Advice / Life

VillageQ Advice: Dear Ms. Radcliffe #1

Photo credit: Best Kiddy

Photo credit: Best Kiddy

Dear Ms. Radcliffe,

Whenever our six-year-old draws a picture about a family or plays family with his friends, there is always a mother and a father—never two mothers or two fathers. He has two moms, and he knows a lot of other two-mom and two-dad families. Is this an expression of anger or shame about his family?

Signed,

Confused in Connecticut

***

Dear Confused,

You are not alone. Who among us has not experienced that twang of irritation when our own family constellation is rendered invisible, even symbolically, by the very children born of it? We painstakingly line their shelves with books about family diversity. We serve up a smorgasbord of The Different Dragon, Donovan’s Big Day, And Tango Makes Three. We read, Who’s in My Family? until we want to gouge out our own eyes. Yet when it comes time to conjure a family from their oh-so-vivid imaginations, our children’s go-to image is more Leave it to Beaver than Heather has Two Mommies.

Fortunately, dear Confused, VillageQ is here for you. We have investigated some options for dealing with this thorny problem. Herewith are the pros and cons of each.

  1. The Passive-Aggressive Solution. Whenever your son is involved in his “traditional family” play, stand nearby and watch him with a slightly sickened look, just barely covered with a fake smile. If he asks you whether you like his drawing, pause for several seconds and then say, “I love you, sweetie.” Later, throw the drawing in the trash and make sure he sees it when you ask him to clear his plate after dinner.

Pros: It’s a non-confrontational method that gets your point across while, at the same time, communicating a time-honored life lesson—if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Cons: He’ll know you disapprove, but not necessarily why, so he may interpret this as blanket disgust, which may cause some problems with self-esteem later on.

  1. The Whack-A-Mole Method. While your son is engaged in his nuclear family portrait-making, sneak up behind him and stay poised to engage. Right at the moment when he says, “This is the mommy and this is the daddy,” you scream “NO!” and yank the pencil away from him. Then, in a gentle voice, correct him: “You mean mommy and mommy, honey.” This is called aversion therapy. Repeat as needed.

Pros: Practically fool-proof for stopping this (and any other) unwanted behavior.

Cons: There is a chance, however small, that, not only will he stop drawing heteronormative pictures, but the mere sight of a pencil will cause him to rock himself while in a fetal position. Other side effects may include severe depression, panic attacks and chronic bedwetting.

3: The Zen Approach. As Elsa would say, let it go, baby. Unless you’re a citizen of the Isle of Lesbos, chances are you live in a heteronormative society and your children are surrounded by traditional family images. “Despite the emerging social acceptance of same-sex parents, despite the ubiquity of single parenting, ‘Mom and Dad’ are the iconic image of parents, the symbol of what a ‘real family’ should look like,” says Arlene Istar Lev, social worker, family therapist and clinical director of Choices Counseling and Consulting in Albany, N.Y. “Children take their cues from the world around them. In school, those are the images in schoolbooks, hanging on the walls of their classroom, and the language their peers use. They learn that this is what is expected to socially fit in.”

Bottom line, don’t read too much into it. “It does not mean that they are unhappy with their parents,” says Lev, who is also the director of TIGRIS, the Training Institute for Gender, Relationships, Identity and Sexuality. It might mean that a child is thinking about the ways his family is different, which is common for any child growing up in a nontraditional home, whether adoptive, interracial, single-parent, and so on.

Use this play as an opportunity to start an important conversation about difference, says Lev. “It is essential that children growing up in a two-mom or two-dad household are taught young how to talk to their peers about their family, the explicit language to use. It inoculates them against prejudice and gives them tools to feel more competent.”

That means, as parents, we may have to process some of our own feelings about this—shame, guilt, anxiety—on our own time and let our kids go on playing as they were.

Pros: Greater freedom of expression for your little one.

Cons: You may have to ooh and ahh about a whole lot of straight stick figures.

If you’re the type who just has to do something, grab a few of those markers and draw your own version of a family. Just make sure to color inside the lines.


Dear Ms. Radcliffe is an advice column for same-sex parents. Have a question for Ms. Radcliffe? Send her a confidential email at msradcliffe@villageq.com.

 

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