How do you have a family that talks?
November 29, 2010 2:04 PM   Subscribe

How can we develop the kind of family where things like race and sexuality and other big topics are discussed in an open, healthy, relaxed way?

Unneccessary backstory:
My husband and I were both raised in religious households where things were ignored or swept under the rug instead of talked about. My husband's parents never talked to him about sex and mine said "Don't it do it until you're married" and that was it. Homosexuality or anything having to do with sexuality in any way were never discussed. Our parents were all wonderful and loving, but I think they had the mindset that talking about sex would make us go out and have sex (because we obviously wouldn't learn about it any other way), or that acknowledging two men holding hands would make us catch TEH GAY.
Added to this, we recently read through NurtureShock, and the chapter on race made me realize I have no idea how to discuss that either. My impulse that talking about race will only draw attention to differences and thus increase racism is flawed at best. My husband is a minority and learning to talk about this will be important, I think.
Also, in our extended family, jokes based on weight, gender, race, religion and other stupid stereotypes are frequent (good-natured teasing towards each other included). There's no chance of changing them and we love them anyway, but I would never want my kid to think that just because Aunt Suzy made fun of his cousin for being fat, he could ever do the same to anyone else.

I know this is a bit of a jumble, but when my five-year-old nephew asked me what sex was the other day and I just froze, I realized how unprepared I am. We only have one baby for now, so we have time to work this out.

I want the kind of relationship with my child(ren) where race/racism, sex/sexuality, religion, and any other topics can be discussed organically as part of our every day life, instead of saved for Big Talks and After School Specials, but I've never seen this in practice and I'm afraid my tendency to ignore things like my parents will win if I don't work hard from the beginning to be the kind of parent I want be.

If you grew up in a family like this, how did it work out? How do you encourage it in your own family?
posted by flail to Human Relations (17 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

I'm going to fail at trying to describe this, so forgive me.

All those things need to stop being separations in your mind. To make them normal, they have to be normal to you. You don't think it's weird to talk about rock music or fantasy novels, right?

Read books, expose yourself to those topics.
posted by royalsong at 2:18 PM on November 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think the most important thing is to make it clear that there is no such thing as a bad question or a taboo topic, and to strive to answer children's questions in a way that is honest, appropriate for their age level, and (super importantly) doesn't talk down to them.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:21 PM on November 29, 2010

My mother never talked to me about sex, racism, or anything else inflammatory (if that's the right word) when I was growing up. We have a much better relationship now, but I hate hearing about her sex life, the embarrassment is still there. (I won't tell you about the time she showed me her vibrator.)

I talk to my kids about sex, racism, or anything else inflammatory frequently. It started when I was the birthing partner for a friend and my (then) 4 year old daughter overhead conversations about conception and childbirth and whatnot. She asked a question. I took a second to think, "well, I either answer the question now in a child-appropriate way, or fob her off only to have embarrassing Big Talks later on, like those mortifying ones my mother had with me".

I answered her question (how babies are made) in very simple terms. She skipped off merrily, a little bit disgusted but still satisfied that she had an answer. Minimal embarrassment on my part.

And now we discuss condom use to prevent AIDS, politics, STD's, paedophiles, racism... nothing is off the agenda.

Just take a deep breath and answer those questions in an age-appropriate way. They will learn that they can ask you anything. Or that's how it works in my house, anyway.

(I think it's a shame that your nephew had to ask you that question. He should be able to ask his parents, but perhaps he's being brought up in the same way you were.)
posted by malibustacey9999 at 2:22 PM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

My parents aren't strictly religious, but they a bit prudish, with some "delightful" comments on race. My wife's family, on the other hand, is quite open (I think I initially blushed at some of of the discussions happening in their household when I was first dating my wife-to-be). It's not about being graphic, it's about honesty.

I think once they're old enough to ask questions, your kids are old enough for answers. How much detail you provide at certain points is for you to decide with your husband.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:23 PM on November 29, 2010

I sorta grew up in a family like this (or at least in a family that aspired to be like this), and I'm attempting to create my own family like this now.

We do talk about race in my family, quite a bit actually, because we are a multiracial family. I also read NurtureShock and agree that most white parents have a profoundly difficult time talking about race with their kids--often because they are uncomfortable talking about this stuff with other adults, too. I'm probably about as comfortable talking about race as a white American woman can be, but it took lots of reading and practice. My kids have heard from me about slavery, race relations, etc. Kids' books on these issues, and books for parents, help a lot.

I wasn't so comfortable talking about sex with my kids, so I went to my favorite independent bookstore and bought a book written for my kids my age. It gave them some information and, more importantly, gave me some vocabulary and ways to approach this issue myself.

Kids ask about all sorts of differences. I suspect you had questions when you were a kid, and your parents didn't answer them, or said as little as possible, or said, "That's not polite to talk about."

You should try to answer their questions honestly and react to things you hear them talking about. For example, I heard my kids say something a few times about a "man lady." I had no idea where they got this idea from, but it initiated a long conversation (in an age-appropriate way) about what it means to be trans-gendered and how people who are trans might look and feel (didn't use the word "trans" though--just talked about concepts). My kids also know that some men like to kiss women and some men like to kiss men. Etc.

Also, in our extended family, jokes based on weight, gender, race, religion and other stupid stereotypes are frequent (good-natured teasing towards each other included). There's no chance of changing them and we love them anyway, but I would never want my kid to think that just because Aunt Suzy made fun of his cousin for being fat, he could ever do the same to anyone else.

I don't think this is going to work. Is it okay to make jokes based on weight, gender, race, and religion? If the answer for your kids is no, then I'm not sure how you can convince them that sometimes it is okay, when Aunt Suzy does it. That's a really mixed message. You can ask your relatives to tone it down when they are around your kids. You can also think about what it would mean to be an ally--a straight ally to gay people; a white ally to people of color; a thin ally to fat people (or whatever)--and how that might mean telling your family you aren't comfortable with these kinds of jokes anymore. Are you comfortable with them or not? Because I wouldn't be.

If you laugh at them, though, then you'll be hearing these same jokes from your kids later on. If you don't want this behavior with your kids, you'll either have to ask your family to stop, or, at the very least, not participate yourself and have frank conversations later on with your kids about why those jokes are bad. If any of these jokes are being directed at your spouse, then what happens if they are directed at your kids? How will your kids learn to deal with these jokes when they are directed at them on the school yard?

Kids tend not to see ambiguity that we adults can appreciate. (Though, in my world, jokes about race pretty much aren't ever funny. Same with fat jokes. And so on.)

A big part of this is being able to address your own discomfort with these issues and getting past it so your kids might not ever be uncomfortable with it. Good luck.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:28 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just to expand on what royalsong said, I think that just judging from your asking the question you probably already have some critical thinking about sexuality, race, etc. in your daily life. Let that continue and build on it. In fact, if your kids grow up hearing you engaging in critical thinking about race, sextuality, etc in rock music and fantasy novels as well as in daily life, you'll foster the atmosphere you're looking for.

Great that you're thinking about this. I grew up in a liberal white family that was both rather polite and rather repressed. When a sibling brought the n-word home, the fury came down hard, and later differences over sexuality were quite fraught. Love my family, but it might have been even better with some consciousness like this.
posted by Mngo at 2:32 PM on November 29, 2010

flail: If you grew up in a family like this, how did it work out? How do you encourage it in your own family?

I grew up in a household like this. My parents talked about race and sex with us because they talked about race and sex with each other; most often in the context of arguing with each other over the news. They didn't talk to us about it; they talked about it with us as part of the conversation. They were interested in our opinions, too, which obviously changed as we grew up.

In bluedaisy's example, while peace may have been held at the family event, you can be sure that the minute my mother got in the car, it would have been "Could you BELIEVE what Aunt Jane said about black people?!?!" followed by agreement from my dad and a lot of conversation about why people think it's OK to have attitudes like that.

My parents also made their entire book shelf available to us, in that Our Bodies, Ourselves and The Joy of Sex were on the bottom shelf, not the top one. That was important. From a very young age we were read Where Did I Come From? and books that included same sex parents as part of story time rotation, no big deal. (Although I think WDICF got a special introductory session.)

We're not big rug sweepers in my family. Things were on the table for comfortable discussion in later years because they had always been on the table, I guess.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:47 PM on November 29, 2010 [8 favorites]

I read a blog post a few months ago that rubbed me the wrong way in many ways, but one thing that has stuck with me is the way the author has initiated conversations about race with her daughter. I particularly remember the part about her inviting her daughter to think with her about questions like, "Who is here? Why would that be?" Here's the link in case it's helpful.
posted by not that girl at 3:04 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

You need to have these things come up more or less organically, even though you clearly want to push them into view. The best way to do that is to expose them to diversity as much as possible. Go shopping at an "ethnic" market, or in an "ethnic" area of town. (That might be Asian, African-American, Latino, whatever.) Go to a church (often Unitarian) that promotes discussion and actively welcomes members of all types, including LGBTQ and disabled. Buy dolls that do not look like your child. (Or, if your child comes from a minority background, buy the same color.) Volunteer in places where your child will work not only alongside you, but alongside people who are not like them -- food pantries, respite care, etc.

There's no real "point" here, except that you make it clear to your kids that this is simply the way we go shopping, or this is simply where we go to church. This is just what people do; we are friendly with lots of different people, and we talk to them about what makes us similar and what makes us different because first and foremost they are our friends. Build relationships so that the first thing out of their mouth isn't "You're fat!" but "I like your pretty shirt!"

That's especially important with non-heterosexual people, whose sexuality may not be immediately apparent on first glance. The more the kids can understand that first this is Uncle Jeff-who-is-fun-and-loves-me and THEN this is Uncle-Jeff-who-has-a-boyfriend-not-a-girlfriend, the better.

Books and magazines are a big deal. My mom always jokes about how I ended up sharing how babies were made, complete with proper anatomical terms, before she had to tell me. When she asked, I replied very matter-of-factly that I had learned it in my Charlie Brown 'Cyclopedia. Two other books we had lying around were Where Did I Come From and What's Happening To Me.

Once you get into more diverse reading material, try having things that are just plain interesting but thought-provoking around. The New Yorker, for example, or the Harper's Index. You can get a lot of good discussions going with "Hey, I read this thing the other day..."

I would agree that "good-natured" jokes based on stereotypes are just not a good idea to bring into the mix, ever. Kids don't understand why it's okay to joke with one person but not another, especially with people they don't know very well. When adults do this, it creates a double standard, and that's hard enough to parse without trying to figure out who is okay to joke about and who isn't.

Moreover, this is a good way to start a conversation about why things are and aren't appropriate: "We have so many ways to joke with each other, and so many descriptive words in our language -- even words we make up! Why should we use words that might hurt someone's feelings?"

And as a veteran of many somewhat heavy discussions at the dinner table... for God's sake, give it a break sometime :) My high school boyfriend never wanted to come over because "your dad always wants to TALK to me!"
posted by Madamina at 3:05 PM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

And on second glance... apparently DarlingBri and I must have grown up in the same house :)
posted by Madamina at 3:06 PM on November 29, 2010

I have been meaning to check out the Unitarian Universalist Our Whole Lives, "a series of sexuality education curricula for six age groups: grades K-1, grades 4-6, grades 7-9, grades 10-12, young adults (ages 18-35), and adults." It looks like a comprehensive, calm look at issues of sex and sexuality.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:31 PM on November 29, 2010

One thing that I think is super helpful in fostering these types of conversations within any family or group is to make sure everyone knows that they're allowed to make mistakes while talking about this stuff. For example: it's okay to ask silly questions and it's okay to correct yourself when you realize you didn't have the best spur-of-the-moment answer.

This sets you up for less pressure when you encounter these topics. If you feel like you have to have the BEST and ONLY answer to "where do babies come from?" or "why is that joke funny?", it's going to make you a nervous wreck and want to ignore the issue. If everything is an on-going discussion it makes it easier to handle mixed messages, really awkward questions or things that require research (I know my slightly naive mother was stumped with some of my questions). Sure, things might have to be simplified for younger kids ("No teasing at all!"), but later on you can modify things as you all mature as a family ("Let's talk about why we all laughed at that joke").
posted by annaramma at 3:56 PM on November 29, 2010

Sex is probably the one thing that my parents were hinky about talking about -- my mother pointed me at some ABC After School Specials and then cautiously asked if I had any questions, and when I said no, she left it at that. But with absolutely everything else, they were very approachable. They always gave very calm, age-appropriate answers to any questions my brother and I had -- or sometimes even ran interference if they heard that the kids in general were buzzing about a particular topic and they wanted to just gently set us kind of straight.

For instance -- there was buzz about one of my teachers in Jr. High being gay, but I just barely grasped what that meant and my younger brother got it even less (but he was nevertheless eager to use "gay" as a smear, like kids with more mischief than sense tend to do). So one night over dinner my parents both just told my brother and I what "being gay" meant -- and, they stressed, that it wasn't anything bad or weird, it's just that that's the way some people roll. (I will NEVER forget the way my father referred to sex during this conversation -- his exact words were, "that's just how some people 'get their ya-ya's out'.") I don't remember them making a big song-and-dance over leading into it -- no big serious "Kids, we have something to say to you". I can only assume it just sort of...calmly got introduced as a topic.

Maybe the way to keep yourself calm is to remind yourself that for kids, none of this IS a big deal, it's just a thing they're wondering about. They treat questions like "where do babies come from" with equally as much weight as "why is poop brown" or "what's inside trees". It's just one of many things they don't know yet about how the world works, and want to know about.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:27 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

My parents taught me to treat everyone equally by doing so themselves. Disparaging jokes weren't told, and if someone outside the family told one, my parents rolled their eyes and showed obvious disapproval. In contrast, sex was something talked about appropriate when it came up, and never hidden -- and where they couldn't get me to ask questions and didn't want to force it on me, they left a book on the subject in the garage where they knew I'd find it (although not the best book in retrospect, had to unlearn a lot there.)

Really, the only was to do this is to accept a couple of things: first, by going out of your way to emphasize or de-emphasize something, you're adding spin, so just be matter-of-fact about things; and second, kids know what they learn, and if they're not learning it from you they'll just learn it somewhere else, so look to answer questions about any subject the same way: with facts.

Those facts, by the way, can include the subtleties. For instance, my kids picked up "Jesus" and "Jesus Christ" as epithets (yay, kindergarten!) and here's what I tell them (keep in mind we're not a religious family): "Those words describe a person who is very important to a lot of people; if you use those words to talk about him, that's fine, but if you use those words because you're upset or angry, you're going to offend some people. So don't do it." Simple, straightfoward, and factual, without getting into the non-essentials (like who he was or who he was important to.) Mind you, the follow-up "who was he?" will happen sooner or later, and then I'll tell them in a simple, factual way: "Some people believe he was a good man, who did a lot of good and important things. When you're older and you've learned to read, I can show you a book about him."

Also, don't be afraid to call out bias and prejudice in advance. When asked why a friend has two mommies and they don't, we told our children that "some families have a mom and a dad, some have two moms, some have two dads, and some have only a mom or only a dad. Not everybody understands it, but this is the way families are, they're all different. No biggie." The followup questions had nothing to do with two mommies or two daddies, by the way; what they wanted to talk about was how someone ended up with one mom or one dad only.

In short: they're just questions. They're only high-stakes if you make them so. Keep it simple, keep it straightforward, and don't get into the weeds.
posted by davejay at 5:01 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

er, make "approprite" into "appropriately", and "the only was" into "the only way" -- I do believe I'm getting senile
posted by davejay at 5:02 PM on November 29, 2010

Seconding davejay in saying, walk the walk. Your kids will notice. Two examples from my own upbringing:

1) We had a neighborhood block party once when I was probably 8 or 9. A couple from the other side of the block was there and I didn't know them because they didn't have any kids. He was white, she was Japanese. I was speechless. I'd seen Asian people before, although not many, and I didn't quite grasp how those two could be married. My parents sat down with them and the man introduced his wife, who had a Japanese name .. something like "Hiroeske". My father smiled, shook her hand and said very warmly, without stumbling even a tiny bit, "Hello Hiroske". I watched him and my mom sitting and talking to these people, and smiling and laughing with them, and I very clearly remember thinking, "well, it must be OK then."

2) When I was in 4th grade and my sister was in 5th grade, our town started voluntary busing of kids from the one school in the mostly black neighborhood to my entirely white neighborhood. We walked home for lunch but the bused kids had to bring their lunches because there wasn't time to get them home and back. About a week after school started, my mom said at dinner, "You know, the new kids in your school can't go home for lunch. Wouldn't it be nice if you invited some of them to come over here for lunch sometime?"

I got out the phone book and looked up the number of Lisa, the new girl I'd been talking to, and she happily agreed to come home with me for lunch the next day. Meanwhile my sister sat there with her arms crossed looking very angry. My mom said, "Katie, why don't you ask one of the new kids to come over too?" Katie said, "I'm not asking any of THOSE KIDS to come home with me!" When my very concerned parents asked her why, she said, "All of the new kids in my class are BOYS".

My parents lived what they taught us. I saw how they treated people, how they strove to decent and kind to everyone and how they expected us to do the same. Even so, a 5th grade girl cannot be expected to ask a boy over for lunch. I hope that helps.
posted by Kangaroo at 6:27 PM on November 29, 2010 [13 favorites]

Make sure that you stress equality and discourage any kind of name-calling or jokes at other nationalities, cultures, sexual orientations, etc. And not just in public, but also in the privacy of your own home.
posted by antgly at 8:02 PM on November 30, 2010

« Older Children's wedding book recommendations for our...   |   An elaborate U.S. Christmas Vacation Question Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.