Same-sex marriage: What do you tell the kids?

Jennifer and Greg Willits’ 11 year old sensed a significant event happened when the Supreme Court made a ruling on same-sex unions.

Seeing rainbow-colored flags in their newspaper and hearing his parents talk about the court, their son asked if the court ruled that rainbow flags are homosexual.

“That just illustrates how simple children will see it,” said Jennifer, in sharing her child’s effort to understand the court’s ruling. “We explained it’s really about same-sex attraction.”

The Willits, with children ranging from ages 6 to 17 who attend public school, decided to face the issue.

“Parents are being forced to have very complex conversations earlier and earlier with the pervasiveness of same-sex attraction on the TV shows they want to watch or at school,” she said.

The key, said Greg, who is the executive director of the Evangelization and Family Life Ministries Office for the Archdiocese of Denver and co-hosts “The Catholics Next Door” podcast with his wife, is to be honest and upfront about the beauty of bodies and sexuality at a young age.

“Had we not been so open about sexuality with our kids from the outset, about the beauty of bodies the way God made them, and how men and women fit together so perfectly for a God-made purpose, the conversation about same-sex marriages would have been even more difficult than it was,” he told the Denver Catholic.

Communicating a respect for their own and other’s bodies laid a foundation to help their children see the purpose of bodies that can only be fulfilled in a marriage between a man and a woman, he said.

After the justices ruled 5-4 in the case Obergefell v. Hodges to open the door to same-sex unions in all 50 states, local clergy and parents weighed in on navigating the topic with the youngest members of society.

Kevin and Lisa Cotter

Kevin and Lisa Cotter. Photo provided

Not a one-time talk

Kevin and Lisa Cotter have younger children, ages 9, 6, and 22 months. They are homeschooling their children. However, their daughter Mary Clare, 9, quickly realized something had happened after the court’s decision.

“No matter who you are, or what your school is, there’s so much that’s going to come about and need to be explained,” Kevin said. “That’s one of the hardest things for a parent, there are things that your kids aren’t necessarily ready for, but the culture isn’t going to listen to that.”

In their case, Mary Clare realized the priest was upset about something during Mass following the Supreme Court case. She wanted to know why.

Kevin explained what the Supreme Court had ruled, and reminded her of what she already knew about mommies and daddies. He said he encouraged her to use her own logic from there. He said he expects the conversation to continue as she matures.

“I think it’s not a one-time conversation. She’ll have certain questions, or certain logic will present itself, and we’ll continue the conversation,” he said.

Don’t be afraid

Father Brady Wagner, a chaplain at the University of Colorado at Boulder, gave a talk on homosexuality at a Getting Grilled event at St. Mary Parish in Littleton on July 23.

He told Denver Catholic the best thing parents can do to prepare for this conversation is to be informed, and to not be afraid.

“I think it’s important to have trust between parents and children,” he said. “If a child asks about it, we need to speak the truth and speak it honestly, yet without feeling the need to overshare, of course. Humble honestly builds trust.”

Father Wagner said that parents should be rooted in their understanding that we are all children of God, and all have equal dignity. He warned against making the mistakes of downplaying the difference between a homosexual relationship and a heterosexual one, or to heighten the difference to the extent that it inspires fear in the child.

“All of us are children of God, who he really loves. Some of us struggle with different and very painful crosses. God helps all of us to live in ways to really love and honor each other,” Father Wagner said.

He also said that parents should remember that they know their child best, and can help their child by framing the explanation in terms of the context the child heard it in.

“If they heard the word ‘gay’ as an insult, that would probably require a different explanation than if someone told them they were ‘gay’ or they had ‘gay’ parents,” Father Wagner said.

Overall, Father Wagner recommended a direct approach with children.

“Keeping it simple, straightforward yet sensitive will be helpful for children; simple, not needing to make it more complex than they are looking for, straightforward by being honest about Church teaching and the joy of God’s call to all to love chastely, and sensitive, giving justice to the often painful and confusing cross it can be for those who have same-sex attraction as well as highlighting the truth of personal dignity and God’s love for all no matter what.”

Logical connections
The Willits said their first rule of thumb was to consider the age of the child.

Jennifer said she considered what the child already knew about same-sex attraction and marriage and what was appropriate for their age.

“We then started with the truth and we exposed the deviation of the truth,” she said.

Her conversation with their 13 year old happened while she was preparing a meal.

Greg and Jennifer Willits with their five children.

Greg and Jennifer Willits with their five children. Photo by Jason Taylor/Archdiocese of Denver

“It seemed as good a time as any to have that conversation,” she said.

And the talk with their other teenaged children was spontaneous as they were taking a walk in their neighborhood.

She explained that life cannot come from the union of two people of the same sex and that the act is not open to life. She presented the truth of marriage and explained that same-sex unions are self-serving.

“I want them to make the logical connections themselves instead of me shoving it in their brains,” Jennifer said.

She said her teenagers struggled with the news.

“My kids took it very hard. They were very discouraged,” Jennifer said. “I think their biggest fear is about being persecuted by their peers. They didn’t want to be labeled as a hater.”

She said they check in with their children regularly to see how they are experiencing the news in their daily life. They also ask the Holy Spirit for guidance when having the conversation and to remember to be charitable when discussing the topic.

“Be charitable, first and foremost,” Jennifer said. “And pray with your teen if you are at a loss for words.”


COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.