Samantha Stowers, 46, and her husband Stewart, 60, had never brought up gay marriage with their son Jack, 8, before the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized the act in all 50 states. But the timing of it was perfect for the Gallatin couple to use as a way to bring up the topic before a recent family reunion where their son would meet a gay family member for the first time.
“We just wanted to explain it to him because he probably hasn’t been around a lot of gay people, and so we talked about the Supreme Court ruling and explained it the best you can to an 8-year-old,” she says. “Of course he was totally oblivious to it and could care less, but in case it came up we wanted to be prepared because at 8 they’re getting smart enough to pick up on it.”
Hendersonville mom Mary Grace Guarke says her children Brant, 12, and Hattie, 10, have been around close gay friends and relatives before, but she has never had a conversation about gay marriage specifically. But with the Supreme Court ruling and a recent bible school class at St. Timothy Lutheran Church called “Created by God,” she thinks the time is right.
“We plan to do it soon because I know they’re going to start asking more and more questions,” she says. “Brant and Hattie love their ‘gunkles’ but they don’t know what it stands for. I want them to come to me, and I don’t want there to be any guessing.”
For Dorothy Michael, 51, and her wife Shawn Michael, 54, the last 15 years have been difficult in that they have had to struggle with helping their daughter Kaitlyn understand why her mothers had not been allowed to get married.
“She was 3 when we had our first civil union, and she went to Iowa with us to get married last year, and she didn’t really understand why we couldn’t here,” Michael says. “She has always been behind it and has done projects at school on marriage equality. We did the best we could to explain what this ruling meant for us and she was very excited that now it is legal here.”
The recent ruling makes the longtime couple feel validated in their commitment to each other, and she hopes soon enough the discussion about gay marriage doesn’t have to be quantified at all.
“I think we should just be talking to our kids about marriage — I don’t think it needs to be labeled anymore,” she says. “It’s not gay marriage — it’s just marriage. You should be able to be happy with whoever.”
Madison-based sex therapist Dr. Steven Davidson says when you talk to children about gay marriage, what you say — and how much — depends on the age of the child. But he agrees that taking the approach of not separating gay marriage from heterosexual marriage is a start.
“I would challenge parents to just talk about the concept of marriage in general,” he says. “Couples get married because they love each other, they want to be together and they want to be a family. Those are things that children can understand, and those are very safe things to say that don’t imply any judgement.”
And since many families are not just one mom and one dad anymore anyway, young children are not going to be jarred by the idea of someone having two moms or two dads.
“There are children who may be living with a step parent,” Davidson says. “They may have a mom and a stepmom. Or they are already in school with children who come from families that are divorced, or someone who might have a dad and stepdad. Children can understand those concepts, but their attitudes about it will be formed based on the parent’s attitude.”
It can be hard to pinpoint exactly what kinds of questions your own child might have about same-sex marriage, but they will have questions. And while you might not have the answers right away, assure your children that you will find out.
“It is OK when you don’t have the answers to those questions,” says Dr. Mary Romano, an adolescent medicine doctor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “A lot of times parents are afraid of what they don’t know, so they’re afraid to talk to their kids.”
And it is even possible to recover from an initial bad reaction if your child’s frankness takes you off guard.
“You always say in the moment that you don’t know the answer to that, but you’ll get some information and come back to him,” Davidson suggests. “Or, if you have given wrong information or have messed it up, you can always come back the next day, or the next week and say you have given more thought to that question or have done some research, and here is what you have discovered.”
Stowers says she tends to be more socially liberal than her husband, but was proud of how he handled the talk with their son despite not being in total agreement with the concept.
“He said he thought people should be able to live their lives the way they want to without the government telling them what to do,” she says. “We basically said this is what we feel in this family but everyone decides for themselves. One thing about parenting is you can’t decide for them and if you push too hard one way they will likely go the other way.”
Emi Canahuati answered callers’ questions about sexual health for years on Nashville Spanish-language radio and currently serves as coordinator for the Nashville Alliance for Sexual Health. She says it’s important to not be afraid to talk with children at a young age about basic sexuality, whether in the context of gay marriage or not.
“I think children around age 4 – 6 should know where babies come from and how they’re made because it’s a natural curiosity that they have and if we don’t give them that information, they will get it somewhere else, and it is usually wrong information,” she says. “We are afraid of doing damage to our children or somehow it is going to hurt them, but there is no damage that can be done from knowing that information.”
Guarke’s Lutheran church is welcoming of all people regardless of sexual orientation, and so for her, the legalization of gay marriage in no way compromises her faith, which she says is inspired by the bible, and not a literal interpretation.
“In my family and friends, it is not a tolerance thing — I don’t tolerate people,” she says. “It is about acceptance and equals. We are all human beings, we are all on this earth, and I am certain that it is just how we are wired. My son has autism — it is the way he is wired. You don’t find two puzzle pieces that are the same. You don’t find two people who are the same.”
Goodpasture Christian School headmaster Ricky Perry recently returned from the National Christian School Association conference where the topic of gay marriage was definitely talked about, and he says he enjoyed the perspective of people from other parts of the country.
“We all face the same things, like Supreme Court decisions and other things that would affect churches or Christian institutions,” Perry says.
When it comes to guiding parents about addressing gay marriage, Perry says you first need to determine where you assign authority to what governs your lives.
“For some people that might be the federal government,” he says. “For other people, in our case, it would be the Creator of the Universe and his written work, which we think is inspired. Children need some kind of a foundational point to where they can begin to understand why you would think that way.”
Davidson says if your religious beliefs conflict with what is now the legal definition of marriage, it is a great opportunity for you to talk about mutual respect despite a difference of opinion. And depending on how old your child is, a talk about gay marriage can also be an opportunity to talk about many other things, like religion, politics, freedom, separation of church and state, and even the history of marriage.
“Usually we raise our children to have the same religious or political beliefs that we do, and we hope they will continue those throughout their life, but sometimes they don’t,” he says. “I think parents can talk about their own belief system and still talk about the reality of this Supreme Court decision and what it is going to mean in society.”
Even if marriage equality does not align with your personal or religious beliefs, Romano agrees it is totally appropriate to let your children know that. However, it is important not to demonize or discriminate during the discussion.
“Whether you think gay marriage is right or wrong, you are still going to talk to your kids about respect for other people,” she says. “You are never going to tell your kid that it is OK to be mean to someone or discriminate against someone, so you don’t want to get into a conversation of ‘right or wrong.’ Talk about what it means to love someone, how you treat them when you love them, and then how you treat other people. You can convey kindness and openness even if you think gay marriage is wrong.”
Perry agrees that respect is an important aspect to teach children, and the No. 1 rule is to love your fellow man.
“When we try to get our kids to look at the lens of — this person is making a different choice or going along a different path – you are still obligated to love them because that is what your commander has created you to do,” Perry says.
“You are going to have people in your life for the rest of your life, and learning how to relate is key,” Perry continues. “There is a passage in the bible that says be swift to hear, slow to anger, and slow to speak. If they are different than us, we should listen, don’t respond quickly and don’t be quick to get angry.”
Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruling has no bearing on anyone’s religion.
“The Supreme Court decision is based on the legal definition of marriage, which is different from a religious definition of marriage,” Davidson says. “And for some people marriage is a legal status only. There are others where it is also a religious status.”
Davidson says it can be hard for parents to understand that no matter how much they impart their beliefs, their children are living in a different society than they did.
“Every parent raises children to live in the generation that the parent grew up in, and that is not the generation the child is going to live in,” he says. “They are living in the current generation. Already, adolescents today get same sex marriage and don’t have the problems with it that their parents or grandparents have because they have been exposed to it a lot already on TV, the internet and in literature.”
He even compares it to growing up in a small town in Tennessee as the schools became integrated.
“When I started school I was going to be one of the first with a mixed race classroom,” he says. “That was not a big deal to me because I did not have any opinions about that. But I had older people in my family who thought it was just awful that I would have to go to school with black children. The opinions of my older family members did not make sense to me because it was not my experience. We played together on the playground, we had fun together. It was based on their experience or a belief system that was popular when they were growing up but was not relevant to my generation.”
Canahuati agrees that the generation children are growing up in now is much more accepting of gay marriage than ever before.
“For this generation’s kids it really isn’t a big deal,” she says. “This new generation is unprecedented in support and affirmation of people of all sexual orientations for sure. It is definitely the older generation that has more of an issue at this point. We, as a society, decided these relationships were as equal and as important as heterosexual relationships, but I don’t know if you can really change people’s minds if they don’t agree.”
It is something Michael has seen firsthand. She says that even though Greenbrier is small, most of her daughter’s teenage friends are fine with the fact she has two moms.
“I have found most of the high school kids she has to deal with are pretty on board, and I attribute a lot of that to the changes in the internet and TV – they’re so much more exposed to it than their parents were,” she says.
Still, it is OK to just go with your gut and talk to your children at the age you feel is right, and in the way that works for your family.
“I am a believer in that we should protect the innocent children as long as we can,” Perry says. “I think that is important. The internet, for all its good and positives, it exposes children to topics that are not age appropriate, and I think parents need to be prayerful and seek out wisdom. I know I do.”