How to Talk to your Kids About Homosexuality

The challenge is, that as parents we generally speaking want to protect our children’s innocence. We somehow want to shield them from a culture that has become alarmingly sexualized. And I would dare to wager that a lot of Christian parents, with perhaps the exception of the Amish, experience guilt over the ways we cave in and allow our kids to be exposed to this culture. A sure sign of this guilt is when the religious right regularly uses alarmist fundraising tactics related to stopping public matters connected to children and sexuality whether that be gay Teletubbies, anti-bullying measures, music videos or sex education curriculum.

This anxiety and guilt can spill over into the reflection that parents do on how to try to convey the inevitable tensions that many feel over the increasing societal acceptance of LGBT people. On one hand, there is a recognition that we have the opportunity to choose love over hate in our response to LGBT friends and neighbours. On the other hand, there is a hesitation about whether their kids will be able to make some kind of differentiation akin to the generally held adage “love the sinner, hate the sin”. Part of this hesitation is that despite how glibly this cliché can roll off people’s lips, in 2012 any thinking Christian has heard the reality that such a clichéd attempt at loving people and upholding traditional Biblical teaching by saying you “hate the sin” is often a complete disconnect with gay people. The cliché just doesn’t capture the complexity of the matter-at-hand. It doesn’t recognize that a gay person is much more than what they do or do not do between the sheets. It doesn’t recognize the reality of gay Christians, who after significant and prayerful wrestling with Scripture believe deeply that God’s grace and blessing extends to their covenanted relationship. It doesn’t acknowledge that in the Christian church there is disagreement among committed Christian people regarding what behavior is immoral and what behavior might be an expression of the fidelity consistent with Scripture.

And if this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Adults are having a hard time navigating it all. How can we expect our kids, who don’t yet have the capacity to think through complex matters with inherent paradox, to be able to make sense of it all? As parents, we want our kids to be bolstered and encouraged in their faith and in the formation of their beliefs and values. Introducing paradox and uncertainty seems counterintuitive to these priorities. And if there is anything that makes a Christian parent anxious, it is the idea that our kids will reject faith in Jesus and embrace beliefs and values that are inconsistent with following Christ.

So, in light of all of this, how should we talk to our kids about homosexuality? First of all, I think it is never too early to begin this conversation. My personal thought was that I wanted to be the one to set the tone for learning about relationships, identity, sexuality, and values for my children. I didn’t want them to hear about matters of sex from some mis-informed, insecure kid on the playground. Whether your kids are in public school, Christian school, or home-schooled, unless you plan on keeping them away from all other children and all forms of media, your kids are going to be exposed to other’ ideas and attitudes about sexuality. So, you want to be the one who begins the conversation, sets the tone for the conversation, brings accurate information into the conversation, and establishes trust in the conversation. As scary as that might be for you, if you make this investment, you will be the one your kids turn to with their questions and uncertainty down the road.

I often say that God has a great sense of humour in calling me to speak about matters of sexuality on a regular basis. Growing up, there was a typical awkward silence about sex. Over the years I had to piece together various bits of information to try to have some understanding about this significant arena of life. A sense of embarrassment and shame went along with any efforts I made to try to better understand sexuality in general. And I’m not even sure when I first was exposed to the idea that some people were attracted to their own gender. So I understand what it is like to feel inadequate and intimidated to speak to your kids about sex. But as understanding as I am, basically, you’ve got to suck it up and take the risk. It is too important. Your kids need you as a calm, non-anxious presence to help them understand how to steward their own sexuality and how to live in a world that continually calls them to relate, with discernment, to many diverse expressions of sexuality.

As an aside, maybe you’re reading this post and realize you’ve dropped the ball. That you let your own anxiety get the best of you and that you haven’t engaged your kids the way you could have. Or maybe you’re thinking of another family where the kids have been very ill-equipped to navigate these matters. Don’t focus on what can’t be undone – focus on what is ahead. It is better late than never. Even if your kids are teens or young adults or maybe even with their own young children, have an intentional conversation. Be as honest and transparent as you can be about why this conversation was so hard for you to have with them – but how much you want to stop the cycle of anxiety of shame for them and your grandchildren.

Being sensitive to age-appropriateness, any conversation about homosexuality must begin in the larger conversation about: our humanity; our image-bearing of a relational God; our call to model the faithfulness of God’s character in our relationships; God’s good gift of sex within covenant; the importance of valuing ourselves and others by not cheapening one-flesh unions; the variety of ways we experience intimacy in spiritual, emotional, and physical ways; the uniqueness of our expressions of our gender ….. as just some basic examples. Homosexuality isn’t something you should parachute in to talk about. Rather, let the conversation be part of the larger question of who we are as human beings driven to overcome our aloneness.

In this context, I began to talk about the reality of LGBT people with my kids from the perspective of extending respect. Note: I didn’t start by talking about homosexuality as an abstract idea – I talked about the reality of people who were different than the heteronormative experience of mommy and daddy. My kids could easily relate to the idea that sometimes people who are different are made fun of by others. They could also easily understand concrete examples from the Bible where Jesus made a special point of talking to and touching people who were different in his culture. And consequently, they could understand that Jesus, in our day and context, would want us to love, befriend and stand up for people who are different. This was the first lesson they learned on this topic.

The second lesson they learned was to not reduce LGBT people to their sexuality – and to understand that same-sex sexuality was about much more than just sex. To instill this understanding, I talked about how we, as human beings, express ourselves to others. We share ourselves through our faith, our creativity, through our humour, through caring and giving to others, through the knowledge we have, through the skills and abilities we have, through shared experiences of beauty, pain, joy, hope etc. I talked to them about how as we grow we want to express and share of ourselves with one special person – and that sometimes it can feel like that special person helps us to feel more complete. Many people when they grow up, feel like that would be someone of the opposite sex that they would like to marry. But a smaller number of people feel like that would be someone of the same sex. This establishes human sexuality as part of the larger expression of our personhood – and does not reduce it to a physical sex drive.

As you describe the different ways that gay people live their lives you can begin to talk about what you believe the Bible says. One way to start that conversation is to explain to your kids what promiscuity is (again in age-appropriate ways) and how the Bible warns us that promiscuity will hurt us and others. Note: I would suggest that the conversation about promiscuity be general in nature encompassing both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Regardless of the direction of someone’s attractions, promiscuity is inconsistent with God’s best for us.

If you have very clear convictions about homosexual behavior, I would suggest that you share these with your kids with an emphasis on why you believe these things. At the same time, I would challenge you to also share with your kids that there are people in the church who see things differently than you do. I think this is important because it is very likely that your children will be engaging an even more diverse Christian community than you currently do. By acknowledging that there are Christians who disagree with you, you will prepare your kids for this discovery. Hopefully, your calm and non-anxious presence will help them to see that these differences in the context of the reality of a Christian community that differs on a great many interpretive issues. Your children will be well served by learning early on that the unity of the church is not uniformity, that we grow in our capacity for humility, patience and hospitality as we learn to relate across our differences, and that faith is invitational not coercive. As you have these conversations with your kids, you will be modeling the reality that each person needs to actually own what they believe – including your own kids. They need to realize as they grow older that they will be given the room to wrestle with these matters – and that your deepest desire is that they would put Christ at the center of all their searching. And you can honestly talk to them about the fact that we need the larger community of faith, beginning with our own family, to help us discern and embrace our beliefs and values.

So if you clearly want to convey a traditional understanding of marriage to your kids, make sure you know WHY you believe that. As you share how you have wrestled with Scripture to come to that conclusion, take the risk to share with them that this is a question that Christians today need to really wrestle with. And that Christians disagree with one another – but can still love one another and find a way to follow Christ despite these differences. It would also be really helpful if you would affirm to your kids that God loves gay people, that the church needs our gay sisters and brothers, and that we, as followers of Jesus, need to be