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How to Talk to Kids About the New Normal

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These days, it's becoming more and more impossible to define "normal." That's a good thing. Go into nearly any classroom and you'll see the physical landscape of children looks vastly different than it did a generation ago. And that's before we even meet their parents.

Take 8-year-old Ned, the only son of Alice and Jeremy. Last year, in his public school second grade class, Ned had friends whose families weren't just--or, in some cases, remotely--like his own. There were some single moms and a single dad; there were two classmates with two fathers. One friend lived with his grandmother. And Ned's teacher was gay, though it's not something she shared with her young charges. But Ned never had a chance to assume that the traditional Mom-Dad-child family--the one he had--was what might be considered "normal." For Ned, based on what he saw, his family was no more normal than anyone else's.

It's an important shift and reflects a new perspective enjoyed by many children growing up today. At the same time, many of the messages children receive through pop culture--whether it's animated films and television shows, music, or books--continue to enforce one kind of "standard" romantic relationship, and that's the one between a man and a woman. At home, even the most liberal parents among us may have a hard time resisting the urge to encourage intimacy with our sons by jokingly asking them whether there were "any cute girls at camp today?" It may seem harmless, but may also perpetuate the notion that the boys notice girls, and the other way around--and that's that.

Many parents question how, and when, to talk to their kids about homosexuality. Some people--particularly proponents of "don't say gay" legislation in states like Missouri and Tennessee, which aims to forbid public schools from mentioning that homosexuality exists at all--argue that kids are too young to learn about sex. Of course, some are. But talking about gay love needn't include a lesson in the mechanics of sex, gay or otherwise. Others argue that making kids aware of homosexuality may encourage them to be gay--that's ridiculous, and disproven by science besides. Talking about what it means to be gay is a conversation that's appropriate for children who are old enough to have a conversation about what it means to have love and friendship and respect for someone else--all those things that you want them to understand about being good people. It's a conversation that's only awkward if you make it awkward.

And for many families, the conversation is easy. Ned first met his parents' gay friends Brett and Carl when he was three years old. The talk Ned's mother, Alice, had with Ned preceding their visit was less a discussion than a check-in and went something like: "'Brett and Carl are a couple, just like Mommy and Daddy, and love each other very much,'" recalls Alice, "and Ned said, 'okay.' That was it." Later on, Ned asked some specific questions--did they sleep in the same bed, like Mommy and Daddy? Did they kiss goodnight?--and Alice always answered honestly, and age-appropriately. "He's not old enough to have a discussion about how sex works, so we'll save that for later," she says. "But it was perfectly normal to talk to him about love and how people in a couple make each other happy, and all the other non-sexual things that make gay love no different from straight love." Besides the fact that they were both men, Brett and Carl were no different than Mommy and Daddy.

This creation of a new normal extends beyond sexuality, as our baseline for acceptance in various arenas changes rapidly. Many things that used to faze children, or make them "targets" for bullies just a few years ago, are no longer an issue. When I was young, wearing eyeglasses nearly inevitably earned a kid some version of the "Four Eyes" nickname. It probably wasn't surprising: All children who were unfortunate enough to need glasses got the same standard-issue, awkward frames. These days, though, eyeglasses--like nearly everything else available to kids, like braces or "friendship groups," in which well-behaved, if socially-awkward, kids are removed from the classroom as a special treat and not a punishment--have become cool markers of individuality. Kids clamor for specs that feature superheroes like Superman and Catwoman, or fun colors like green and purple. Even Prada makes eyeglasses for kids.

For most children and, for that matter, teenagers, being "different" is undesirable. But the more we talk about our own differences, the more "normal" they become, and the less undesirable they feel. Dr. Edgardo Menvielle, who heads the Gender and Sexuality Development Psychosocial Programs at Children's National Medical Center in Washington D.C., reports seeing pre-school age children whose parents worry that their son likes Barbies better than Transformers, or that their rough and tumble daughters seem to go beyond tomboy. Although these parents work very hard to be relaxed about gender issues deep down, he says, "they are not acknowledging what they want, which is for their kids to be so called 'normal' members of society." Which is a shame, but hopefully not a concern for much longer. Because there's really no such thing as normal anymore.

This applies, too, when gay children come out to their parents. It can be an adjustment for even the most open-minded, loving parent to learn their child is somebody different from who they thought they were. A few years back, a friend's daughter, then a senior in high school, outed herself in a school assembly as part of a series in which kids talked to the whole school about something that was important to them. Her parents were in the audience, and heard for the first time that their daughter was gay. That was a tough experience for my friend and her husband, and not because they didn't have plenty of gay friends themselves. But for parents who are fine with anyone being gay--including the children of friends, neighbors, and relatives--things may get complicated when sexuality hits that close to home if, again, only because talking about being gay too often revolves around talking about sex.

The bottom line is when talking to your kids about their gay friends, neighbors, or relatives; their friends' gay parents; or your own sexuality is to keep dialogue open and to keep it light. Sexuality is a big deal. But when talking about gay, straight, or anything else, the principles of how we want to teach our kids to live are the same as any other discussion about growing up right: Practice kindness and love and treat others as you'd like to be treated. Plain and simple.