Conversation

Why it’s important to teach your child that no two families are the same

Today, families come in many different forms. Young children can presume that all families are like their own and may be confused when they see a family that differs. If you talk to them early and often about all the different types of families, they will develop understanding and acceptance.

Different families

Children may be cared for by a family member such as a grandparent or aunt. They may grow up in an extended blended family or in a single parent family, following divorce or separation. They may have been adopted, fostered or conceived through artificial reproduction to a couple or a single parent. They may be parented by a same sex couple or a single LGBT parent. Their family set-up may change during their childhood.

What is certain is that the ‘nuclear’ family of a heterosexual married couple with their own children is no longer perceived as the ‘norm’ and greater numbers of children are living in non-traditional family structures than ever before.

Whatever your own family set-up, it’s good to talk with your kids about all the different sorts of families they and their friends are growing up in and that what matters is acceptance and love.

Research has shown repeatedly that children grow up happy when they are given stability, love and consistency in their family, and the family structure itself has little importance. Dr Susan Golombok, director of Cambridge University’s Centre for Family Research, considered 35 years of research studies for her book Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms. Her conclusion: What their family looks like “seems to matter less for children than does the quality of family relationships, the support of their community and the prevailing attitudes of the society in which they live.”

She continues:

“It’s stigmatisation outside the family, rather than relationships within it, that creates difficulties for children in new family forms.”

Families aren’t self-contained units. Sadly, parents and carers may still encounter outright prejudice or have to ‘explain’ their families, while children may experience prejudice, ignorance and the perception of being ‘different’. Schools have a responsibility to help children feel comfortable and happy, and the more you can talk to your children at home the more you normalise the fact that families come in all shapes and sizes.

Tips for talking about families today

  • Keep discussions simple and honest with younger children, and focus conversations around loving families and caring relationships.
  • Don’t shy away from conversations and don’t be judgemental. Children pick up on your perceptions.
  • Explain that lots of families are different. If your child is intrigued by a friend’s family set up, explain simply and clearly that, for example, “Jake has two daddies and they look after him and love him just like I do with you” or “Ella’s Granny looks after her just like Mummy”.
  • Have a zero tolerance of derogatory, unkind phrases. Often common in school playgrounds, these expressions may not be purposely used to be hateful but they do carry negative connotations and are hurtful. Explain why language matters and about being kind to everyone.
  • Explain that no family is the same and every family is special.
  • Read books together that portray the reality of modern families in all their forms. The Family Book by Todd Parr celebrates the love we feel for our families in all their varieties, whether your family is big or small, clean or messy, or you have two mums or two dads. Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson is the heart-warming and best-selling true story of two male penguins, Ray and Silo, who are just like the other penguin couples at Central Park Zoo – except they’re both boys. With a little help from the zookeeper, they manage to become parents. For older children who may be feeling ‘different’, The Suitcase Kid by Jacqueline Wilson tells the story of Andy whose life changes dramatically following her parents’ divorce, living one week with each parent and dealing with step parents and step siblings, loneliness and a longing for her past life.

Talking to your child and reading books with your child is a great way of showing them that families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. It teaches them that it doesn’t matter what families look like just that they are filled with love and happiness.