Talking About Where Babies Come From is Not the Same as Talking About Sex
Here's how to answer kid's reproduction questions to raise children who are allies and respect diversity.
My oldest child is 8 and my twins are 6; my two daughters have golden, blonde hair almost the same shade as mine. When they were 5 and 3 we were picking up a pizza when a customer behind us commented that my girls were so lucky to have inherited the same gorgeous hair color as me. This was not the first time someone had said this, and I respond the same way each time:
"Thank you for the compliment, but they didn't get their hair color from me. I am their non-biological mom. Their sperm donor is blonde. He's got great genes, huh?"
The reactions of people who learn this information for the first time range from embarrassment to gleeful curiosity. My kids have two moms, an anonymous sperm donor, and donor siblings who live in another state. I am always happy and comfortable talking about this and so are my kids. Yet, many parents are quick to tell stories of what they consider to be uncomfortable conversations with their kids when the focus turns to sexual health and reproduction.
Parents stumble when their toddler asks where babies come from; they describe how they had "the talk" with their kids and survived to tell about it. Panic sets in when adults find out their kid is dating or has become sexually active. First of all, talking about where babies come from is not the same as talking about sex. Let's all take a deep breath.
Why Are These Conversations So Hard?
"There are many personal reasons that parents feel unprepared for conversations about sex and reproduction," says Molly Fechter-Leggett, Psy.D. "In my experience, it occurs largely in families where the adults never had healthy conversations about sex and reproduction with their parents. With no model, it can feel really scary wading into unknown waters."
It's not like we had much help from teachers in school either. Sexual education in this country was subpar then and there are not many signs of progress as schools continue to dangerously perpetuate the notion that the only kind of sex is heterosexual, penis-in-vagina intercourse. Currently, there are still 31 states that advocate for abstinence before straight, cisgender marriage and only 24 states actually require sex education in the first place. A mere eight states include consent as part of the conversation. And if you are hoping for LGBTQIA+ inclusive sex ed, you will only be able to find it in four states and Washington, D.C.
While sexual health education in America stays in the dark ages, America gets queerer. Nearly 16 million Americans identify as LGBTQ according to a 2018 Gallup poll. The landscape of what makes a family has shifted as more queer people build or add to their family—specifically Millennials ages 18-35. The LGBTQ Family Building Survey done by The Family Equality Council reports that 63 percent of these queer Millennials will grow families using one of many options now available to LGBTQIA+ individuals and couples. You and your child will likely meet a family like mine.
Learning the Language
When my oldest started preschool, my then partner and I explained to the teachers that it would not surprise us if our daughter mentioned that she was made using a sperm and an egg. How she was made is as much a part of her narrative as is the color of her eyes, which is blue and also genetically from the sperm donor.
When talking about my children's bodies and body parts I use the actual names—vagina, penis, scrotum, clitoris—because body parts are nothing to be ashamed of and there is nothing wrong or inappropriate about discussing the biological workings of our bodies.
In addition to wanting my children to be proud and informed about their conception, I started these conversations from a very early age to empower them.
Dr. Fechter-Leggett says a kid who has the appropriate language for their body parts is an empowered kid. It teaches them to respect their body and others'. "If they understand that sexual contact only occurs in consensual relationships and they know to trust their body's signals of danger, a kid is much less likely to be a victim and much better situated for the foundation of healthy adolescent/adult sexual relationships."
The Right Time to Talk
Melissa Pintor Carnagey, LBSW, a sex educator, social worker and founder of Sex Positive Families, agrees, "Start laying the foundation well before puberty. Sexual health isn't just about sex. It's integral to the human experience from birth to beyond.''
I used the book What Makes A Baby by Corey Silverberg as an aid to explain to my kids that they were created with sperm from a sperm donor who we picked through a cryobank and their other mama's eggs. The book provides inclusive language to cover all genders and sexual orientations. This not only provides the representation my queer family needs, but it gives space to talk about modern family building. It also leaves the door open to define sex in inclusive—more than just penis-in-vagina—ways.
Pintor Carnagey adds, "When they ask questions at an early age, such as 'where do babies come from?' or they're curious about naked bodies, how parents respond can pave the way for a child's confidence in asking deeper questions as years move on. So it's critical that parents do not avoid questions and are direct and honest in their responses. This builds trust and ensures a child will continue to ask without fear or shame."
How to Keep the Conversation Inclusive
It's also important to tell our kids that most sex is done for pleasure not reproduction, and not all sex can result in reproduction. Sometimes making babies does not always involve sex at all. Whether an individual or couple is heterosexual and cisgender or identifies as LGBTQIA+, fertility is never guaranteed.
"Lots of parents tell me that they worry that introducing the concepts of sex, sexuality, gender identity, reproduction, and other 'adult' topics will cause their children to have thoughts or feelings that aren't appropriate for children. I try to help them to understand that children will hear and pick up all of this information implicitly and explicitly long before they think they are 'ready,' and that the best defense is an offense," reassures Dr. Fechter-Leggett.
Both Pintor Carnagey and Dr. Fechter-Leggett agree that talking about these concepts does not increase the likelihood of sexual experimentation, it actually decreases it.
And you will need to be prepared to answer questions in honest and respectful ways when your child asks how a family with two dads can have a baby. Adoption, surrogacy, egg, and sperm donation are part of the 'where do babies come from?' conversation too. This will create allies in your children who respect diversity. It will also show your child you are an ally to them if they are questioning their sexuality or identity.
"It is crucial that discussions about bodies, relationships, and sex are open, shame-free, and inclusive," emphasizes Pinto Carnagey. "If we limit the information we share with a child, based on assumptions about their gender identity or sexual orientation, we risk leaving them ill-equipped for safer, consensual, and pleasurable experiences with themselves and others."
Dr. Fechter-Leggett adds, "Give kids the information they need to make healthy, safe, consensual choices about their bodies long before they are in a position to make those decisions. If we don't talk to all kids about all kinds of sex, we risk only preparing our heterosexual, cisgender kids for healthy relationships and sex."
All babies come from a sperm and an egg. Depending on the identity and sexual orientation of the parent(s), the logistics of how those two ingredients meet can vary. The "birds and bees" conversation doesn't need to be tougher, it just needs to be bigger.