How to Explain Alternative Family-Building to Kids

All parents should take the time to normalize “alternative” family-building methods to their kids. And we do mean all parents.

The parents of children who came into their family through adoption, surrogacy or gamete donation shouldn’t be the ones who are solely responsible for educating children about the various ways that a family can be formed.

So, whether or not your own family was created through the most “traditional” path, here are some ways to talk about those “non-traditional” families and why it’s important:

Why Should You Talk to Your Kids About Alternative Family-Building?

Any and all parents should talk to their children about things like surrogacy, adoption and IVF because:

  • If you’re planning on growing your own family through one of these paths, your older children will need to understand how their sibling is going to arrive.
  • Children should have a positive and accurate understanding of the people involved in these paths, like gestational carriers, gamete donors, or birth parents.
  • Educating this generation will prevent myths and misinformation from spreading to the following generation.
  • Your children will encounter peers who came into their own families through these “non-traditional” paths sooner or later, if they haven’t already.
  • Normalizing these family-building methods will ensure that they respond appropriately and kindly when they meet children who were born via surrogacy, gamete donation or adoption.
  • Giving them the language and tools they need to talk about these family-building methods will help them to accurately answer questions from curious peers.
  • It will expand their worldview and increase their empathy toward all types of families, not just families that resemble their own.

Although talking to your children about the various ways a family can be formed is particularly important if your own family is pursuing surrogacy or adoption, it’s important for all kids to understand how their friends and family members may have come into the world.

Where Can You Find Resources to Start the Conversation?

While talking one-on-one with your children is important, you might not be sure where to start or how to introduce what feels like a complicated concept. So, utilizing kid-friendly resources is a great first step. Start with:

  • Reading books together about surrogacy, adoption and other family-building methods. There are lots of books for different age groups which show families of every type.
  • Watching movies that portray different types of families. Keep in mind that most movies dramatize situations far beyond accuracy, so you might want to do some research to find movies or TV shows that other parents have recommended for this exact purpose.
  • Using play to normalize different types of families. Child often play “house” to help themselves understand the concept of families and babies. The next time you play together, your child’s toys can “adopt” a “baby” toy, or a toy can represent a pretend gestational carrier. Play can be a powerful tool for helping a child process a complex concept.

What Terms Should You Use for Each Family-Building Path?

Things like IVF and donor conception are a new and confusing concept even for most adults, so it’s understandable if you’re unsure how to explain these concepts in a digestible, age-appropriate way. But with a simple and clear explanation, anyone can grasp the basics, no matter their age. Here are some ways to talk about different family-building methods:

Talking About Surrogacy

Here are a few examples that you can tweak and adapt to suit your situation and your child when talking about surrogacy and donors:

  • “Babies need to be carried in a mommy’s tummy until they’re ready to be born. But Mommy’s tummy is broken. So, the new baby is going to stay in another mommy’s tummy for now, until they’re ready to be born. Then, the baby will come home and be a part of our family forever.”
  • “Babies are made from a little bit of a man and a little bit of a woman, and then that baby needs to be carried inside a woman’s tummy until the baby is ready to be born. But your daddy and I are both men, so we need a woman’s help to make our new baby. So, we found a nice woman who is going to help us. She’s going to carry our new baby until the baby is ready to be born and come home.”
  • “Remember how I carried you inside of my tummy until you were ready to be born? Some mommies have broken tummies and they aren’t able to carry their baby like that. They need help from a mommy like me. So, I’m going to help someone else’s mommy by carrying the baby. Then, when the baby in my belly is born, he will go home to his own mommy.”

Talking About Adoption

Here are a few examples that you can tweak and adapt to suit your situation and your child when talking about adoption:

  • “Somewhere out there, a mommy and daddy have a baby, but they aren’t able to take of that baby. But, your uncles are able to take care of a baby right now. So, that mommy and daddy are going to trust your uncles to take care of the baby forever and be the baby’s daddies.”
  • “Most kids live with the parents who gave birth to them, like you. But some kids can’t live with the parents who gave birth to them. Those parents love their kids so much, but they aren’t able to take care of them right now. They make a hard decision — they decide that their kids need to be with parents who are able to take care of them. So, a family who has been waiting for that child will then adopt them, and they’ll be together as a new family forever.”
  • “There’s a woman we know, and she is about to have a baby. But, she isn’t ready to take care of that baby. So, she’s looking for someone who is ready for a baby. Your mommy and I are ready to take care of that baby. When the baby is born, he or she is going to join our family forever and be your little sibling.”

Talking About Gamete Donation

Here are a few examples that you can tweak and adapt to suit your situation and your child when talking about donor conception:

  • “Your aunt wanted to have a baby, but she didn’t have an important ingredient needed to make a baby on her own. So, a doctor gave her that missing ingredient, and now your aunt is going to have a baby! Not all babies have two parents — some children have one very special parent, like your aunt.”
  • “Some men and women’s bodies don’t make what it needs to have a baby. Those men and women can ask for the help of someone called a ‘donor.’ A donor’s body makes what some peoples’ bodies are missing. The donor then gives away that special missing ingredient to help other people have babies.”
  • “Your friend’s dads had the sperm needed to make a baby, but they didn’t have the egg or the uterus that a baby also needs. So, they asked for the help of two different women: The first woman gave them the egg they needed. A doctor combined that egg with their sperm to make a baby. Then, the second woman carried that baby inside of her uterus. Both of these women helped your friend’s dads to have a baby, because they saw how badly they wanted to be parents.”

What are Some Do’s and Don’ts?

As you prepare to talk to your child, here are a few important things to keep in mind:

  • Be honest while still using age-appropriate language, and don’t wait until they’re “old enough.”
  • Talking about different types of families should be a continued and ongoing topic, not a one-time conversation.
  • Give them a safe space to ask questions.
  • They may have concerns or fears — for example, they may worry a gestational surrogate will “keep the baby.” Address these types of fears and reassure your child.
  • Always use positive terminology, and encourage your child to do the same.
  • Talk about all family-building methods with positivity, so that your child understands that “non-traditional” does not mean “bad” or “less than.”
  • Remind them that no matter how a family is made, they all love each other the same.
  • Children understand more than we give them credit for! With a little time, your child will quickly accept concepts that adults sometimes fear are too complex.

Now that you have a starting point for your own conversations with your children, encourage other parents to talk to their kids, too! Share this guide to help other parents explain and normalize different types of families.

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