Explaining Homosexuality to Children? Get Help from Fairy Tales
By Sonali Gupta
I typically like to include lots of research in my articles. I enjoy researching a topic, reading about what studies have revealed, and sharing that information so parents have a factual basis for their decisions and actions. But this article addresses an important subject on which, unfortunately, very little research has been done. So I’m sharing my experience as a parent in explaining homosexuality to children. I hope it helps others who want to help their kids appreciate diversity of love.
Talking about sexuality with children can feel like a minefield for parents. Explaining homosexuality to children can seem even more fraught, due to some terrible, stubborn stigmas. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it can be quite simple.
A fairy tale script for talking about sexuality with children
Not long ago, my daughter and I were attending a close friend’s wedding where we were joined by another friend, Parmesh. My then 5-year-old daughter, A, was busy narrating her version of Rapunzel, in which Rapunzel knows karate, kicks the witch, and finally informs her parents she’s in love with a prince. At that point, Parmesh asked A, “Do you think Rapunzel really needs a prince?” She looked at him, pondered the question, and replied, “Maybe not.”
This struck me as a teachable moment, an opportunity to introduce her to the fact that homosexuality is normal in a way she could understand. I was unsure about how she would react, but I trusted my instinct and took the plunge.
The next day when we were playing with her puppets, I asked her: “A, do you remember what Parmesh told you yesterday?”
A: Yes, about Rapunzel not needing a prince.
Me: Do you know that, the same way mamma and papa love each other, sometimes two men or two women can also love each other and get married?
A: Wow! I didn’t know this. [A’s eyes filled with happiness and excitement.] So when I get old, can I also marry a girl?
Me: Yes, of course you can if you choose to.
A: Mamma, can they also have babies?
Me: Yes, they can. So, Parmesh, who we met yesterday, loves men and, if he decides to get married, it will be to a man.
And that was that. The conversation was much more straightforward than I had expected, but to paraphrase Peggy Drexler, a psychologist and gender scholar who has also written on this topic, talking about sexuality with children would be awkward only if I, the parent, made it awkward. When you present information as a simple fact, children surprise you with their acceptance and understanding. They are so open and receptive, without any bias. I wish conversations with adults would follow a similar pattern.
I have been ridiculed by friends and some family members for impinging upon my daughter’s innocence. But the fact that homosexuality is normal is important to frame early; by the time children are 8, they have already formed ideas about gender and gender roles that can impact their understanding of sexuality. Without guidance, they are open to more hateful or confusing messages that can become ingrained and difficult to neutralize at a later age. (In my work with teenagers, I have heard many use the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ in a derogatory and personally hurtful way.)
I believe it is best to introduce the idea of gay and lesbian love at a younger age and in an age-appropriate manner. As Drexler has written: “Talking about gay love needn’t include a lesson in the mechanics of sex, gay or otherwise.” At age 5, A only needed to know that two people of the same gender can love each other in the same way her heterosexual parents love each other; that, as Dorothy Parker says, “Heterosexuality is not normal; it’s just common.”
I have also had people wonder if my dialogue with A would make her more “susceptible to homosexuality.” I really have no other response than to say homosexuality is not an illness, nor is it a choice. A will be who she is regardless of when and how she learns about gay and lesbian love.
I chose to speak to A in this way and at this age because her I want her to be sensitive and respectful of people’s differences. I also want my gay and lesbian friends to be able to be their authentic selves around my daughter. But I also believe there is a benefit greater than her development: I often envisage a world where adults learn to be kind, tolerant, and respectful of a diversity of love, even when different from their own. Educating my daughter about being inclusive of gay and lesbian love is my way of creating a better world and building hope, as we wait, as a country, for homosexuality to be legalized. Limiting our and our children’s understanding of the world as solely heterosexual only encourages prejudice and homophobia. We fear what we don’t know. But just as there are families of different kinds, there is also a diversity of love.
The answer is always love.
If you are wondering where to start explaining homosexuality to children, you can find teachable moments in TV shows like Star World’s Modern Family, in which Mitchell and Cameron are a couple, or in books like And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (I read this with my daughter after our initial conversation), Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland’s beautifully illustrated King and King, or My Chacha Is Gay by Pakistani blogger Eiynah.