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Together: A First Conversation About Love
What is love? What is a family? Why do some grown-ups kiss each other on the lips? Do I have to get married when I grow up? Young children have important questions and observations about love, relationships, and family, but these are conversations that many grown-ups postpone. There are many different ways that people love one another, but that’s not always what we see represented in books or media. Instead, our kids are bombarded with images that define a family as a straight, married couple with a few kids, a minivan, and a white picket fence. Yet there are so many kinds of loving relationships we can nurture, and now is the time to start laying the foundation! This queer- affirming book starts the conversation about what healthy love looks and feels like, and all the ways we love, have relationships, and make families. It’s okay to take a break, leave something out for now, or weave in stories of your own.
HEALTHY SEXUALITY DEVELOPMENT
All humans begin our lifelong journey of sexuality development at birth.While children’s sexuality is different from adult sexuality, young children are actively learning about their bodies, genders, feelings, desires, relationships, intimacy, love, and care. Children experience important, loving relationships in early childhood (even though they aren’t romantic or sexual). As their grown-ups, we have a responsibility to create an environment in which children can feel confident that no matter who and how they love when they get older, our love for them is unconditional.To support healthy development, make sure your child’s life is full of different examples of healthy queer relationships.
Many children’s books define family as a group of people who love one another, but that’s not always the case. For many children, queer children in particular, families of origin can be sites of pain and trauma, rather than being loving. It can be confusing for children experiencing abuse to hear that the people who are hurting them also “love” them. That’s why it’s important to be clear about what love looks and feels like. For love to be truly present and felt, loving actions are needed alongside loving words and feelings. To support children in learning how to show love, look for daily opportunities for them to practice showing love, like hugging a baby gently. You can also model loving action by, for example, showing an interest in things that your child loves. Active self-love is important and takes practice, too! Daily affirmations and prioritizing things that make you feel good are some ways to model and promote self-love.
Not everyone experiences romantic love or sexual attraction in adulthood, but many grown-ups do. Young children notice this and often ask questions like “Do I have to kiss people when I grow up?” and “Who can I marry?” When responding to their curiosity, make sure you talk about the full range of possibilities, including queer relationships. For example, you can say, “Not everyone who loves each other has to get married, live together, or have children—there are lots of other ways to make a family or to show love,” giving examples in your own family or community. It’s okay to answer their questions about physical affection too, in a developmentally appropriate way. For example, you could explain that “Sometimes people who love each other like to kiss, but not everybody wants to, and you don’t have to.” It’s important for children to know that things like marriage, cohabitation, raising children, and physical affection are all options but are not mandatory or expected.
Many people avoid conversations about LGBTQIA+ identities with young children because they fear that it will involve talking about sex, which is developmentally inappropriate for most young children. But talking about sexual orientation in early childhood just means talking about who we love! To make it clear that this kind of love is different from the way we love our siblings or parents, you can call it “romantic love” or talk about it as a love you may feel when you get older. It’s not about sex; it’s about giving children the language they need to describe the people in their world.This is particularly important because many children report that the first time they hear the word gay or queer, it’s being used as a derogatory term.You can be direct in defining these terms, and look for examples in picture books to help you. For example, you can say, “Look, these two people might be lesbians, which means that they are two women who love each other in a romantic way.”
WHEN LOVE IS HARD
Sometimes talking about love also means talking about trauma, pain, and loss, especially when it comes to being separated from a loved one. Young children experience many complex feelings that go along with love, just like grown-ups. You can talk about the positive feelings that love evokes, like happiness, joy, and excitement, but don’t forget to help your children name harder emotions, like anger, worry, frustration, fear, or grief. There are many reasons that separation from a loved one may occur, including divorce, incarceration, a move, displacement, a pandemic, immigration, or death. We can support children by helping them name what they are feeling, and staying connected to that loved one in a way that feels good to them. You can ask,“What do you feel when you think about [loved one who is gone]?” Follow that up with “What is something you miss doing together?” and then “What do you think we could do to make you feel better?” Some ideas may be a regular video-chat date, making art using that person’s favorite color, or if possible, planning a visit.
NURTURING HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS
Everyone deserves an abundant web of relationships that are characterized by care, commitment, trust, knowledge, responsibility, and respect—a loving family nested in a loving community. These interdependent connections help us meet our needs and experience fulfillment. Unfortunately, we live in a society where there are lots of untrue messages about love floating around. Bullying, abuse, and oppression are normalized and widespread. That’s why it’s so important to help children understand healthy relationships from an early age. As the trusted grown-ups in their lives, it’s our job to model consent, boundaries, and communication. And we also have a responsibility to help them identify and navigate unhealthy dynamics, like shame, control, or manipulation.The next time you’re watching a movie or listening to music with your child, try noticing the moments where the characters are demonstrating healthy behaviors and be clear with them about moments when the characters are treating one another in harmful ways.
HETERONORMATIVITY & RESISTANCE
Heteronormativity refers to the system of power in our society that values romantic relationships between one cisgender man and one cisgender woman over all the other natural, beautiful, and important forms of relationship and family: platonic love, chosen family, ethical non-monogamy, blended families, single parents, foster families, queer families, and so many more. LGBTQIA+ organizers and allies have worked together to make some truly incredible change, and we still have so much more work to do! The privileging and normalization of straightness is still a key feature of most of our institutions, from children’s literature to the medical system. It can be helpful to know that this has not always been the case. Ideas about the superiority of the nuclear family are deeply connected to the origins of white supremacy, Christian hegemony, and settler colonialism.
BUILDING A LOVING WORLD
Research shows that people need love as much as we need nourishing food to eat and a safe place to sleep. Sometimes the way we show love is small, like bringing a meal to a neighbor who is hungry, or learning how to pronounce a friend’s name. And sometimes the way we show love is really big, like working together to change the policies and practices of your local preschool to be more inclusive of all families. Dr. Cornel West teaches that “justice is what love looks like in public.” In a truly loving world, we invest in the things that actually keep us safe, and we know how to navigate conflict together, transform harm, and meet our individual and collective needs. We can include young children in our efforts, large and small, to build this more loving world together.