Friday, October 22, 2010

Talking to my kids about the "h" word

For those of you who might have missed this YouTube, this is one of the great moments that has come out of the recent public discussions on gay teen suicides. Check it out.

So let's advance the discussion beyond what school administrators should be doing and what gay teens can do for themselves. What about regular old parents who send our kids to school? I'd imagine that how we raise our kids has everything to do with being a part of the solution. I've had other parents ask me (significantly lowering their voice at this point) whether I discuss the issue of homosexuality with my children. My answer: of course. With one child in middle school and another one about to enter middle school next year, I know that they might learn about other kids coming out as gay. I want them to understand what that means and how to respond to it.

I started laying the groundwork long ago by introducing our kids to a few of my friends who were gay when they were small. I didn't mention anything like "this person is gay" but I just let the kids get to know them for who they were. They would also hear during our family prayer times that I wanted prayer for friends of mine who are planning to come out to parents or who got kicked out of their churches. As the kids got older they'd ask why someone would get rejected by family or friends for being gay. What's gay? That's when I'd explain. That was also an opportunity to say, "Remember Mr. So-and-So who helped you with your science project? He's gay. Do you also remember Mr. So-and-So who gave you those nice chairs? He's also gay."

Most parents start wigging out at the thought of explaining homosexuality to their grade-school-aged kids. I'm not sure if it's because they think they have to talk about gay sex, or because they are afraid they'd be planting doubts into their kids' minds about their own sexuality if the existence of homosexuality were acknowledged. For what it's worth, here's how I've approached it.

First off, you don't have to talk to your kids about sex acts. Particularly if you are raising your kids as Christians, they are probably fairly sheltered and naive about that kind of stuff anyhow. Even when kids make crude sexual jokes in grade school, they don't have the slightest idea what they're talking about. Whether it's gay sex or straight sex, it's all gross and unfathomable to them anyhow, so don't feel an obligation to address it. Besides, sex is not really the issue here.

The issue is feelings. Talking about feelings is a good place to start if your seven or eight year-old asks about homosexuality--or just sexuality in general. I point to the story of Cinderella or any other well known prince and princess story. Kids understand that there's a special loving feeling that attracts a man and a woman in such stories. I explain that some people have those kinds of loving feelings except it's between two men and two women. I also explain that people who experience homosexual feelings can't help it and don't know where the feelings come from, so it's not like they're trying to be different on purpose.

But will bringing up homosexuality raise questions in a kid's mind about whether he or she is homosexual? Sure, my kids have asked about that. I just tell them that most people are heterosexual and chances are they are too, so don't worry about it. The reason I tell my kids that is not because I know for sure that they will turn out straight, but because there's no point in speculating about something when it's too early to tell anyhow. Encouraging them not to worry about it is the best way for them to avoid mind games, which can get in the way when it comes time later on to evaluate honestly whether they are gay or straight or bi or whatever. I also tell them that if they do come to an awareness of being gay at some point, I will love them just the same and nothing will change, so that's another reason not to worry. Since they already see how much I care about my gay and lesbian friends, I trust that they know I'm not just speaking empty words.

Because we raise the kids as Christians, of course they ask me about what the Bible teaches. I simply explain to them my personal view, which I've explained many times on this blog and you're welcome to skip this paragraph if it bores you. I tell them that because we live in a fallen world, some people find that their feelings are directed toward people of the same sex instead of the opposite sex, so it's true that homosexuality doesn't fit into what God had originally planned for humanity. But then, none of us can live up to God's original plan for us as human beings, so we shouldn't be singling out gay and lesbian people as if we're somehow doing better than they are. What's more, even though the Bible teaches that marriage should be between a man and a woman, it also teaches that loving one another is the most important thing, and since gay couples really do love each other, how condemning do you want to be of that? I just try to impress upon them that being true to the whole of the Bible's teaching quite often means that the answers don't come easily.

There is a payoff to having all these at-home conversations (which, by the way, should never become preachy or overbearing, but should happen gradually over a period of years). For one thing, your kids should know that you will always love them, that you've thought ahead to all the different scenarios of how they might turn out and you've already decided that nothing will stand in the way of your love for them. For another, with all the hatred and bullying that goes on in our schools today, you want your kids to be a positive influence, a voice reason and understanding among their friends, even their Christian friends. I may not be able to control what the other kids do, but as a parent I have to focus on raising my own kids to contribute positively to society. You do your part and hope that other people are doing theirs.