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What your preschooler knows — and needs to know
If your family is nontraditional, you're in good company. These days, many kids live in single-parent, blended, adoptive, or gay- and lesbian-parent families. Two- and 3-year-olds aren't likely to ask any questions about their family or anyone else's but simply accept the way things are. They'll tend to assume that all families are just like theirs.
But once these little kids come into daily contact with other preschoolers — kids who also love to talk about their families — they begin to notice that not all families look the same. At this point, you can expect the questions to start.
Whatever your own family is like, don't shy away from these discussions; they'll help your preschooler better understand the world and her place in it. The messages to focus on are that families come in all shapes and sizes, that your child is loved, and that no one type of family is better than another.
How to begin talking with your preschooler about family types
Think it through. If you're single, what do you want your child to know about the other biological parent? In adoption or egg or sperm donor cases, will your child ever have contact with the birth mother or the donor? Whatever the circumstances, come up with a basic story you feel comfortable sharing with your child. For example, if you're an adoptive parent, you can talk about how much you wanted a baby and describe the day you met your child. (A preschooler is too young to understand the concept of "adoption," so there's no need to explain the term until later.)
Introduce the topic casually. Strike up a conversation about families at the dinner table or while driving in the car. Use children's books, TV shows, or real families you know to spark discussion. "All parents should talk about the fact that there are different types of families," says Arlene Lev, a family therapist and author of The Complete Lesbian and Gay Parenting Guide. That includes families with a mommy, ones with two daddies or just a grandma, those with lots of kids, and so on.
Keep answers simple. If your preschooler asks a question like, "Where's my mommy?" or "Does Chris have a daddy?" don't launch into a lecture. Your 2- to 4-year-old is too young to understand complex concepts. "You can give much too much information," says psychologist Leah Klungness, citing the old joke about a parent who explained the whole human reproduction process when her child was really only asking what city he came from. First, let your child know that every family is different, then just respond to the specific question posed.
Terri of Winnepeg, Canada, recalls when a neighbor's older child asked if her preschooler, Simon, had a daddy. While Simon knows his biological father as "Uncle," he lives with Terri and her partner, Linda. After a pause, Terri answered very matter-of-factly: "Yes, Simon has a dad, and he comes over and plays sometimes, doesn't he, Simon?" That satisfied the older child's curiosity without getting her mired in a discussion of lesbian parenting or intracervical insemination.
Know when to leave it alone. There's no need to chat about family issues every day or for long periods; take your cues from your child. After telling her daughter Mae about her biological father, Single Mom Seeking: Playdates, Blind Dates, and Other Dispatches from the Dating World author Rachel Sarah sometimes pulled out photos of him or offered to point out where he lives on a map. But often Mae wasn't interested. "She'd already moved on to something else," says Sarah.
Let kids explore roles. A young child from a nontraditional family might create a make-believe daddy or mommy. Don't freak out or assume it means he needs therapy. It's a part of imaginary play and should fade with time. Lev, a lesbian mom, recalls when her son watched a father tossing his child into the air, then turned to her and asked for a dad. "I said, 'Are you saying that because you'd like to have a dad who would toss you in the air?'" When her son said yes, she suggested "borrowing" a friend's dad. "A lot of times we assume there's a deep psychological process going on when really at this age it's about something so much simpler," she notes.
Be positive. If a preschooler has a playdate and returns talking glowingly about a family situation he doesn't have — one with a dad, a mom, or lots of siblings — take it in stride. If you get upset or defensive, your child will pick up on it. Just say, "It sounds like Will has lots of fun with his daddy," or "I bet that's a lot of fun."
Tell the truth and nothing but. It might be tempting to tell young children little white lies about where they came from or where an absent parent is — especially if a noncustodial parent has abandoned the family or has struggled with drugs or mental illness. But making up a story is folly, say experts. In the age of the Internet the truth will no doubt come out eventually. That said, you don't have to get into the nitty-gritty if you think it will upset your child or that she won't understand what you're saying. Rather than telling your child that her father is strung out and homeless, you could say, "I'm not sure where he is, but you should know he loves you very much." Or, if you don't think that's true, say something else reassuring that you do believe, like, "He was very excited when you were born."
Encourage acceptance. Preschoolers don't tend to place a value on one family type or another. But they are growing up in a world that will. Whenever the topic comes up, plant the seeds of acceptance by sending the message that families come in all shapes and sizes.
Repeat. Preschoolers can absorb only so much detail in one sitting. If your child asks the same questions over and over, it doesn't mean you did a bad job explaining your family. Repetition is reassuring to preschoolers, so be receptive to talking about family whenever your child asks. Remember to remind your child that you love her and that a family is made up of the people who love her most.
Answers to common preschooler questions about types of families
"Why does Chris have a mom and a dad?" Or, if you're in a traditional family the question might be "How come Susie has two moms?" Begin this answer with something like "Everybody's family is different. That's what makes families so wonderful and special." Talk about the different families you know to illustrate. The point is to celebrate differences.
"Where did I come from?" Before launching into a complex answer, find out what your preschooler is really after. Ask "What do you think?" Your child's response will help you focus in on an answer. If your child is really asking "Where was I born?" that leads to one answer about either the city or hospital she was born in. But if she's asking about reproduction, your response may vary from "You came from an egg in my body" to "You grew in another woman's body and then we brought you home to live with us."
"Did I grow in your tummy?" As preschoolers begin to learn about how babies are made, they might ask this question. If it's true, of course, say so. But if not, don't fudge but go easy on the details. In the case of adoption or surrogacy, tell her about when you first learned about her and how excited you were to meet her.
"Where is my daddy (or mommy)?" By age 4, this question will likely come up in single parent, blended, or gay or lesbian families. Don't freak out. Answer it simply and honestly. To respond to her daughter Mae's questions, Rachel Sarah has talked frequently about "your father, Eric, who helped me make you," explaining that he lives far away in a country called Ireland. In gay or lesbian families, you can talk about a man or woman who gave a seed or egg to help your child grow.
Read books about family types. For your preschooler, check out books by Todd Parr, such as The Family Book, which introduces young kids to a variety of families, and We Belong Together: A Book About Adoption and Families. Additional preschool-age books on family types include Do I Have a Daddy?: A Story About a Single-Parent Child, by Jeanne Warren Lindsay and Jami Moffett, Dinosaurs Divorce by Marc Brown and Laurie Krasny Brown, A Mother for Choco by Keiko Kasza, and Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman and Diane Souza.
Bone up on your child's development by reading Flight of the Stork: What Children Think and When About Sex and Family Building.
Organize playdates with families who are the same and families that are different from your own.
Get support from organizations that speak to families like yours. Ask your local parenting resource center, community center, or religious organization about groups for single parents, gay or lesbian parents, and adoptive parents.