“Hey, Bennett! Let’s play walkie-talkies!”
“You go in your room, and I’ll go in mine.”
“ROOOOOARRR!!!! I’m a big, scary monster!”
“Oh, hello! I’m a beautiful princess!”
[Note: I originally published this piece here as How to Talk to Your Children About Gay Parents, By a Gay Parent. The post took on a life of its own and was read and shared by lots of people whose kids might be exposed to homosexuality any number of places, and not just through kids with gay parents. So I figured it was time to freshen the piece up a bit and broaden the scope.]
It could happen anywhere, at any time. A train station. A Disney Channel show. The NFL draft.
Your kids are just hanging out, being kids and daydreaming about candy, when suddenly they see…
TWO DUDES KISSING!
Or maybe they spot a little girl in the dropoff line at school. She kisses her mom goodbye, and then… she kisses her other mom goodbye!
You feel a tug on your leg, you look down, and there’s your kid. He just saw the same thing you saw, and now he looks up at you with his innocent face and says, “Yo, what’s the deal with that?”
As a gay man, I know I’ve spurred conversations like this myself, by doing just what Michael Sam and his boyfriend did on live TV. I want to be clear first of all that I don’t kiss my husband in public because I want to confuse your child or piss off right-wingers, although I’m aware that both of those things might happen as a result. I’m kissing him because I love him and I’m probably saying hello or goodbye at the time. (I assure you. It will never be because I’ve just been drafted by a professional sports team.) When I kiss my husband, I’m not going to look around first to make sure your kid and/or Pat Robertson isn’t watching. I’m just going to kiss him and then go on with the rest of my day.
I understand you might be unprepared for what follows. So here and now, I’m going to do what I feel is only fair for someone in my position to do. I’m going to prepare you.
Naturally, these tips are intended for the sympathetic straight parent. Unsympathetic straight parents are free to ignore my suggestions, in which case, I’ll enjoy watching them squirm.
Obviously, what you say will depend on how old your kids are and how much exposure they’ve had to gay people previously, but in a broader sense, these suggestions should apply to anyone.
I’m not a child psychologist, just a gay dad who’s thought a lot about the issue and who has a big stake in it. After all, I don’t want your kids coming up to my kids one day and telling them they’re weird for not having a mommy.
If you don’t want that either, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Use the word “gay”.
Everyone’s concentrating on taking the negative connotation away from the word “gay”, but at the same time, let’s not forget to encourage the positive. We don’t want “gay” to be a curse, so go ahead and teach it to your kids. That’s how we’ll really take the sting out of the word.
“Oh, Uncle Doug and Uncle Max? They’re gay.” “Aunt Vera and Aunt Debbie aren’t sisters, honey. They’re lesbians.” “Well, statistics suggest at least 3 of the Smurfs must be gay.” Don’t make a big deal about it. Just say it. If your kids hear some jerk at school sneering, “That’s so gay!”, their response will be, “Yeah? So what? So are Uncle Max, Aunt Vera and, most likely, Brainy.”
2. You don’t have to pretend half the world is gay.
Don’t play down the fact that your kids may have witnessed something unfamiliar. “Geez, Madison. They have two daddies, what’s the biggie?” It’s natural for poor little Madison to be confused, so give her a damn break.
Kids are probably going to assume all families have one mommy and one daddy, because that’s all most of them see. You can be honest. Use words like “most” and “some”. “Most families have a mommy and a daddy… but some have two mommies or two daddies.” “Most women marry men, but some women marry other women.” As long as you don’t attach a value judgment to those statements, it really is no biggie. (The same goes when explaining single parent families, divorced families or anything else your child might be witnessing for the first time.)
Some kids might say something like, “That’s weird”, or they’ll think you’re playing a joke on them. That should just be a reminder of why you’re having this conversation. Get to your kid before ignorance does. If you’re honest with them, they’ll get it.
3. Get your mind out of the gutter.
It seems silly that I even have to say this, but when some people think about homosexuality and kids, they imagine that you’re suggesting they graphically describe intercourse to kindergarteners. Um, no. All you should be doing is answering the questions they’re asking, and save the rest for junior high health class. If they wonder why they saw two football players kissing, it’s because “Those two men are in love”… or because “Some men love other men.” Hopefully, you’ve taught your kids to understand what love is, so no further explanation should be required.
And do use the word “love”. That’s what we’re talking about here. You don’t need to say “attracted to” or “some boys like boys”. “Like” is how they feel about each other. A kid might think, “Well, I like boys. I guess I’m gay.” Compare it to your own relationship (assuming you have a good relationship). “You know the way Mommy and I love each other? That’s how those two men or those two women feel about each other.” And if your kid says, “Yuck!” it’s probably because they feel the same way about when you and your spouse get all schmoopy-doopy with each other. That’s progress.
4. Don’t make it about your kid — yet.
Understanding homosexuality is a big enough topic of discussion, and your kid probably won’t be prompted to wonder about their own sexuality at this point. You don’t need to say, “You might marry a man someday yourself, Junior!” While it’s great to plant the seeds of acceptance early, you’ll probably just end up confusing them more. Your kids have plenty of time to figure their own feelings out, and when the time comes, make sure you let them know that you love them no matter what. But no, they can’t marry Brainy Smurf.
5. If your kid does ask you to speculate, you can tell them they’ll “probably” be straight.
Again, only if your kid expresses some curiosity should you even broach the subject. But if they’re wondering, “Who will I marry someday?”, feel free to tell them, “You’ll probably marry someone of the opposite sex, but I’ll accept you either way.” Of course, if you’re like the mom from the amazing blog Raising My Rainbow, your “probably” might lean the other way. Just take your cues from your kid.
6. Remember the magic phrase, “Love is what makes a family.”
Even kids who don’t know exactly where babies come from understand that women are the ones who get pregnant and give birth. When that’s all you know, then the idea of two men being in love and even forming a family together just might not add up.
Again, don’t go into any more detail than you need to. Remind your kid that while it’s a woman who gives birth to a baby, your Mommy(-ies) and/or Daddy(-ies) are the one(s) who raise you. It’s no different than how you’d explain adoption by a straight couple. “The Strattons flew to Beijing and brought little Daisy home. Now they’re her Mommy and Daddy.”
What kids want to know is that the little boy or girl they see whose family looks different is still being well taken care of. Assure your children that the kids are in good hands, because love is what makes a family, and those parents love their kids as much as you love yours.
7. Most importantly, just talk to your kids.
Your kids are bound to see a gay couple sooner or later, even if it’s just Mitchell & Cameron on Modern Family. So if they come to you with questions, it’s really important that you don’t get weird about it. Don’t change the subject, don’t tell them they’re too young to understand and definitely don’t lie and say that those two ladies were only kissing to be silly or because they were rehearsing a play. Otherwise the message you’re sending is that there’s a reason to be uncomfortable around gay people. The same goes for all kinds of people, really – just explain that some people look or feel a bit different from most people we meet, and isn’t it nice that everyone’s a little different.
… which leads me to a big secret.
You see, there is a gay agenda. It’s true.
What most people don’t realize is that the gay agenda isn’t “everybody should be gay”. It’s “everybody should be themselves.”
Be a nerd, be a Yanni fan, be a real housewife of your particular geographic region. Whatever. It’s all part of the same cause, and it’s a great message to teach your kids.
I shouldn’t have to say this in the 21st Century, but for anyone who’s still wondering, NO, I don’t want to make your kids gay. I just want to live my life with a sense of mutual respect for everyone else on this planet. If you want the same thing, then let your kids learn by your example. Show them that gay people and nontraditional families are nothing to be afraid of.
Teaching your kids to be accepting of gay people and gay families is a great way to teach them acceptance in a broader sense – and to teach them the ultimate lesson: to be accepting of themselves.
I know some people think differently, but that’s what I call family values.
* * * * *
If you know anyone who you think would appreciate this post, please share it using the buttons below. I’ve come back and revised this post a couple of times now, so if you have any non-homophobic notes or suggestions, feel free to leave a comment. If you have homophobic notes or suggestions, on the other hand, you might want to read my comment policy first.
* * * * *
Looking for a fun read? My book “Mommy Man: How I Went From Mild-Mannered Geek to Gay Superdad” is NOW AVAILABLE in hardcover and digital formats at all your favorite online and real world retailers. Get more details here.
The last time I’d been there, I was pretty much still a kid myself — 20 years old and just coming to terms with being gay. Everywhere I looked in Orlando, I saw dads. They were buckling their kids into the Dumbo ride and hoisting them onto their shoulders to watch the Main Street Electrical Parade. They all had big smiles on their faces, and they all had wives.
With that visit, Disney World became Exhibit A of what I was sacrificing by coming out of the closet.
Or so I thought.
I’ve written a whole book about how I got from that point to fatherhood, and I’m happy to say that twenty years in the future, life looks a lot better than I ever expected it would. As soon as Drew and I felt the kids were old enough to appreciate a Disney vacation, we booked our trip.
I had just a tinge of nerves as the four of us headed for the airport. We’re never more visible as a family than when we travel. Nothing says “We file taxes jointly” as clearly as sharing a Lion King suite in a Disney hotel. And I doubt any place in America draws such a cross-section of Americans as Orlando. I was sure we’d bump into some people who wouldn’t find our family… let’s say, family-friendly.
We’d barely stepped through the front door of our hotel when an eager employee — er, I mean cast member — strolled up to us and asked if we needed to check in.
“Well, I was told I’d get a text when our room was ready, and it hasn’t come yet,” I told him.
“Hmmm, let me see,” he said. He took down my name and disappeared behind the check-in desk.
A minute later, he was back. “You haven’t been assigned a room yet, but I’m going to talk to my manager and get that taken care of right away! Just sit tight!”
We watched him approach his manager, and Drew whispered to me. “I think we’re getting the family treatment, if you know what I mean.”
Of course I knew what he meant. The cast member who was helping us was gay (“family”) himself, so he was being extra nice to us. Moments later, we were upstairs in a fantastic room on the top floor.
Though I’d planned all our meal reservations months in advance (which you have to do if you want to eat at the good spots), I needed to make a change to one. I was not optimistic I’d be able to get what I wanted, but I picked up our hotel phone and dialed the reservation line.
“So this is for you and… Andrew?” the man on the other end asked, reading my information off his computer.
“And are you celebrating anything today?”
“Well, it’s our anniversary, actually.” (We hadn’t specifically planned to be at Disney World for the occasion, but a lot of big life events seem to end up happening on the same day Drew and I met 11 years ago.)
“Aw!” he said. I realized that once again, we were getting the family treatment. He fixed my reservation and waived the change fee.
It’s then that I realized something that would become even clearer to me throughout our vacation: a LOT of gay people work at Disney World. And as I’ve already learned, gay people love to see gay parents. Thanks to them and all the other wonderful people who work at the Magic Kingdom, I felt completely safe at Disney and never had any second thoughts about whether my family belonged there.
We spent our vacation like pretty much everyone else. We dined with everyone from Donald Duck to Tigger to Stitch to Sleeping Beauty. We stalked Mulan through Epcot’s China pavilion so the kids could get her autograph, camping out on a tip that she was going to make a surprise appearance. (Success!) We spent roughly half our kids’ college funds on Disney merchandise.
It was awesome.
Instead of feeling self-conscious about our family, we felt… well, special.
As we stood on Main Street waiting for a lunch reservation one day, a cast member approached us in character and said, “You have a beautiful family! The four of you, I love this.” She pointed at each of us, just so we knew for sure that she understood exactly what kind of family we had.
Our kids felt like celebrities, because everyone from the White Rabbit to Princess Tiana treated them rock stars. They got picked to take part in shows, Mike Wazowski read Bennett’s joke during the Monsters, Inc. show, and the characters at Disney restaurants didn’t want to leave our table. No one was more awesome than Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. We stood in line one day to get her autograph, and the next day, she spotted us during the park’s opening ceremony. “I remember you guys!” she called out to us. “Come see me later!”
Of course, we did, and she greeted us like old friends. This was a woman who probably spoke to hundreds of families a day, but precisely because we were a little bit different, she remembered us. It made me realize once again that it’s better to stand out than to blend in.
Any fears I had about people reacting negatively to our family were unfounded. As I’ve noted in other posts, the nice people we come into contact with tend to be extra-nice to us, and the homophobes are at least polite enough to stay out of our way.
There’s no way to say this without sounding cheesy or like some Disney shill (which I’m not — no one has paid me for this post!), but the best word I can think of to describe our trip was “magical.”
Becoming a dad was a major life victory for me, but it was hardly the last one. It’s been followed by innumerable others, the most recent of which came last week, when I took my family to Disney World, just like anyone else.
And it was even better than I’d imagined.
* * * * *
If you’re a regular reader, you may already know to skip the part after the asterisks, because you’ve probably already subscribed to my blog and followed me everywhere else, too — and geez, when’s he going to stop asking? Those of you who are still reading — what are you waiting for? Subscribe, like me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter – and hey, as long as I’m shamelessly groveling, why not mark my book as “to read” on GoodReads? That’d be swell.
Hey guys. It’s Daddy again. Remember that post I wrote about the 10 biggest secrets I keep from you? Of course not! I only shared that with everyone except you. (Oh, and did we have some good chuckles about it, too!)
Well, it turns out, Daddy’s full of secrets, and since you still can’t read or use the internet, I’m ready to spill a few more. Yes, go on playing Legos. Just grown-ups talking here. Nothing you’d be interested in…
1. None of your friends nap anymore.
It’s true. I’ve talked to all their parents, and they’re stunned that Daddy and I are still making you lie down for an hour every day at four years old. Their kids would never do that, they tell me. I usually leave out what a struggle it is to get you to follow through, and how every day I consider putting an end to nap time. But even our constant fighting over the nap is better than a day without naps — and I don’t mean for you.
I always say you have to nap because you get too cranky when you don’t, but the truth is, that doesn’t compare with how cranky it makes me. You may hate your naps, but I really, really like them. You might be ready to give them up, but I’m not. So until you learn the timeless childhood art of pleading, “But Jimmy’s parents don’t make him nap!”, you’re stuck with a daily snooze.
Seriously, kid. Start comparing notes. Jimmy’s got it a lot better than you do. A LOT.
2. Most of your artwork is garbage.
You know that picture you drew just for me, that you worked so hard on, that I swore was a masterpiece I would cherish forever? Well, five seconds after you went to bed, I crumpled it up and buried it deep, deep in the kitchen garbage can so you would never find it.
I know you won’t remember it tomorrow, and frankly, you make me way too many masterpieces, more than I can ever hang on the refrigerator or even store in an archive. I know you were especially proud of that dog dragon you drew me, but frankly, it wasn’t your best work. Sure, I took a picture of it before I dumped old coffee grounds and that half-eaten cup of yogurt on top of it, but don’t expect it to show up as my desktop wallpaper or anything.
Oh, and when we moved, Daddy and I threw away about five garbage bags full of your stuffed animals. You know why you didn’t notice? Because of the ten garbage bags full that we kept. Many of the things you love are garbage to us. I like that you have enough love in your heart to spread out among every crappy plush knickknack you take home from the Everybody Wins booth at the carnival, but the space in your heart is bigger than the space in our house, so some things just have to go.
3. We’re Going to Disney World!!!
You know how you’re constantly asking us if we can go to Disney World, and we respond, “Maybe someday”? Well, guess what, suckers? Someday is coming next February. We made the reservations, booked our flights, requested time off from work, reserved a dinner with Cinderella and even bought those Secret Guide to Disney books so we can make this the most awesome trip of your childhood. If you think we’re telling you about it anytime soon, though, you’re crazy. We planned this trip six months ahead of time. Do you know how long that is in kid years? Of course not, and that’s the point. But in grown-up years, it’s six months of “Is today the day? Is today the day?”, and Daddy ain’t havin’ that.
Oh, and don’t take this to mean that “maybe someday” is always code for yes. When you ask us for a puppy, “Maybe someday” is our way of ending the conversation. But that one’s a definite no. Not someday, not ever. Sorry.
4. If I ever played a game against you at my full ability, I would whoop your sorry ass.
You really think you could beat me on a race to the tree and back? I know I’m not Jesse Owens, kid, but seriously, if I ran as fast as I could, I would mop up the front yard with you. The same goes for when we play Zingo, that kiddie version of Bingo you love so much. There are only nine squares on the board, but when Kite comes up, I’ll sit and wait like two whole minutes for you to realize you have Kite in your center square.
Hello! I have two kites on my board, but I’m not going to swipe that tile away from you, because I guess the whole point of this is to get you to learn about image recognition or spatial relationships or something. I don’t know what the point is, but whatever it is, it’s something I already know. I don’t need the validation, so I’m going to let you have it. Let’s just move it along, OK?
Honestly, though, the bigger secret is that sometimes you win fair and square. Want to know how to tell the difference? When I’m smiling, that means I let you win. If you actually earned your victory, you’ll notice me quietly giving you the stink eye.
5. When daddy and I spell things, we’re usually talking about you.
In fact, we’re usually talking about either nap time, Disney World, how I smoked you at Zingo or how soon we can throw something of yours away after you go to bed. I don’t know what we’re going to do when you guys learn to spell, because Daddy and I have really come to rely on our secret code. Maybe we’ll start learning Russian or something.
Want these posts delivered right to your inbox? Subscribe to this blog by entering your email in the box in the upper right corner. No spam, I promise, just posts. It would also make me happy if you liked me on Facebook, followed me on Twitter or let me win at Zingo.
“Am I funny?”
“No. You’re serious.”
“Are you funny?”
“Is Bennett funny?”
“So I’m the only serious one?”
“What about your teacher?”
“Oh, good. So it’s not just me.”
“But sometimes she’s funny.”
“Am I funny sometimes?”
“Who else is funny?”
“Um… the cup.”
“The cup is funnier than me?!”
“Can I play with the iPad now?”
In this case, it was our cleaning lady, and she had some bad news.
“Jerry, Sutton’s fish is dead,” she told me, sadly. We’d left a 7-day gradual-release food pellet in his tank to cover our absence, but either something had gone wrong with it or it was just his time to go. She graciously offered to run out to the pet store and buy a replacement for us. Drew and I talked it over, then decided we’d handle the arrangements when we got home.
Thanks to some advice I got on Facebook, we decided to be honest with the kids. We also decided to wait until vacation was over.
We managed to put it out of our minds for the rest of the week, unsure how our sensitive, loving little girl would handle her first direct experience with death. Tonight, as we pulled into our driveway, I started to feel sick. It was time to face it.
I can’t claim that my fear of death is more intense than anyone else’s. You all think about it pretty much every single second, right? Right?? I’ve written before how worried I am about my kids finding out about it. Death is one thing I can’t protect them from. I’m not a religious person, so I don’t plan to tell them about Heaven or Nirvana or the idea that hey, things are actually even better when you die!
Death happens. It sucks. Everything else is a mystery.
It’s taken me 42 years to achieve that much acceptance of death, and I’m still terrified of it, of all the ways it could strike me, my family or anyone else I love, at any freaking time.
Bennett named his fish Sulley, after the character from Monsters, Inc. Sutton called hers Dolos, because… well, who the hell knows. After her phase of naming all her dolls Sutton, she’d moved onto a stage where she made up the most batshit names her little mind could concoct.
I don’t know why so many of them sounded Spanish. I’m sure I’ll find out someday that these are all the names of Dora’s woodland friends or something. Until then, I’m going to keep believing she’s some kind of twisted genius.
We didn’t wait long after we got home before we took her in the room and showed her the fishtank. I really think this was the right thing to do. It was pretty obvious from looking at Dolos’ belly-up body that he’d changed, that he was gone.
“Dolos died, Honey,” we explained.
She started to tear up. Through sniffles, she asked, “Can I still feed him tonight?”
“No. He doesn’t need to eat any more.”
“Do you want to go to the pet store tomorrow, so we can replace him?” Drew asked.
She smiled, instantly happy again. “Yes!” Then, she calmed down and asked, “What does replace mean?”
Bennett got choked up, too. We all moved into the bathroom, where we reenacted the Cosby Show fish funeral scene as well as I could remember it.
“Do you know what a funeral is?” I asked the kids. “When someone dies, we gather to remember them and talk about how much we love them.” I suggested we all say something we loved about Dolos. “I’ll go first. I loved how colorful he was.”
Sutton hung her head. “I loved watching him swim.”
A minute later, we flushed him. I’m not sure anyone was as emotional as I was, because I couldn’t focus much on them. I was too busy thinking of all the other funerals I’d been to, of everyone I’d cared about who’d died and of all the funerals my kids would go to in their lives. Of mine, someday, who knows when.
I gathered the kids for one more memorial. They’ve been really fond of the movie version of “James and the Giant Peach” lately. We’d watched it in the car on our way home from the trip. They knew all the words to all the songs, and through them, I had come to as well. I realized the movie provided a perfect elegy for our departed pet, so I played the song “Family” on my iPhone, and we all sat silently and listened to it.
“Do you kids want to play with the iPad now?” I asked when the song ended.
“Yeah!” they shouted. And that was the end of our funeral.
At dinner, the topic came up again. “Not all fish die, right, Daddy?” Sutton asked.
“No, they all die eventually.”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “Only some fish die.”
“Sulley is never going to die!” Bennett said.
“No, Sulley will die, too,” I told him. “But we hope it won’t be for a long time. That’s why it’s important to show him how much we love him while he’s here.”
As we tucked Sutton into bed a few hours later, still unsure how much she understood about death, she got sad again for a moment. “Daddy, do you know who died?” she said. “My fish, Dolos.”
“I know, Honey.”
She thought for a second. “And do you know what’s another word for burp? Belch. Just like you have around your waist.”
“No, Honey, that’s a belt.”
“Good night, sweetheart. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Daddy.”
There was nothing I wanted to inherit from my father more than the name “Dad.” I loved my dad, and in my mind, he was indelibly tied to that particular sobriquet. “Dad” was a term of love and respect for me, a part of all my memories of childhood and a crucial element of how I defined my family. The problem, when I actually became a dad, was that my partner Drew wanted to be called “Dad,” too — or, in the early years, “Daddy.”
“You can’t both be Dad,” a million people warned us. “That’ll be so confusing for your kids.”
They suggested we go by “Daddy” and “Papa,” which seem to be the go-to designations for gay dads these days. No matter how much we considered it, though, “Papa” felt like the consolation prize, and neither of us would agree to settle for it. We both grew up with dads whom we loved very much, so that’s what we wanted to be. Finally, we found someone who gave us the answer we were looking for.
“We’ve never had a problem,” a business associate of Drew’s told us one day. He and his partner had an eight-year-old son who called them both “Dad.”
“Is it ever confusing?”
He shrugged. “When it is, he finds ways to differentiate.”
So we went for it. Before they could even understand speech, our twins heard the word “Daddy” thousands of times. To them, “Daddy” came to mean two different men and one common function. They called for Daddy to kiss their boo-boos and to break up their disputes, not knowing for sure whether the tall guy or the short guy would walk through the door. When they didn’t get the Daddy they were hoping for, they made their displeasure known.
My kids will turn 4 this summer, and already, they’re pros at differentiating between their two dads. Their favorite way is to use modifiers like “Silly Daddy” or “Funny Daddy”, and in those cases, we all know instantly who they mean — not me. When they take the extra effort to throw in a compliment like that, they’re always talking about Drew. I’m just plain old “Daddy.” Some days, Papa doesn’t sound so bad to me anymore.
I want to plead my case: “Remember when I sang Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’, but I changed every word to ‘poop’? Didn’t we have a lot of laughs then?” But I don’t want to end up as “Desperate Daddy,” so I keep my hurt feelings to myself.
I’m the stay-home parent, so while the kids and I do have fun together, I’m also the guy who enforces naptime and who makes them take off their dress-up clothes while they eat their healthy dinners. At night, when Silly Daddy is at his most uproarious, I’m groaning and trying to rush them to bed, because I’m exhausted from all the unfunny things I do all day.
… which brings me to the one distinction that hurts more than Silly Daddy vs. Just Daddy. At some point, my kids started calling my partner “The Daddy Who Goes To Work” and I became “The Daddy Who Stays Home”. Was that how they saw things? Drew was defined by his job, but I was defined by my location, by the fact that you could usually find me within 20 feet of the bed where I slept last night?
These kids didn’t know me before I was Daddy. I used to have a career, too, one that I enjoyed, and that allowed me to live a lot more comfortably than I do now. I took vacations. I saved for my retirement. I saw movies in the theater.
I thought I was trading that in for something better, a more interesting and adventurous life path. I was going to be a dad — a professional dad — and a gay dad at that. Take that, status quo!
Instead, I’ve ended up like most stay-home parents, the clichéd unappreciated house-spouse. I’ll find myself cracking privately to friends, “You know what they should be calling me? The Daddy Who Gave Up His Life for Us!”
It turns out that deciding who I would be to my kids wasn’t as simple as choosing what they would call me. I still love being referred to as “Daddy,” but I’ve come to accept that that term doesn’t mean the same to them as it did to me when I was growing up. For my kids, “Daddy” is an ever-evolving designation, one that requires adjustment at times, complete overhaul at others.
Recently, they decided that “The Daddy Who Stays Home” wasn’t quite working for them anymore. Without notice, they gave it a subtle twist, one that probably seemed minor to them but which brought me instantly out of my funk. It materialized as my daughter drew pictures of two men’s faces, which looked very similar except that one had spiky purple hair and one had a red crew cut. “This is the Daddy Who Goes to Work,” she said, pointing to the first one.
“And this,” she said, holding up the other picture proudly, “is the Daddy Who Takes Care of Us.”
OK, you saw the asterisks. You know what that means. This is the part of the post where I shamelessly ask you to share this post (or my blog in general) on your social networks. Facebook me, tweet me, surprise me. If you like something I wrote here, help me out by spreading the word. If you hate it, then you can still share it, because hey, traffic is traffic, and your friends might have better taste than you. Also, follow me on Facebook, Twitter and wherever else you can find me. I’m not the type of guy who plays hard to find.
I had originally planned to call this post, “Shameless Boasts of a Superdad: My Kids Are Freaking Geniuses,” because any parent knows that their #1 responsibility in raising their children is to brag about them, even when privately the kids are driving them close to a nervous breakdown. Not my kids, of course. Other people’s. So I’ve heard.
My kids really are geniuses, and I was going to lay out all the evidence in this post so you could decide for yourself if I had a couple of Stephen Hawkings on my hands or merely Einsteins. I was going to lead the whole thing off with this picture:
That’s Bennett completing a puzzle of the solar system, for the first time, by himself, without looking at the box. Um, yeah. And he was 3 years, 4 months old when this was taken. Did I mention he had no idea what the solar system even was? (He does now. He’s learned a lot in the last 4 months.)
As I started composing the post in my head, though, I had an “Uh-oh” moment. “Uh-oh,” I thought. “Some people might see this a little differently.”
See, a few months ago, I put up a post that showed Bennett doing one of his favorite activities, lining up whatever objects he has handy and imagining them as trains. I thought it showed a pretty creative mind, or at the very least, a snapshot of a little boy who really liked trains.
Most people did see it that way, but there was a minority that wrote with concern. It turns out a nagging attention to detail and repetitive behavior can be red flags in kids this age.
It wasn’t the first time I’d had those fears myself. Who doesn’t? We all know there’s an epidemic, and early intervention is key, so any half-aware parent is going to take note of their kid’s unusual behavior.
The problem is, everything about my kid is unusual.
When Bennett was a baby, he started doing this thing where he would roll his eyes back in his head. It could’ve been a neurological tic, but I swear it seemed more like a sarcastic eye-roll. His timing with deploying it was impeccable. It really seemed like he was mocking me, which I loved. But he was way too young for that… wasn’t he?
Bennett also has a very mechanical mind. He loves toys that turn when you move a crank. He loves to check out all their moving parts. One day, Drew was running on the treadmill, and Bennett got down on the floor to inspect it. “It goes around!” he said, in a eureka moment. “You’re not moving!” At 3, he understands that a constantly rotating belt is what makes a treadmill work. Personally, if you’d asked me, my first guess would’ve been “magic”.
Bennett also likes to wear his sister’s dresses. He was planning to be Thomas the Train for Halloween, but at the last minute, he changed his mind and went as Sleeping Beauty. He’s told me that when he grows up, he plans to marry a boy. Other times, he says he’s going to marry his sister or one of his daddies. (And yes, it stings when he picks the other daddy over me. “Why, Bennett? Don’t you think I can provide for you?”) On a side note, it’s nice living at a time and in a state where my son can tell me he wants to marry a boy someday, and I can respond with a simple, “Okay!”
Again, some people want to put labels on these behaviors, but he’s 3 years old. Do I think he’s confused about his gender? Probably not. He’s always been very clear in labeling himself a boy. I just think in a family with two dads, you have to work extra hard to be subversive. Maybe he senses our family is different than most, and he wears it as a badge of honor. Plus, dresses are fun to twirl around in.
Bennett’s laugh is the single greatest sound in the world, a high-pitched titter that conveys nothing but pure joy. There’s a smile that goes with it that I won’t even try to describe. You just have to see it, and if you spend five seconds with him, you will. His favorite meal is a grilled cheese sandwich, followed closely by two peanut butter half-sandwiches. His third favorite meal is walking away from the table to play with his trains.
He has a couple of catch phrases. One is, “That can’t be right!” He says it whenever something unexpected happens. While watching Beauty & the Beast, he might say, “A talking candlestick? That can’t be right!” He also says it when he thinks you’re trying to fool him, even if you aren’t. “You mix yellow and blue to make green? That can’t be right!”
His other catch phrase is, “I gotta tell you something.” He says this every single time he begins a conversation, even if he’s not sure what he wants to talk about yet.
“I gotta tell you something.”
Speaking of trains, he knows every single friend Thomas the Tank Engine has. All their smushy faces look exactly the same to me, but one quick glance is all he needs to say, “That’s Gordon” or “That’s Skarloey”. He can play trains quietly by himself for half an hour. That may not sound like long, but at this age, it’s an ETERNITY. He can get 7 different engines going at once on the same track. He spaces them out perfectly so they won’t crash into each other. When we got him a kiddie mp3 player, he wanted us to load it up with nothing but Thomas the Tank Engine songs. (There are more than you’d imagine, and some of them aren’t half bad.)
He’s a better athlete than I ever was. A better dancer, too. He loves to invent games with names like “Run With a Balloon” or “Run Around the Trampoline,” or my favorite, which is simply called “Run!”
He’s off-the-charts skinny, literally below the first percentile in weight. He’s the only kid I’ve ever known who’ll stop eating dessert when he feels he’s had enough. Seriously, the kid can take two nibbles of an Oreo, shrug and say, “I’m done” and then just walk away. (That’s when his sister and I rush in and fight over the part he left behind.)
One of his favorite pastimes is to walk around with his eyes closed. At first we warned him he was going to get hurt, but then we realized stumbling into things was part of the fun for him. Maybe he just likes experimenting, seeing the world in a different way. He has gotten hurt, of course, but right after that, he’ll close his eyes and stumble into something else.
There are a million things about this kid that some people might see as odd, but whenever that voice in my head says, “Something’s wrong,” it gets shouted down by an even louder voice that tells me, “He’s perfect.” Not one of those million unique things about my kid is bad. So he’s good at math? Great. He has a silly sense of humor? Awesome. He likes machines? Swell.
What matters more to me than anything is that Bennett is the happiest kid I’ve ever known. One of the things he says the most is, “This is the best ____ ever!” You can insert virtually any word into that blank. “day,” “episode of ‘Dora’,” “peanut butter sandwich.” I’ve heard them all.
Quirkiness is a gift. So many people struggle to develop it in their teens and 20s, and my kid was lucky enough to born with it, in spades. Maybe it was growing up gay that made me realize not every idiosyncrasy is a problem to be solved. As a teenager, I always felt the need to hide from who I was. It took me half a lifetime to accept that there was nothing wrong with me. When it comes to my kids, I want to teach them that from the very start.
Sometimes, things Bennett does stand out to me, or to other people. But I’m not concerned. If there’s a technical term for whatever’s made him the way it is, it still won’t bother me, because what he is, is perfect.
My son is special, and I wouldn’t change a thing about him.
I’ve written before about how my kids are obsessed with Halloween. Their favorite thing at the Halloween store last year was a spider that jumped out at you when you stepped on a floor pad. It also made this hideous shrieking sound, and its eyes glowed a chilling, sinister red.
The kids were simultaneously fascinated and terrified by it. When we went to the mall, they couldn’t wait to see it, but as soon as we got to the store, they would hide from it and make me promise not to step on the pad.
Of course, even though they couldn’t bear to be near this evil toy, they kept begging us to buy one for our home. Good thing it cost $80, because Daddy knows better than to spend that kind of cash on a cheap piece of plastic that horrifies his children.
If I could get it for $30, though…
So I went online a few days after Halloween looking for a clearance sale. I found a smaller, less scary model at a more attractive price point and decided to make it a Christmas present. That way, if it freaked anyone out, Santa could take the heat.
Bad move, Superdad.
This time there was no fascination, only terror. The kids refused to play with the tabletop jumping spider or even turn it on. It got tossed behind a mountain of other toys, where I assumed they just forgot about it.
… until a couple of weeks ago, when Bennett woke up in the middle of the night screaming. “It’s the jumping spider! He’s coming to get me!”
We told Bennett we were going to throw the spider away, but that only upset him more. I think he didn’t like the feeling that it would be… out there somewhere. He needed closure. I started thinking up a plan. Maybe we could wait for the garbage truck one day, then personally hand it over to the workers and watch them crush it in the back of the truck. Sure, and then my kid would be terrified of the garbage truck.
Drew suggested we lock the spider in our garage. At least then, Bennett would know where it was. Bennett liked that plan, but the nightmares continued.
Finally, I came up with a new idea. We could give the jumping spider away to a friend of ours, an older kid who wouldn’t be afraid of it. He would make sure the spider stayed away from Bennett, and if Bennett ever changed his mind and wanted to visit the spider, we could go to his house.
We set up the drop-off. Bennett and Sutton were both so excited to give the spider away. They fought over who got to carry it, then finally decided they would carry it together. I was afraid they might change their minds about handing it over, but when the time came, they gave it up and never looked back.
As we drove home, I was looking forward to a peaceful sleep with no nightmares. Then, Bennett called out from the back seat.
“Daddy?” he said.
“For Halloween this year, can we get a jumping zombie?”