Watch your language: how we emphasize family diversity when talking to our kids

May 8 | Guest post by Libby Anne
Hook Edwardian Family Album page #38
Photo by James Morley

My husband and I are white, middle class, and straight. We both grew up in very traditional families. We have one daughter and a son on the way. This poses an interesting challenge: how do we raise our children to appreciate diversity and understand that there are many different kinds of families? This is something I've been thinking about a lot over the past few months, especially as daughter Sally has started asking about these sorts of things.

Sally: "Why you have ring?"
Me: "I wear a ring because I'm married."
Sally: "Why?"
Me: "Well, daddy and I love each other very much so we decided to get married. Someday if you meet someone you love very much and want to share your life with you can get married too."
Sally: "Oh."
Me: "Or, you know, you don't have to get married at all."

Sally: "You have baby in your belly?"
Me: "Yes, and when he grows big enough he will come out and be your brother."
Sally: "I have baby in my belly too?"
Me: "No, you have to be bigger before you have a baby. Like, twenty-five or thirty."
Sally: "Oh."
Me: "And you don't have to have a baby if you don't want to. It's up to you."

Paying close attention to my language in these sorts of situations has made me aware of just how easy it would be to contribute to the normalization of heterosexual marriage and child-rearing — something I don't want to do. As you can see in the conversations above, I try to avoid implying to Sally that she should marry a man when she grows up or even that she should marry at all. Similarly, I try to make sure that Sally understands that whether or not to have children is a choice she will be able to make herself and that's it's okay if she chooses not to.

As I've realized more and more, raising my children in what is to all appearances a traditional family poses unique challenges. After all, I want to avoid normalizing heterosexual marriage and child-rearing. I want my children to value all kinds of families and to make their own decisions in life rather than running on some sort of normative autopilot. But how can I do that when I'm raising them in a family that is to all appearances the epitome of normal? To some extent I can't help the normalization of heterosexual marriage and child-rearing — after all, it's what will be "normal" to my children. But as I've thought about it, I've come up with several strategies for combating this normalization:

I plan to continue to be careful about what I normalize with my language. For instance, she saw a moment of sex during a TV show and asked about it. I could have said that sex was something "mommies and daddies" do — which is what my own parents would have told me — but instead I checked myself and told her it was something "grownups" do. Being careful about what I say and how I say it is important.

I plan to make sure to check out library books about all sorts of different families and talk about them with my children. Hopefully books about non-normative families will open up discussion and make sure my children understand that our type of family isn't the only one out there — and isn't somehow "best" or "more legitimate" than others.

I will try to make sure to give my children different sorts of role models. We have a gay couple that we are friends with, and I make sure my children know that our friends love each other just like mommy and daddy do. Additionally, I will put in an effort to make sure that our social circle isn't homogeneous. Hopefully giving my children a diverse circle of role models will help them see that just because we structure our family one way doesn't mean that everyone else does or should.

I sometimes wish my family weren't so plain vanilla and normative, but it's not like I can change that now or even would go back and make different decisions if I could. I love my husband and I love my daughter and future son. What it does mean is that I am aware of the need to combat normalizing our family structure for our children, and that I will make a conscious efforts to do so. After all, I want my children to grow up free to form their own families and choose their own ways of life without being surrounded by normative expectations.

  1. In general, I really loved this post and I especially loved what it was trying to say. However, there were a few things about it that made me wince a bit (although, I did wince less once I read the author bio and understood a bit more where she was coming from).

    I think my main discomfort came from the fact that it felt like there was a bit of tokenizing and patronizing going on (although, completely unintentionally). I know that I am super lucky to have lived my whole life in a very diverse community(ies) with every colour, creed, sexual orientation, and gender all around me. My mom didn't make a big deal about it, mainly because it was just there. I think this good luck has made me uncomfortable when people trot out their "gay friends" or their "black friend" by whom they prove their own tolerance and through whom they will teach their own children tolerance. This seems like a complete failure to check one's own privelege and learning how to do THAT is a very important lesson for kids and adults alike.

    I know, know, know a million times it is not the author's intention to be patronising, but parts of the post did come across that way. I guess what I would say is that kids do hear what you say, but they really see what you do. Treating everyone in your life with the same dignity and respect and actively fighting for political equality seem like the most effective ways to teach your children the values you want to impart to them.

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    • I think this good luck has made me uncomfortable when people trot out their "gay friends" or their "black friend" by whom they prove their own tolerance and through whom they will teach their own children tolerance. This seems like a complete failure to check one's own privelege and learning how to do THAT is a very important lesson for kids and adults alike.

      I completely understand what you mean. I also understand the author wasnt sounded like that. And because of her background, I know what she means. It's sounds….meh, not the best way to say it.

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    • I very much agree with this. Other cultures, races, and orientations are not lesson fodder for the white and cisgendered. The sentiment is fine, I guess… just like most other types of unintentional, tokenizing, minimizing, "tolerating" privilege :/

    • Hey guys: while I totally understand your concerns, I don't think that's what's happening in this post, especially when you consider the author's background and the context.

      I also think it can be challenging to understand what it's like growing up in a super traditional, conservative home and then trying to raise your children in a very open, liberal home. If you don't have a strong frame of reference for what that looks like, then accidental tokenism can absolutely happen.

      Also, by bringing up that she is friends with a gay couple I don't feel like the author is "trotting them out" — instead, I think she's trying to say that she and her husband are accepting of their friends, and they want their children to understand that love looks different for different families.

      I think this commentary goes back to what people are talking about on this post: there are ways to politely flag language and offer constructive help for how it could be improved, and there's being rude. I hope we can find ways to communicate concerns in a way that won't dismiss the very real effort this family is trying to make to raise their kids in a diverse, accepting world. Please: let's try to keep discussion supportive.

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      • I agree, Stephanie. If I were talking about wanting to raise my future children in a way that doesn't reinforce heteronormativity, I might say something like, "I have a lot of LGBTQ friends, so my children will understand that love transcends gender." And I don't think anyone would see that as meaning "I have LGBTQ friends SO THAT I can teach my children a lesson."

        However, if I only knew one gay couple, then that might be my children's only opportunity to see a loving same-sex relationship firsthand. It wouldn't mean they were my "token gay friends," just that my children thankfully wouldn't be limited to only ever seeing male-female couples.

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        • We also only have one gay couple that we are friends with. I have a facebook friend from high school who is openly bisexual, but we dont actually see each other.

          Once we have kids, I will certainly be making an effort to introduce them to my friend and his partner. But they also wont be the "token gay couple" either. They are just our friends, who are in love. Unfortunately, our social circle is largely straight, white couples. We have not done this on purpose, but I'm also not going to go and try and force friendships with people just so I can claim I have a varied social circle, if that makes any sense?

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        • I'd also add that not all gay (or straight) people are necessarily in loving relationships. And that's okay. There's no reason that a single man or woman who is gay or straight or asexual etc. can't be a good role model. Being in a relationship doesn't necessarily a good role model make.

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    • I agree totally, and couldn't have said it better! I really like the post and it def makes me realize that I probably say things that come across very different than I mean to and I have to pay more attention to that as my daughter gets older and starts talking.

    • I completely agree with this comment and appreciate the compassionate way it was expressed. Thank you for putting my thoughts into words.

  2. I thought about this when my son told me how well he remembered the wedding of his father and I… he was all, "Yeah, a wedding is where a mommy and a daddy go into a church and are married by a photographer." I could totally see that this reflected all the weddings we had been to, and how easy it was for me to miss that he was building his foundation of understanding "family" from that. I've been more mindful since, as well!

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    • I know it is a side note, but my son recently told me that people "get married by a photographer" as well. How did they hone in on the photographer as the main player? I can't figure it out. :)

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      • As a wedding photographer, I can say: we are EVERYWHERE, and everyone looks to us to kind of lead the day, even if there's a planner involved. I know that I spend the most time with the bride and groom throughout the wedding, so I can totally see the logic that would lead to that thought. 😉

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        • Yes– and while different ceremonies have different people reading the vows, leading the activities, etc, one constant is the photographer. I thought he made such a neat cultural identification at that moment, it really threw me into the what-does-it-all-mean's.

          I imagine looking through his eyes, where the photographer is coming around and everyone is fixing their posture, smoothing their clothing, smiling a little extra intently, and my son thinking "Damn, this must be the most important person EVER."

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          • Yeah, come to think of it, the photographer was sort of the only common denominator in the weddings my son has been to (different everything really save for him or her). I guess that is why he figured it was the photographer who was THE essential part. I will add (for Stephanie's benefit) that my son also said in this conversation, "And you can marry anyone you want as you love each other and you can hire any photographer you want as long as you can afford them."–Kid just turned six.

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  3. When I was young my mom took us to a very diverse church. There were people from a wide range of economical environments, as well as color and sexual orientation. We actually attended several same sex marriages when I was in grade school. More and more churches are focusing on inclusiveness instead of homogenization. (Even though certain religious groups would lead you to believe the opposite)

    I'm not particularly a religious person, but I take my children to the same church I grew up in. Less for the sense of religion, and more for the sense of community it provides. Sometimes it's as easy as finding something (a church, or playgroup, a YMCA class) that simply is diverse and submersing your children in it. If it is always there, then they will never think it isn't "normal."

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  4. I have/did grow up in a ultra conservative family/religion. I understand where the author is coming from. I do….wasnt trying to nit pic. Just didnt like how it sounded.

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    • It is also possible to be raised in a religious family that is also accepting of diverse families. I was raised in a Roman Catholic home but also raised to be accepting of different lifestyles and families. My mother while sometimes conflicted with opposing views has a balance between her religion and her own beliefs and I applaud her for that. She has taught my sister and I both tolerance and love for everyone.

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  5. I think it's great to acknowledge your own privilege and socio-economic and/or cultural isolation, and to try to remedy that.

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  6. This post made me think about something interesting — I hear a lot, particularly in academia, about the importance of minority role models for minority students. That is, it's important that we have diversity in our hiring because (so goes the argument) black students need to see black faculty and staff, gay students need openly gay role models, female students need to know there are successful female researchers in science and engineering. But isn't that important for everyone? Yes, female students need to see that women can succeed in engineering, but don't male students need to see that too? Don't white students need to have administrators of color? It seems like more awareness of diversity (in all forms) is good for everyone.

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    • I think the thing is it's not that hard for a white male student to see successful white male engineers.

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      • Agreed. My point is that, for example, black girls aren't the only ones who benefit from seeing successful black female engineers. Students of all races and genders benefit from having more diverse images in their mind when they think "engineer."

        • I misunderstood what you were saying. You were saying male students benefit from seeing other gendered people as role models and I thought you were saying they would benefit from seeing male role models. Sorry to have misunderstood you.

  7. I do agree with most of this; but it makes me sad that you told her she needed to be "25 or 30" to have a baby. She may want children before then and society will make her feel like enough of a slacker and miscreant if that is the case–I know from experience :p If it were me I would tell her that "grownups" can have babies, just like "grownups" have sex.

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    • Exactly Rachel! I thought the exact same thing. Lots of teenagers, people in their early 20s (like myself), 40 year olds, or 50 year olds are creating families. I feel like specifying an appropriate age to do so leaves out other families as less than legitimate. That line kind of upset me and made it really difficult to even take the rest of the article seriously.

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      • But it is a great example of how we normalize our own experiences even as we try not to. For someone who has only ever seen people have accidental pregnancies under the age of 25 it might simply never occur to them that some people *want* and are ready for children younger. I actually considered 25 my absolute upper limit for being pregnant with my first child, so when I got pregnant 3 months before turning 26 I was shocked how many people asked me if it was planned. But unplanned pregnancies are apparently most (white, middle class) people's norm for that age group.

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        • Actually, if you understood my background you might understand that comment. I was raised in Christian Patriarchy, taught that women should have babies as soon as possible, and as many as possible. Marrying at 22 was seen as marrying a bit late, and waiting to have kids till 25 was seen as selfish and ungodly. I hadn't quite left the mentality when I married and had my daughter, so I did both quite early. I want my daughter to know that she doesn't have to do that, and can wait a bit, hence me saying 25 or 30. True, that does normalize child bearing at 25 or 30, and I'll revise what I say based on your point. However, it's not as though I've never seen a pregnancy under 25 that wasn't an accident.

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          • I understand to some extent; I was raised Pentecostal Holiness (I'm now Pagan) and have so much bitterness toward that faith that sometimes I have to check myself before I make out like it's not as valid as other faiths. I think the areas in which we are most likely to be less than accepting (even if it's the *only* area in which we're less than accepting) are the areas in which we were personally scarred.

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  8. Interesting question – with my daughter, I often tell her about weddings, having babies etc is 'if you want to' to make it clear it's not a legal requirement!

    Talking about diversity generally will be increasingly important, as she's starting at a Jewish primary school this September. It's a great school, but we're a bit bothered that it will be very socially homogenous. Although nt terms of family role models, we do know of at least one set of same-sex parents whose child will be joining the school, so that's at least one set of non heteronormative role models she can be familiar with. We will also want to check whether the school works in partnership with non-Jewish schools as well, in a way that means they encounter children from other backgrounds. I think they do, but if not I expect we'll want to be lobbying the school to make sure it does so.

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  9. The only thing you need to do to teach your kids to embrace diversity is to embrace it yourself. It's only a big deal if you make it a big deal.

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    • This is true, but from my own parenting experience, it takes a little more than that. Kids get so many messages about what's "normal"–what they see on TV, what they see in their friends' families and their own families. Our social circle is pretty diverse, but when my daughter was about 4, she was surprised that her uncle was going on a date with a man. She'd spent so much time with him and other gay friends that we never thought we needed to specifically say, "Some men love each other just like Mom and Dad love each other," but we did. I don't think we make a big deal out of it, but we're careful with our word choices about love, marriage, sex, becoming parents, etc.

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  10. I eavesdropped on a conversation between preschoolers on the subject of marriage. One little girl who'd just turned five had obviously heard something similar, probably from her parents. "You can marry a boy or a girl when you grow up. And you don't have to get married. Lots of people don't, and it's okay." :)

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    • That is seriously awesome and adorable. Might save that for future kiddos since it came from kids it would probably be well received by them.

  11. Thank you so much for this post! It is a great reminder of the power of language and the importance of examples. Although tv and the internet make it easier to find examples of diversity (not always in positive ways, admittedly), it's still important to realize that in certain parts of the country/world many communities are still homogenous. It's a hard line to walk–promoting diversity without seeming insincere or falling into tokenism. I appreciate you sharing your efforts with us.

    I'm struggling with the same thing because I've become the "or" woman with my husband and his (now our) girls. He'll make a comment that reinforces gender or sexual norms and I'll follow it up with "or…", which usually elicits an eye roll from him. He's not purposely being discriminatory, but he often confuses my efforts as "p.c." He has expressed to me that since we live in a certain community, that it is okay to raise the girls by the norms that they see and will be expected of them. I think the only way to shift the norms is to raise children who are capable of seeing the world differently.

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  12. Good for you, for trying to raise open-minded children!

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  13. I am pretty lucky and am glad I don't have to try too terribly hard to normalize a lot of this to my children, but even so, there are still things that I have to check myself on, as does my husband. We are two bisexual people that happen to have fallen in love with a member of the opposite sex. I have 2 dads that have been together for most of my adult life. I have one sister who is settled into a hetero interracial marriage and another who doesn't believe in marriage and is happily in a domestic partnership with her ladylove. My kids are learning from their own family that love comes in all shapes, sizes and colors and it doesn't matter what someone's race or gender is.

    Even with all of that, I still catch my son saying short hair on a girl is "boy hair" and pink is just a "girl color," so I'm constantly having to check things. My daughter and I both have super short pixie cuts right now, so we're working on challenging all the stereotypes he's learning both at school and on base (my husband is military). And I have to constantly remind myself of my own privilege, so I can try to teach my children to do better than I have.

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  14. I actually have had very similar concerns about my children, not having to do with race/culture/gender, but with poverty.

    I grew up in a very poor, single parent home where that parent was alcoholic and abusive. While I do not wish my father's brand of 'parenting' on anyone, I am the person I am today because of it.

    I worry that my child/ren may not understand or empathize with those who have less. My child will most likely never starve, never go to school in shoes being held together by duct tape, never read body language as if their life depended on it.

    My friend, who did have a fantastic and non-deprived home life as a child, is a wonderful and caring person. Her recommendation, and what her mother did with her, was to actively engage in age-appropriate volunteering from a young age.

    If you think about it, it also applies in the author's situation as well. Expose your children to diversity from the beginning. There are many books that are written for gay and other non-heteronormative families; start there.

    Try taking your kids to activities with culturally diverse participants; go out to eat in the non-upper white section of town (if that is how your town is laid out).

    Children are very good at intuitively parsing what you say from what you do as a parent. And they typically opt for doing as you do and not as you say.

    So the key, I think, is probably to incorporate more diversity in YOUR life.

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    • This is a great comment. It's very easy to get caught up in social divisions like race and sexuality, while forgetting economics and class segregation.

      And while we're on the topic, there are also a whole range of people with differing mental and physical abilities that equally deserve consideration. And not in that "be extra nice to the 'special' little guy in the wheelchair" kind of way. Because we're people, and all people have something to offer.

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  15. I'm interested that several people have said that they came from homes that were, perhaps, not so open-minded, but they have grown up into open-minded adults and would like to teach their kids to be the same.

    If it's possible to become an adult with very different attitudes than your parents, who is to say this won't happen with your kids too? Do we need to be quite so anxious about the exact wording of these things if kids are going to come to their own conclusions anyway?

    Not saying it's wrong to be mindful of how you handle things. I think the way people here have talked about handling these questions is great, and I would try to do the same. But just thinking out loud.

    It really reminds me of a post Ariel did once about how we're teaching kids to be accepting of same-sex marriage and one day your grandkids will be angry with you for not respecting their relationship with a person with a clear plastic skull (or something like that)…

    Basically – are we ever going to be able to raise kids with values that will seem liberal and accepting by the time *they* are adults?

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    • Ah yes, that post you're thinking of would be How will my grandchildren shock me. :)

      One thing that's important to observe: although our culture has been moving towards increasingly tolerant/progressive views, it could be that in 50 years, things go way more conservative. "Grandma, I can't BELIEVE you guys could buy alcohol and cigarettes in stores!! That shit is poisonous!"

      • Yes, very true, excellent point! I guess you just have to prepare kids for the world the best you can…

        Hehe, thanks for finding the post for me. :-)

  16. Maybe including a range of books in your home library that include characters with different family types/cultures etc
    Try to make it as much a part of every day life.
    And, when your children see things and ask questions, give them honest answers.

    just by acknowledging that you feel you need to do something about family diversity is probably the biggest step!

  17. Thanks for sharing, Libby Anne. Good ideas and thought provoking.

  18. Sometimes diversity is hard to come by. I live in rural Maine, the state tied (with Vermont) for being the whitest state in the country. Although LGBT diversity is easier to find in the larger cities like Portland, racial diversity becomes more and more vanilla the more rural you go. My sister owns a daycare in an even more rural area, and she always comes home with stories about the kids talking about the "brown people" they saw on TV. Another time, she had a new family call to enroll their child, and she was awkwardly surprised when they showed up and it turned out to be a black family. She said she felt awful for feeling surprised that they hadn't mentioned on the phone that they were black…it was just her gut reaction after working so long in an entirely white community (Another mom who enrolled an adopted child DID mention over the phone that her child was black, saying, "I figured I'd prepare you since, after all, this is Maine.")

  19. There are a LOT of comments that I didn't read here, so someone may have mentioned this already, but, while I think sexual orientation and gender identity are extremely important things to talk to your children about, I think speaking openly about race and ethnicity is equally (if not more, almost) important. Race is something that often gets looked over by white parents- either because it can be very uncomfortable to discuss both the past and present privilege that white people have had over people of color, or because they think it is sort of a "given" that they are not themselves racist/racism is not a factor in their everyday lives. But you would be surprised how children often interpret the relative "silence" on this issue, how they don't learn the proper, non-offensive language when referring to people of a different color/ethnicity, how they self-segregate to stick with what they know best, etc. Sorry not to be more specific, I'm having a sort of brain fart right now…but a suggested reading would be "Nurture Shock" by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. They have an excellent chapter on talking race with your child/ren (or rather the potential problems of NOT talking race with them)

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