05/17/2014 10:01 am ET Updated Jul 17, 2014

How to Talk to Your Kids About Sexuality and Sexual Orientation

Wondering how to have a conversation with your children about sexuality and sexual orientation?

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. Most children these days have friends or neighbors whose families aren't exactly -- or, in some cases, remotely -- like their own.

There's not one "normal."

And yet, 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. Many parents question how, and when, to talk to their kids about sexuality, and the fact that despite this, there's not one "normal."

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. But talking about gay love needn't include a lesson in the mechanics of sex, gay or otherwise. Instead, it's 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.

8-year-old 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.'" Later, 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. Ned wasn't old enough to have a discussion about how sex works, so she saved that for later. But it was perfectly normal to talk to him about how people in a couple support and love one another, and all the other non-sexual things that make gay love no different from straight love.

Helping encourage this creation of a new normal extends beyond sexuality.

Helping encourage this creation of a new normal extends beyond sexuality. For most children, being "different" in any sort of way is undesirable. But the more we talk about our own differences and others', the more "normal" they become, and the less undesirable they feel. When talking to your kids about their gay friends, neighbors, or relatives; their friends' gay parents; or your own sexuality, the most important thing to do is keep dialogue open and to keep it light. Sexuality is a big deal. But the principles are the same as any other discussion you'll have with them about growing up right: Practice kindness and love and treat others as you'd like to be treated. Plain and simple.