older.
2. Teach the Meaning Behind the Words.
The best solution to demystifying homosexuality and eliminate early homophobia is talking. One of the reasons children may use the word gay to insult each other is that they don't know what it means. Dr. Wasell says parents should open a dialogue with their children by first asking what they think it means to be gay. Hint: They probably won't say it's about someone's sexual orientation. Kids may use the world to describe someone who simply doesn't seem to fit in with other children on the playground.
When your child asks what being gay actually means, Dr. Wasell's advice is direct: "Define being gay in terms of love, not sex. We can explain the parallel between gay couples and straight couples easily: 'Sometimes two men or two women love each other just like your father and I do.'" And if a question about sex does come up? "Simply handle the question the way you would handle a question about heterosexuality. Let your own values guide the discussion." In other words, how would you respond if your child asked you a sex-based question about a straight couple? You can respond in the same way.
3. Don't Just Talk the Talk.
Dr. Wasell applauds those parents who engage in open conversations about acceptance. But she says that it shouldn't stop there. Kids emulate our actions more than they follow our advice. We can preach equality to our kids, but they'll learn more from seeing how we actively treat others. Do we act uncomfortable around Ashley's two dads at back-to-school night? Do we make subtle remarks about gay neighbors? Sometimes even a seemingly harmless shrug of confusion transcends our advice about the Golden Rule. Statements such as "No, I don't really understand why Bob and Mark live together. But to each his own, I guess" teach kids that gay people are strange, something other than normal. As parents, we need to examine our own attitudes and behaviors. If we're uncomfortable around gay people, our kids will be too, no matter what we instruct at the dinner table.
4. Teach Equality for Everyone.
Discrimination comes in many forms, and our children are simply trying to process what they see when they watch the way people treat others. It may be trendy to champion gay rights today, but equality transcends what's popular. The Golden Rule doesn't apply to one group more than another. If we're teaching our kids that all people are equal, then we're already doing our job before the first question about gay people comes up. "Focus on the similarities we share with others, rather than the differences," Dr. Wasell advises. "It's the best way to make sure our kids understand the value of acceptance and equality for everyone."
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