It is not uncommon for me to be asked, “How did you speak with your kids about your job?” What these parents are really asking is for guidance on how to speak to their own children about homosexuality. Particularly for Christian parents, who either hold to a traditional understanding of marriage or are somewhat uncertain about how they will interpret Scripture regarding committed same-sex relationships, this can seem to be a daunting task in our current cultural context. (note: In this post, I haven't addressed parents who hold affirming views - simply because their conversations with their kids about this matter will be relatively straight-forward) For those who have no gay friends and a simplistic commitment to avoid anything they disagree with, this matter of communication isn’t that challenging. They simply tell their children it is wrong and that is the end of the conversation. But many Christian parents recognize that it is more nuanced and complex than that.
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.
The next thing to talk about was the different ways that LGBT people live their lives. Here is an opportunity to help your kids understand that an idea like “the gay lifestyle” is really unhelpful because gay people live their lives in many different ways. You could begin by saying that some gay people live a single life because they believe that is what is most pleasing to God. You might also say that some people live with a special friend (this would refer to those who have a committed but non-consummated friendship). And some people marry a partner of the same sex (I live in Canada, so the reality is that my kids need to know that they will encounter gay people are married). Depending on the age of your kids and their ability to understand some of the complexity, you might also want to describe to them a person who experiences some same-sex attraction but marries a person of the opposite sex (mixed-orientation marriage) and believes that God will give them grace as they love one another and their family. If they are old enough to understand, you could tell them that some people are able to feel attraction for both men and women and we call that bisexuality.
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 committed to welcoming and being in relationship with gay people – even if there are some points on which we disagree.
If you honestly feel unsure about whether or not covenanted same-sex relationships are given God’s grace, I encourage you (being sensitive of age and maturity) to be honest and transparent with your kids. What a conversation to have! Perhaps you’ll talk about the fact that there aren’t any positive references to same-sex behavior in the Bible – but that there also isn’t a reference to a life-long committed same-sex relationship either. Maybe you’ll talk about God’s provision for marriage and family in the creation account – but also that the authors’ of Scripture didn’t understand sexual orientation the way we do today. Maybe you’ll talk about how God hates promiscuity and divorce – and yet the ways he still extends grace to people in a broken world. Maybe you’ll talk about how we wrestle with what parts of the law we need to learn from – and the reality that the Bible also speaks to a particular people in a particular time, place and culture. Maybe you’ll talk about how Jesus spoke about the law – and how important it seemed to be to him and also the ways he seemed to critique it.
I could share so many other ways that this conversation opens up a whole dialogue about who Jesus is, who God is, what Scripture is, how we engage the Bible, how we discern how to apply things from the Bible to our lives today, how we navigate the tension of the “now and the not yet”. While it can feel scary to say to your kids that you are unsure, especially to those of us who grew up in a Christian system where everyone around us was so absolutely certain of everything pertaining to faith, I want to encourage you to see opportunity in this risk.
1. If you’re honest with your kids about things you’re uncertain about – it gives them the freedom to not have all the answers either. This can give them some much needed breathing room in the development of their own faith and prevent unnecessary ultimatums. For example, they don’t have to choose between loving their gay friends and loving God – they can hold both in tension as they continue to seek understanding.
2. If you model fully engaged, robust interaction with prayer, Scripture and listening for the Holy Spirit on a matter that you don’t feel you have the complete answer to, your kids have an amazing example of integrating your faith with critical thinking, spiritual disciplines, reverence and awe, and a humility that can embrace mystery.
3. If you include your kids in searching out God’s heart on these matters (again with sensitivity to age-appropriateness) you give them the opportunity to own their own faith, to be a full participant in your family’s spiritual journey, and you honour the gifts that God is giving your kids.
4. If, perchance, one of your own kids is wrestling with matters of identity, sexual attraction, or faith itself, the honesty and authenticity you share with them could be invaluable to encourage them to stay in the game rather than walking away.
You’ll notice that after almost 3,000 words describing how I’ve talked to my kids about homosexuality, that I haven’t said that much about sex itself. My emphasis was on how we treat people, on seeing people as more than their sexuality, and on helping our kids to be prepared to navigate relationships with people who disagree with them. And these are my main priorities. However, I am pretty candid with my kids too and have had very practical, concrete conversations about the mechanics of sex. These talks were often integrated to describe both heterosexual and homosexual sexual behavior and they were led by the questions of my kids. One of my children has a natural level of embarrassment in these conversations, was inevitably rather squirmy and grossed out by the whole business. This child never initiated questions for further clarification. Another one of my children was the exact opposite. This child had unending curiosity, had no sense of embarrassment (or boundaries for that matter) and asked all kinds of questions. Each kid will be different – so let your kids lead you to understand what they need from you. My kids needed me to be relaxed, bring a mixture of seriousness and humour, a confidence in God’s goodness and grace, and my unconditional support and encouragement of them into the conversation.
My kids are old enough now to have internalized years of these conversations. I’m proud to say that all three of them understand my work to be that of advocacy – to ensure that the church is a safe place for our LGBT sisters and brothers to come and explore and grow in faith in Jesus Christ. And each in their own way, have had opportunities to stand up for gay people. The theological conversations continue. My kids are still shaping and owning their own faith. And so am I. And hopefully we’ll continue to honestly encourage and challenge one another in the spiritual journey for the rest of our lives. That’s the way it should be.