In a world where all kinds of ties bind parents to their children—whether the grown-ups are single, in a same-sex marriage, or adoptive guardians—it’s important to show kids that it’s not who’s involved, but the love they share that makes a family.

By Adrienne Farr
January 05, 2021
Credit: Melanie Acevedo

As I approached 40, still single, it was clear that my knight in shining armor, or any knight, for that matter, wasn’t on his way. I could live with that, but the need to be a mother was, for me, nonnegotiable. In 2014 I googled my options, finding a new term: Single Mother by Choice (SMC), which includes women who conceive with donor sperm. I decided this would be my path. In 2016, I was blessed with a beautiful baby girl.

But the reality of raising my daughter without a dad can be daunting. I worry: Will she think she is missing out? As an adult, will she know how to navigate relationships with men?

As I reported this story, experts assured me that the most important factor for healthy child development is the emotional availability of a parental figure, not how the rest of the family unit looks. But this isn't so easy to remember when it feels like the world views my child and me as outliers.

According to Pew Research Center, more than 50 percent of American kids live in nontraditional households (defined as any family other than two married, heterosexual parents in their first marriage with their biological kids). Yet there’s still a segment of society that considers the so-called traditional family as the ideal. When this ethos is passed down from adults to kids, it can perpetuate bias and ignorance, resulting in the taunting and bullying of children in single-parent households, families formed by same-sex parents, and every other variation.

Cyana Riley, a former Washington, D.C., teacher, a mom of two, and author of Not So Different, says, "I had to answer questions in my classroom about why a child didn't have a mommy. I told the kid who was asking that instead of having a mommy and a daddy, this child had two daddies who loved them very much." Todd Parr, writer of dozens of children's books about nontraditional families, has also seen firsthand how a parent's ideas about family can influence their children. When he visited schools to read his titles The Mommy Book and The Daddy Book to students, he received pushback about the sentence that referenced two-mom and two-dad households. "It created problems for educators," saysParr, "because parents were against their kids hearing this factual information, even in an age-appropriate manner."

When these attitudes trickle down to kids, their peers in nontraditional families can expect to hear comments about the supposed strangeness of their clan. “You don’t look like anybody in your family,” a kid might tell an adopted child. Or, “Why do you live with your grandma?” The alienation a child may feel upon hearing this can be painful.

But we are far from powerless in the fight to change this outcome. Kids, as any parent knows, are sponges. "Children are always watching, and our actions speak louder than our words," says Parents advisor Wayne Fleisig, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Children's of Alabama, in Birmingham. Here's how to give your child a wide-ranging and inclusive picture of family so they treat other children with kindness, feel pride in their own roots, and grow up to build a life that makes them happy.

Credit: Stephanie Rausser

Find children’s media featuring every kind of family.

It's easy to normalize nontraditional families through picture books and TV shows "so that when your kids do come across different kinds of families in real life, it's not weird at all," says Kiaundra Jackson, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. She suggests the book My Family, Your Family, by Lisa Bullard, about a little girl named Makayla who goes through the neighborhood looking for something great about the variety of families she encounters. Or try the film Despicable Me, a goofy farce about a supervillain who grows close to three girls from an adoption agency. (Spoiler: He becomes dad to all three.) Parr, whose books like It's Okay to Be Different are also useful, adds that focusing on the love in these stories gets the message across. "Kids in any healthy family unit will relate to that," he says.

Credit: Priscilla Gragg

Hang out with different kinds of families.

Dr. Fleisig suggests that you "talk to your child about the differences in the family beforehand so they don't say something during the encounter that might unintentionally be hurtful." Jessica Butler, stepmom of two sons, adoptive mom of another, and cofounder of Raise Magazine, a lifestyle site for nontraditional families, recently took her youngest child to play with a friend whose parents were divorced. Before they arrived, she explained the familial setup by saying, "Do you know that your friend has two different houses? Sometimes she lives with her mommy, and sometimes she lives with her daddy. Isn't that cool?"

“If kids are used to being friends with children from all types of families,” Jackson says, “they can be allies for each other. So if there is a disparaging remark made, it’s like, ‘Hey, don’t talk to my friend like that. So what if she has two daddies?’ There’s an alliance there.”

Empower your child.

Instilling confidence starts in the home. A child with high self-esteem has a deeper well of resilience should they be on the receiving end of clueless or cruel comments or questions. If you haven't already, start allowing your kid to be part of certain household decisions like what to make for dinner, how chores are divvied up, or what your weekend plans will be. Having them feel they're contributing to the family builds confidence in the unit, gives them an armor of self-worth, and sets them up for inner stability, Jackson says.

Answer all their questions.

Parents may find that they are uncomfortable with explaining certain family types to their children, worrying, for example, that talking about divorce may make a child fear their parents could also split up, or that bringing up a transgender parent will raise thorny questions about gender identity. “But you would rather your child get information from you than misinformation from others—or make it up for themselves,” Dr. Fleisig says. Take your time and think about what you want to say in advance, he adds. And know that sometimes complex conversations build a stronger bond. Says Jackson, “Your kids will know they can talk to you about anything, and that is vital, especially as they mature.”

Check in with teachers.

If you notice that your child has become withdrawn, seems ashamed of speaking about your family, or no longer enjoys going to school, talk to their teacher, Jackson advises. See if any type of bullying has occurred, and collaborate on sharing information about your child’s well-being. It’s also a good idea to let the teacher know about your family dynamic so they can serve as a resource and an ally.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's February 2021 issue as “Teach Your Child What Family Really Means” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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