It can be quite daunting to know where to begin with a topic like this.
I’ll never forget the day that my four-year-old son came out of playschool absolutely bursting to tell me that his little pal “actually has two mamas”. He was so hyper and had a million questions for me. I think the cutest part was the innocence and excitement around the topic. In his eyes, his friend was lucky and unique. He kept repeating “two mamas”. He went on to tell me what he calls each mama and I think at one point my eyes filled with tears because I was just so proud of him.
There is something extremely beautiful about the uncomplicated life of a pre-schooler. There is no prejudice or judgement. They are open, excited and say it as they feel it. It opened up a lovely conversation in the car as we drove home that day. We talked about the fact that some children have two mothers or two fathers while others have neither.
We spoke about how every family is different and I was constantly met with a proud “I know that” because he just loved that he had learned something new. He had a new tool in the bag and I think he felt rather proud of himself for being so politically correct (well, not quite, but you know what I mean). Since that day I’ve really put the effort into continuing that conversation in a really natural way. It’s not something we talk about constantly but if the opportunity arises for me to casually normalise something for him then I will.
He’s almost five and as his parents, we are helping him shape his perception and expectations of the world. He is a blank canvas and nobody knows what his place in this world will look like yet. It’s really important to me that he knows that no matter what he chooses or who he befriends – it’s completely inclusive and normal in our book. It can be quite daunting to know where to begin with a topic like this. Teaching your children that every family is different sounds easy in theory but it is likely to be met with a lot of questions. Questions are good though.
Here are some simple ways that you can help your child to accept and understand that the dynamic, style and reality for every family can be very different from that of their own.
1. Be mindful of your language.
When speaking about families try not to generalise. If you’re constantly referring to “mammy and daddy” then this will become the expected norm for your child. Every so often try to use the word “parent” and if you are aware of a different family dynamic (such as in the case of my son’s friend) make a special effort to remember that fact and reference it when it’s relevant.
2. For bed-time reading throw in the odd book that explores some area of different family dynamics.
It could be something as simple as a family that is of mixed race or a blended family. It is a subtle way of normalising these things and opening up a safe space for questions.
3. Remember how easily our children recognise and adopt labels.
Do you constantly buy your female children dolls/cooking/cleaning toys whereas the boys get sports related toys and cars? Allow them to explore different things to encourage neutrality rather than labels. Believe it or not, this is often where gender stereotypes begin. Your child may grow up to have a family where the father stays at home and the mother is the bread winner for example and whatever works for their family unit will be their normal.
4. Remember that not all families involve marriage.
My own son has a weird aversion to marriage and almost seems afraid of the idea. He often tells me that he will “never ever” get married and while I suspect it’s connected to an idea of separation from his parents I always use it as an opportunity to say “of course you don’t have to. Lots of people don’t get married but have a very happy life”. We might then go on to talk about weddings and some of the positives if he asks about them. We’ve also touched on break-ups and the fact that not all marriages are forever. You might be surprised by how many cues come directly from your children’s random questions.
5. Including different cuisines or cultural art around the house can be a great way to instil the idea of diversity.
If we are making curry I often talk about where that food originates. Even better if I can relate it to someone that we know. Suddenly my son is curious about how someone from India can live in Ireland. We started with chicken and suddenly we’re talking about different languages and it’s brilliant.