Parenting Outside The Box By: Dr. Lea Lis
Here’s what matters most to raising kids outside of traditional parenting relationships By: Dr. Lea Lis
Being in a non traditional relationship can be hard for parents. It is not always socially acceptable to speak about it and know how to help your child. Thinking through whom they will tell and how they will tell others in the community can be stressful.
Parenting outside-the-box is a topic I discuss often with patients and also in my book No Shame: Real Talk with Your Kids About Sex, Self-Confidence, and Healthy Relationships. It is more common now for family arrangements to be more diverse than traditional heteronormative relationships. In my practice, I see families with same-sex partnerships, multiple partnerships, outside-the-box or co-parenting arrangements. The most important thing for children is to be raised in a loving and respectful environment.
In out-of-the box relationships, becoming a parent requires more intentional and thoughtful choices. I have noticed that this quality makes those in non-traditional partnerships great parents. Their willingness to use surrogacy or adoption to make their dream a possibility indicates to me that they are willing to go the extra mile throughout their journey as a parent. Children brought into these families are often surrounded with extra love, attention, and commitment.
It’s important to remember that some of our ideas of family structures remain stable over time, but there will always be new research, an ever-changing social context, and the fact that our societal beliefs are always understood within the framework of our current values, which are also ever-changing. This means that we parents periodically need to revisit what we have learned and how we are passing that knowledge to our children. It is also tough because marriage may not be an option, although now it is for same sex couples, it is not for polyamorous couples who decide to raise children together.
There are some options to create legal parental contracts for protections of legal rights of all parents involved (check out Chosen Family Law Center). Despite these, the families often do face discrimination in the courts, and in many communities, which might create fear and shame around being honest with others.
How can parents explain their family dynamics? Be open and honest when talking to children about families and how they come in different forms. Teaching diversity starts at a young age and this helps children become more accepting and loving. In everyday life, talk about diversity with your child as a way to normalize differences across families and encourage their curiosity and respect.
One way to start the conversation about diverse families is to tell your child about their birth story, whether it was through a surrogate, in vitro fertilization, sperm donation or adoption.
Giving your child this information helps them understand where they came from and also gives them language to use if they are asked by someone outside of your circle.
It’s also critical to reframe your expectations of how others will interpret your relationship. What we may expect others to find as taboo or confusing may not be so hard to understand after all. This is especially true when it comes to our children. I meet many parents in my practice that feel worried about explaining their relationship to their kids but it’s important to remember that your children do not see the imperfections and difficulties that you feel so defined by, and they have yet to internalize shame. Also, having more parental figures around is often beneficial to them.
Children learn by example and seeing their parents comfortable in their skin contributes to a healthy self-esteem. It is important for your children to see that you are proud and not ashamed. When children are younger, they often do not notice or focus on differences and will follow your lead if you explain in terms that meet them at their level of comprehension.
Using books and media are good resources to help understand and provide visuals. I recommend this to my patients especially when the child is younger. A few examples are Mommy, Mama, and Me and Daddy, Papa, and Me both by Lesléa Newman and Why I’m So Special: A Book About Surrogacy with Two Daddies by Carla Lewis-Long. As children get older, there are TV shows and movies that can be references especially if they are questioning their own sexuality.
Raising children that are strong, secure, and resilient to become strong, secure, and resilient adults starts in the home. Family dynamics may vary but having a parent or parents provide love and support gives a solid foundation for success. Showing pride in your own sexuality models love and acceptance for your child.