This week, President Obama mentioned gay marriage in his inaugural speech. He stated, “[o]ur journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law—for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” Lots of children watched the speech, more so this year than usual because it fell on a school holiday. Earlier in the week, NBC Nightly News covered a story about marriage equality laws in the US. Children, particularly children in elementary school and older, are listening to these snippets of the gay marriage debate. Even if you don't talk about the topic at the dinner table, your kids likely know more about it than most parents assume.
After hearing the news coverage the other night, my own 8-year-old mentioned that gay people shouldn't marry because they can't reproduce. I was taken aback, not knowing where she picked this up – and realizing she was taking the exact opposite position I would have taught. She heard this somewhere, I am not she even really understand the concept of reproduction. She was saying a sound bite. With her still-developing brain, she struggles to understand an abstract political concept. Even when kids know someone who is gay or lesbian, they may not understand how a political issue relates to real people.
Based on a national Gallup poll from November 2012, more people support marriage equality than oppose it. But even if you support it, you may not know how to talk to your kids about it. It is such a heated debate in the US that it can feel a little like tiptoeing around a landmine. I know I didn't really want to delve into a conversation about reproduction. I did tell her that lots of couples can't reproduce (we have lots of friends who used adoption) and lots of married couples don't have children. But it made me realize that a lot of other kids probably heard these same snippets and the debate provides a teachable moment. Here are the top 5 things elementary school children should know about gay marriage, and how to tell them in ways they can understand.
1. They probably already know kids at school with two moms or two dads. For children, they need concrete concepts. They can't really grasp the concept of a state-based constitutional amendment. What they do know is being a kid. In the US, at least two million children are being raised by gay or lesbian parents. So the odds are, even if they don't know it, they probably have a kid or two or ten at their school with two moms or two dads. The debate in the country is happening and will continue to happen for a while. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with marriage equality, the reality is it affects real kids in real families, and those real kids live just down the street. At my house, after my daughter made the disparaging comment, I realized she didn't know that this affected real people, real kids, real friends. We promptly went to my Facebook profile and looked at pictures of my gay and lesbian friends in very real and committed partnerships and families. It wasn't just a news story, it is real life.
2. Two-mom families and two-dad families work just like any other family. One or both parents work, kids have chores, kids play and fight and get into trouble, and families sit down for dinner and talk about their day. A new study in Child Development shows that lesbian parents do the best at sharing parenting responsibilities, and their kids benefit from it. Although these families may look different than your family, all families differ in lots of ways. Some families have one parent, some two parents, some a grandma, some a foster mom. All families are different and all families are the same. As we say in my house, "The only rule for families is you have to love one another. All the other stuff is details."
3. The worse part of having two moms or two dads is the teasing that can happen. Kids can be teased by other kids at school for being different. Kids get teased for lots of different reasons – wearing the wrong sneakers, speaking with an accent, being a slow reader. And having two moms or two dads isn't really different than this. Teasing by others, though, is harmful. Kids who are teased by their peers, especially if it is consistent, are more likely to be depressed, anxious, and have trouble concentrating in school. It is also hurtful for kids with two moms or two dads to see their family described as "not normal." Kids in elementary school understand discrimination, especially when it affects their family. The negative consequences of experiencing discrimination – whether it be by other kids, other parents, teachers, or the government – impacts children in deep, meaningful ways. This is bad for kids, regardless of your politics.
4. Sometimes adults can be wrong, and hurtful. Kids typically assume if an adult says it, it is true, fair, and final. As adults, we know this isn't the case. But kids can also understand that ideas change over time. They have learned about the civil right movement and Martin Luther King. They understand that, at some point in history, people thought Blacks and Whites shouldn't go to school together. They understand that people's ideas have changed over time to be more fair. People's ideas about this will also change.
5. If they notice bullying, they should say something to an adult who can stop it. Period. No kid should be made fun of for any reason. Just because parents have strong opinions, and they may see adults express their opinions forcibly, no kid should be the target.