Talking to Your Child About Sexual Orientation
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Advice for raising happy, healthy, confident kids
As Solo Moms we make dozens of little decisions on our own every day—what to feed the kids, when to do the homework, if a bath is necessary. There’s a certain freedom in being the sole decision maker, but when it comes to making larger decisions, such as when and how to talk about sexuality, it’s nice to have some backup.
These tips can help you create open discussions about sexuality, teach your child self-respecting and partner-respectful relationship skills, find accurate information about safe sex and reliable information about issues specific to your child’s sexual orientation, encourage your child to feel comfortable in his own skin, and build a solid foundation for a happy, healthy sex life.
Exploring sexuality is a normal part of human development. But in our culture this exploration often happens under a veil of shame, discomfort, fear, and secrecy. To help children develop healthy self-concepts and relationship skills, many parents need to unlearn much of what they were taught. How were you raised to think about sexuality? Has it led you to a happy, healthy sex life? What are your current attitudes toward sexuality? How do you hope your child will experience his or her sexuality? What do you need to learn to support your child’s development?
Make no assumptions
We talk to children about sexual orientation all the time; we just don’t realize we’re doing it. The talk begins at birth, and the talk presumes all children are heterosexual. For example, your infant son smiles at a woman standing beside you in line at the post office, and she responds, “Oh, look, he’s flirting with me!” On the preschool playground, a girl student hugs a boy student, and the parent standing nearby says, “Looks like someone has a boyfriend!”
For many youth, this assumption of heterosexuality, called heterosexism, can become a block to exploring and expressing their authentic selves. Reinforced by movies, television shows, toys, games, songs, and books, heterosexism renders invisible a broad range of sexualities, such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, and pansexual.
If we want to create environments where children feel safe exploring and expressing themselves, we need to stop making assumptions about or labeling our kids’ sexual orientation. Through our words and actions, we need to show our children that we are open to learning who they are and to supporting them as they are.
To create a healthy, open, supportive environment for our children’s development, we need to start talking about sexuality in an age-appropriate way long before our children start dating their peers. But talking about sexuality doesn’t necessarily mean talking about sex. In the early stages, when we talk about sexuality, we’re usually talking about love, romance, and attraction.
Opportunities abound for discussions about who loves whom, even with very young children. For example, if your child asks you to play with a dollhouse and dolls, you can ask, “Who lives here? How many parents are there? Who are they?” Or you can broaden your child’s understanding of the range of sexualities by reading books, such King & King by Linda de Haan and Sterge Nijland (Tricycle Press, 2003) or In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco (Philomel Books, 2009); by watching shows; or by creating your own stories that reflect diverse depictions of loving relationships.
Granted, some people balk at exposing young children to the spectrum of sexualities for fear such exposure will “turn kids gay.” Rest assured, you can’t “turn kids gay.” You can, however, create a safe space where your children feel comfortable exploring and expressing all aspects of who they are.
Children don’t learn about big topics—religion, death, friendship, fairness—in one conversation, so why would we expect to impart all our wisdom about sexuality in one talk? Instead of sitting your child down for “the talk,” look for teachable moments throughout your day. For example, you might call attention to a relationship dynamic in a movie, a belief expressed in song lyrics, or a news story concerning sexual orientation. Enter into these moments with curiosity, not judgment, asking your child what he or she thinks. You’ll be amazed what you learn about your kids’ views on sexuality and relationships simply by opening a conversation with a question instead of a statement. When you make these teachable moments a regular practice, your child learns to question, reflect on, and talk about sexuality as a normal part of their everyday life.
Teach them about consent
If we want our children to grow up feeling confident, respected, and safe in their bodies, we need to start teaching them about consent as early as possible, regardless of their sexual orientation. For an excellent primer on teaching consent, check out “Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21,” from the Good Men Project.
Provide a comprehensive sex education
If you’re not talking to your kids about their bodies, sexuality, safe sex, reproduction, and healthy relationships, who is? Kids absorb all kinds of inaccurate, incomplete, and downright unsafe information from their peers, the media, the Internet, and even their schools’ sex-education programs. As an alternative, you can provide resources that reflect diverse sexualities, genders, anatomies, family-building methods, safety precautions, and relationship dynamics. For very young children, Cory Silverberg’s What Makes a Baby (Triangle Square, 2013) addresses every imaginable form of family building. For tweens, Silverberg’s Sex Is a Funny Word (Triangle Square, 2015) presents puberty, sexuality, and gender in a format that welcomes curiosity and self-reflection. If your older tweens or teens are ready to get into the nitty-gritty details, check out It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie H. Harris (Candlewick, 20th Anniversary edition, 2014). For Internet-driven teens who identify as LGBTQ, the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Network provides a resource list for accurate, inclusive information.
Two of the most powerful questions you can ask a person emerging into his or her sexuality are:
- What’s it like to be you?
- How can I help?
Not all kids will be ready or willing to answer those questions, but they will feel your love, care, and respect simply because you asked.
If you want to hear how other Solo Moms deal with these important concerns, visit Sister Chat—it’s a confidential place to ask the hard questions.
Cheryl Dumesnil, ESME’s LGBTQ Resource Guide, is an author, educator, writing coach, all-around do-gooder, and one of two moms separately coparenting two amazing boys. You can follow her on Twitter at @cheryladumesnil.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.