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When kids bring up same-sex marriage

By Lee Rose Emery, Special to CNN
Sometimes moms can face big questions while driving kids around.
Sometimes moms can face big questions while driving kids around.
  • Lee Rose Emery's mind jumps to birds and bees when kids bring up same-sex marriage
  • Expert says the questions challenge a parent's ability to talk about their own feelings
  • Gay dad: "It's not about sex ... It's about interpersonal relationships"
  • Mom who doesn't agree with same-sex marriage will tell kids that it's a choice others make

Editor's note: Lee Rose Emery is the writer of the award-winning blog LACityMom, tips from the carpool lane.

(CNN) -- Deep conversations with my kids seem to always arise in the car. "The most important thing about marriage," I told my kids when the subject came up, "is that you pick someone who is kind, and who really loves you."

My son (then 6) replied, "Then I would definitely NOT marry John (his friend who punches.) My older daughter (then 8) said, "Boys can't marry boys," to which my son responded, "But Noah has two dads!"

And I had thought this was going to be an uncomplicated ride home.

My son's preschool friend, Noah, indeed does have two dads, who have become very much a part of our inner circle of friends. Yet, in that moment in the car, my mind immediately jumped to the subject of the birds and the bees, and I started to feel unsure about what the kids' next questions would be, and how to thoughtfully and appropriately proceed.

I decided to poll a range of parents and ask an expert to see how they would discuss the topic of nontraditional families with small children.

Laurie, 20, mother of two, from Massachusetts, says she has not discussed the topic but it has been on her mind.

"Our town is homogeneous and traditional. In not mentioning that there are alternative lifestyles, I worry that the kids will just assume that the traditional family structure is the 'right way'. I want to expose them to other ways of life, but I don't want it to be artificial. My brother converted to Catholicism, and his views are becoming more and more conservative. We don't see them a lot, but as the kids get older I wonder what they are going to hear."

A Los Angeles parent wrote to me, "I did have this conversation in the framework of families ... because he is exposed to that in our life. My son is 6 and one client has two children with her partner. My son was more concerned with the science of it. Which one was the No. 1 mommy? He thought the woman who carried the child would be the No. 1 mommy but was going to clarify who that was next time he saw my client. I told him that wasn't a polite question to ask. Unsure if that was the right thing to say or not. He does not know about the birds and the bees but has observed that most kids have some identifiable parent of both sexes."

Parenting expert Betsy Brown Braun said, "There is nothing loaded about this for kids ... it is loaded for parents, as it challenges our ability to discuss our own feelings ... we are all victims of the attitudes and worlds in which we were raised."

Braun says how parents approach the topic of difference and how they communicate that to their children will either teach them to accept difference or not.

Braun, the author of "You're Not the Boss of Me: Brat-proofing Your Four- to Twelve-Year-Old Child," also stressed that when the subject of same-sex couples arises it need not be a conversation about sexuality or reproduction, but instead about diversity.

Heather, 37, from Massachusetts, has a 9-year-old adopted daughter. Her daughter knows some children with same-sex parents from school, but no questions have come up on the topic.

Heather says, "My faith is something that is very important to me, and it (same-sex partnership) is something I don't believe in, but I also feel that it is not my job to judge." Should the topic arise, Heather said she would discuss it as a choice that some people make.

I called Noah's dad, Greg, and asked what his kids (he also has an 8-year-old daughter) say to other kids about their family.

"When Noah and his sister meet a new friend and they ask who their mommy is, they say, 'I don't have a mommy. I have two dads.' " The daughter says she acts as if it is a matter of fact, as if it is the silliest question in the world.

Noah's dad went on to say, "Adults get nervous about talking about it because they're thinking the kids are talking about sex." (Just as I had that day in the car.) "It's not about sex," he said, "It's about interpersonal relationships."

Rebecca, from Los Angeles, said: "We have two young children (ages 3½ and 20 months.) And we also have some same-sex couple friends. We have never directly addressed the question, although we surely would if the kids asked. My view is that we do not directly address male-female couples so why treat same-sex couples any differently? We treat our same-sex couple friends and refer to them the same way we do for any other couple. For instance, Dan and Mark are usually discussed as a single unit, just like Jane and Jack."

Keeping the conversation on the level of relationship rather than sexuality makes it something kids can understand. But what if kids do want to know about the science and the logistics of how a child could be conceived without a man and a woman?

With young children, Braun says, "Keep it simple. To make a baby you need a part from a man and a woman."

Greg tells his children, "Two men can't have a baby, so we found a woman who was willing to help us."

Traditional family does not exist in the same way that it used to. My kids have friends with single parents, stepparents, adoptive parents and gay parents.

Dr. Gloria Walther, author and director of the Walther Pre-School in Los Angeles, advises that when we speak to our young children, "We use a larger brush stroke to define family. The true thing is a family is made up of adults and children that love and trust. That intimate circle of family is defined by the people in it."