'There is no dad in our family': How parents have helped their kids navigate questions about their households
How to talk to kids about having a 'different' family — and why they don't have to share
“What’s the difference between an apple and an orphan? An apple gets picked!” As I heard a peer lob this joke on the playground at our school, I saw my child wince. As an adoptee, he is used to his life story being the butt of jokes and the basis for terrible Roblox games — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Different types of families have long been a source of misplaced humor, from teasing kids about being adopted to the “evil stepmother” trope. For some kids, particularly those in multiethnic or LGBTQ households, their family situation can even garner hate and scorn from peers. In this particular instance, I was able to support my kid through his hurt, but I can’t always be there. As a mother to four kids via adoption, including two children who are of a different race than me, I’ve been fielding questions about our family their whole lives. What I didn’t realize, though, was that eventually, they would need to learn to field these intrusive questions themselves. How do we teach kids to explain — or even defend — their own families?
As with everything in parenting, I turned to folks further along in their journey than me for advice. I first contacted Deb Whitewood, who lives with her wife Susan and their 11-year-old son, Landon, in Pittsburgh. Landon is a transracial adoptee, meaning he is Black with two white parents following his adoption from foster care. The couple also has two donor-conceived adult daughters. Their marriage was a landmark court case for marriage equality in Pennsylvania, and Deb is now a community activist for LGBTQ and foster/adoptive families in her city. She tells me that from the time her girls were very young, they provided a script about their family for the teachers. “We would say that Abbey and Katie have two moms. We are Mommy and Mama; there is no dad in our family. If the kids ask them about a dad, they will say they have a donor, who is someone who helps a family to get pregnant. This is what our children are going to say.” That was just part of the running dialogue in their home — what they told their kids from their newborn days as they cradled them close. “I tell parents it needs to be part of the dialogue from when they’re rocking them in a nursery, so they can say it without stumbling when it matters," Whitewood says.
For their son, the conversation has looked a little different. Yes, he still has two moms and two sisters who were conceived via donor. He is also a transracial adoptee, which can raise even more questions when a child doesn’t “match” their parents. He doesn’t just have two moms, and he doesn’t have a donor. He has a biological family as well, and they are a part of his life. Explaining the love that surrounds Landon, and his complicated story, can be tough for a young kid.
As a child who grew up in a transracial adoption herself, Angela Tucker is now an author and educator who helps adoptees and adoptive parents navigate their journey. Her upcoming book, You Should Be Grateful: Stories of Race, Identity and Transracial Adoption, delves into the complex identity of kids like Landon Whitewood — the kid Tucker was once herself. Tucker told me that, just like Whitewood, her parents role-played what others might say to their family. It was common dinnertime conversation in their bustling family of seven, which included both biological and adopted kids. One of the questions young adoptees get frequently, she says, is who their “real” mom is, or where their “real” mom went. My own kids have been asked this dozens of times and even teased about it. Tucker told me she had an answer ready for those awkward moments. “I decided that when people asked me if my mom was my real mom, I would say I pinched her and she screamed. She is definitely real,” laughs Tucker.
While humor is often a great way to defuse unwelcome questions, Tucker says her response also highlights something important. Kids don’t owe anyone details about their family. “At home, in my safe place, I developed language to talk about my birth family. I had that in my back pocket if I needed it,” she says. If she wanted to share her story, she knew how to. She also was taught that she did not have to.
Tucker points to the WISE Up model developed by the Center for Adoption Support and Education, which was designed for adoptive situations but works well for any family facing undue scrutiny:
Walk away: Kids can choose to ignore what was said or heard. They don’t owe anyone a response if they don’t want to.
It’s private: It’s important for kids to know that they are not indebted to anyone. Just because the world is nosy about families who don’t fit the mold does not mean those families are obligated to satisfy that curiosity.
Share something: If they want, kids can share something about their adoption story. It can be a small detail, such as where they were born or something they like about being adopted.
Educate: Instead of getting personal, kids can educate the asker about adoption in general.
The Whitewoods were able to implement some of these tips when their daughter Abbey, now 25, was in middle school. “We did have one incident where we had one child that insisted that Abbey had to be a lesbian because she had two moms,” Whitewood shares. The family knew they had to educate the child in a way that was supportive and comfortable for Abbey. They rehearsed calling the other family together so that Abbey felt confident first. With all four people on the phone, Whitewood herself set the record straight.
“We had to educate that child," Whitewood recalls. "I told the mom her child had some thoughts about Abbey based on misunderstandings, and we wanted to help her understand. ... I explained that sexuality is not inherited. Abbey was straight and liked boys.” The mom, says Whitewood, was horrified her daughter had said such a thing — but Whitewood knows kids draw conclusions about the world when parents fail to educate them on these topics. “The entire situation was cut off at the knees right there because we practiced and were proactive,” she adds. Abbey was not forced to do this; she was a willing participant and has since learned how to advocate for her family on her own through careful modeling.
Whitewood says families of any makeup can apply these same strategies. If a child is being raised by a stepparent or grandparents, the same guidelines apply. Rehearse, empower and support the kids in understanding that their family is just as valid as anyone else’s. In fact, less than half of U.S. kids live in a household with two married parents in their first marriage, according to Pew Research. The nuclear family is no longer the norm, but it will take work and education before the prying questions catch up with today’s reality.
Tucker says she works with a lot of adoptive parents who want kids to be able to tell their own stories, but miss the piece that kids don’t have to tell their stories. “Get away from the frustration that microaggressions cause, and instead understand the status quo," she says. "The status quo is that white people are curious about us and feel an entitlement to know. It takes sharpening and mentorship to understand how to push back against that.”
Whitewood urges parents to realize they can give their kids the tools to navigate this, even if it feels overwhelming at first. “It’s important for kids to know, ‘This is how your family was created. It's different, but it's your origin story.’ Be thoughtful, don’t wait for them to come to you with a question in first grade. Don’t wait until it’s an issue to begin giving them the tools.”
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