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

May 8 | Guest post by Libby Anne
Photo by Dan Harrelson, used under Creative Commons license.

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.