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How to Help Children Understand Diverse Families

Non-traditional families and diverse family structures

The world is a melting pot of families of different configurations, beliefs, cultural norms, and personal practices. Every child and family comes to a child care community with different family values and experiences. One of the most important gifts we can give our children is to help them feel good about the uniqueness of their family and help them learn to accept, respect, and include people whom they may experience as "different".

Answering Kid's Questions about Diverse Family Structures

When children become aware of diverse family structures, they might ask a question such as, "Can someone have two mommies?" Usually when a young child asks such a question he is looking for a "yes" or "no". Children are not typically on a journey seeking a deeper level of understanding. Many of us tend to give more information than necessary, but young children don’t associate the adults in families with their sexual orientation. Preschool children are concrete thinkers and not ready for, nor do they want, a philosophical discussion. They do not yet have the cognitive ability nor the life experience to understand gay vs. straight relationships - nor are they interested. Young children are simply attempting to find their place in this big world and trying to make sense of the concept of family, whether traditional or non-traditional.

Children’s growing awareness of diverse family structures provides rich opportunities to help them celebrate family diversity and engage them in conversation about who is in THEIR family, who lives in THEIR house and more importantly - who takes care of them. People will associate "two mommies" with a myriad of possibilities: a blended family, a divorced couple, a lesbian couple, a single dad, mother and grandmother, surrogate or foster mothers, etc. Typically, people interpret within their own frame of reference.

Children tend to thrive when they come to understand that there are varying family structures and that all families are wonderful, so long as the people in them love and care about each other. This repeated message helps children feel secure, even if their family configuration changes through death, separation, or other life events.

So when children ask, "Can a family have two mommies?" one suggested response is: "Yes, some families may have two mommies, one mommy, no mommy, or even lots of mommies. And some families may have two daddies, one daddy, no daddy, or even lots of daddies. Some families also include grandparents, foster parents, aunts, and uncles. Any combination works. It’s love that makes a family - just like in our family."

Children's Books about Diverse Families

Literature is a wonderful way to expose children to the world. By sharing books such as the ones listed below, you are communicating that diverse families and people are all acceptable. There may be different values and structures, but in the end - it’s about family.

  • The Great Big Book of Families by Mary Hoffman. This book features a diverse variety of family structures, what family members do, and where they live.
  • The White Swan Express by Jean Davies Okimato and Elaine Aoki. This tender story is about a quartet of parents adopting a quartet of Chinese orphans. It just so happens that the four families consist of a single mom, a heterosexual couple, a lesbian family, and an interracial family.
  • The Family Book by Todd Parr. In this book, the author celebrates all types of families in a funny, reassuring manner. He includes diverse family structures like adoptive families, step-families, single-parent families, two-mom and two-dad families, and families with both a mom and a dad.
  • Whoever You Are by Mem Fox. This beautifully illustrated book reminds children that we may be of different nationalities, races, ethnicities, languages or faiths, and may live our lives very differently, but we all still have the same daily needs, hopes, and dreams. 

Children’s literature can often help to start conversations that you are less comfortable starting on your own, but it is good to think ahead about how to answer tough questions when they come up.  

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