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.
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.”
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.
“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.”