Dads

The new normal: How to talk to your kids about gay parents, by a gay dad

Oct. 23, 2012 at 6:00 AM ET

Jerry Mahoney (on left), with his family: Partner Drew Tappon, daughter Sutton and son Bennett.
Courtesy Tappon-Mahoney family
Jerry Mahoney (on left), with his family: Partner Drew Tappon, daughter Sutton and son Bennett.

Imagine you’re at the train station, taking your kids into the city to see the Lion King.  A man steps off the 6:16 from Grand Central, and two toddlers run up to him shouting, “Daddy!  Daddy!” He gives out two hugs and about a thousand kisses and tells them how much he missed them while he was at work. 

You’ve witnessed scenes like this many times, but as always, your heart melts. Then the dad stands up, walks a little further down the platform and kisses… another man.

Well, that’s different.

“How was your day?” the first guy asks, and the other one starts talking about who got time outs, why the kids have maple syrup in their hair and who flushed what down the toilet right before they left.

OK, back to normal.

You’ve probably done the math by now — Look! Gay dads! — but there’s a decent chance you’ll feel a tug on your leg, and your kid will look up at you and ask, “Yo, what’s the deal there?”

This is the story of my life. I am a gay dad, and I confuse children.

I’m sure it happens more than I realize. Just by acting like any other parents, my partner Drew and I are inadvertently sparking countless conversations that start with, “Where’s their Mommy?”

You’re free to handle that question however you want, of course. But if you don’t know where to begin, allow me to help.

When Drew and I decided to have kids, we knew that the gay dad job description would include explaining our family to the world for the rest of our lives. That’s one of the reasons I started my blog.

It’s also why I am kindly providing you, the sympathetic straight parent, with some guidelines. Obviously, what you say will depend on how old your kids are and how much exposure they’ve had to gay people previously. I’m not a child psychologist, just a gay dad who’s thought a lot about the issue and who has a big stake in it.  After all, I don’t want your kids coming up to my kids one day and telling them they’re weird for not having a mommy.

If you don’t want that either, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Use the word “gay”.

Everyone’s concentrating on taking the negative connotation away from the word “gay,” but at the same time, let’s not forget to encourage the positive. We don’t want “gay” to be a curse, so go ahead and teach it to your kids.  That’s how we’ll really take the sting out of the word.

“Oh, Uncle Doug and Uncle Max?  They’re gay.” 

“Aunt Vera and Aunt Debbie aren’t sisters, honey. They’re lesbians.” 

“Well, statistics suggest at least 3 of the Smurfs must be gay.” 

Don’t make a big deal about it. Just say it. If your kids hear some jerk at school sneering, “That’s so gay!” their response will be, “Yeah?  So what?  So are Uncle Max and, most likely, Brainy.”

2. You don’t have to pretend half the world is gay. 

Don’t play down the fact that your kids may have witnessed something unfamiliar. “Geez, Madison. They have two daddies, what’s the biggie?” It’s natural for poor little Madison to be confused, so give her a break.

Kids are probably going to assume all families have one mommy and one daddy, because that’s all most of them see.  Be honest, and use words like “most” and “some.” “Most families have a mommy and a daddy… but some have two mommies or two daddies.” As long as you don’t attach a value judgment to that statement, it really is no biggie.

3. Get your mind out of the gutter.

It seems silly that I even have to say this, but when some people think about homosexuality and kids, they imagine that you’re suggesting they graphically describe intercourse to kindergarteners. Um, no. All you should be doing is answering the questions they’re asking, and save the rest for junior high health class. If they wonder why Owen has two daddies, it’s because “His daddies are in love”… or because “Some men love other men.” Hopefully, you’ve taught your kids to understand what love is, so no further explanation should be required.

4. Don’t make it about your kid — yet.

Understanding gay parents is a big enough topic of discussion, and your kids probably won’t be prompted to wonder about their own sexuality at this point. You don’t need to say, “You might marry a man someday yourself, Junior!” While it’s great to plant the seeds of acceptance early, you’ll probably just end up confusing them more. Your kids have plenty of time to figure their own feelings out, and when the time comes, make sure you let them know that you love them no matter what. But no, they can’t marry Brainy Smurf.

5. Most importantly, just talk to your kids.

Your kids are bound to see a gay family sooner or later, even if it’s just Mitchell and Cameron on Modern Family, or Bryan and David of The New Normal. So if they come to you with questions, it’s really important that you don’t get weird about it. Don’t change the subject, don’t tell them they’re too young to understand and definitely don’t lie and say that the mommy is home doing dishes or off fighting in Afghanistan. Otherwise the message you’re sending is that there’s a reason to be uncomfortable around gay families. The same goes for all kinds of families, whether they have two moms, two dads, a single mom, a single dad, foster parents or if they’re being raised by wolves – just explain that that’s a different kind of family and gee, isn’t it nice that everyone’s a little different.

…Which leads me to a big secret.

You see, there is a gay agenda.  It’s true.

What most people don’t realize is that the gay agenda isn’t “everybody should be gay.”  It’s “everybody should be themselves.”

Be a nerd, be a Yanni fan, be a real housewife of your particular geographic region. Whatever. It’s all part of the same cause, and it’s a great message to teach your kids.

Teaching your kids to be accepting of gay people and gay families is a great way to teach them acceptance in a broader sense – and to teach them the ultimate lesson: to be accepting of themselves.

I know some people think differently, but that’s what I call family values.

Read more of Jerry Mahoney's parental musings on his blog, "Mommy Man: Adventures of a Gay Superdad," and follow him on Twitter.

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