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However you feel about Valentine’s Day, it’s a difficult holiday to ignore. From the tiny pink and red cupcakes at your local coffee shop, to elegant foam hearts created by well-intended baristas, constant reminders of love are everywhere. Parents quickly become accustomed to their kids exchanging cards with friends and schoolyard crushes. But what happens when your kiddo uses this occasion to announce a same-sex attraction?
First, don’t panic. Second, stop assuming your children are straight. Last, repeat one and two. Then keep reading.
A couple of things about sexual orientation and attraction. While the experience of first awareness is very personal, kids generally begin to understand their orientation during middle childhood (around 5-7 years old). Even if they lack the vocabulary to clearly articulate attraction, most kids are keenly aware. Your response to this emerging identity, as a parent or caring adult, is critical to their future well-being and sense of self. No pressure.
Because kids are more grounded in attraction at this stage, their expressions of identity might seem to be fluid. The most important thing you can do (other than not panic) is to listen. Listen and let them tell you who they are inside. Maybe they’re gay, maybe they’re straight. Maybe they’re bisexual. It doesn’t matter.
What matters is your continued love, protection, and support.
It’s common for parents to try re-directing a child’s expression of same-sex attraction. This is extremely damaging. Comments to a young boy such as, “Oh, honey, don’t be silly. You’ll marry a girl someday” undermine the kiddo’s developing sense of agency. You’re telling him not to trust his own innate self-awareness.
So, buy the cards and some tiny cupcakes. Then sit with the kiddos and listen.
Here are some things to think about over the remaining 364 days this year.
1. If a child expresses same-sex attraction, let them tell you their story. Adults have the tendency to bring an entire life history and apply it to their kid’s question or comments. Look at the world through their lens.
2. Don’t ask the child if they are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Even if they express same-sex attraction, let them tell their story without rushing to slap a label on it.
3. Keep in mind that queer kids often feel they are the only people in the world who are attracted to the same gender. Listen and be aware of how you communicate what it means to be gay, straight, bisexual, etc.
4. Do not say “I knew it!” if a child decides to come out to you. Be cool, take a breath, acknowledge the courage it often takes to disclose, and ask what they need. It’s all about them.
5. Do hold what is shared in confidence. Unless the child mentions serious, life-endangering issues (self-harm, suicidal thoughts, abuse, etc.), do not disclose to anyone without their enthusiastic consent.
6. Do your homework. If you aren’t familiar with a term or are asked a question and are not equipped to answer, that’s ok. They aren’t coming to you because you’re an expert on sex and gender, they’re coming to you because you are safe. Look it up, educate yourself, and circle back with them.
7. This is a bonus step – do keep the lines of communication open. Talk about how they can reach you, and continue to treat them as you did before.
And then, keep up the good work!
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