I was wondering how and when to discuss with my kids (ages 4 & 2) things like the fact that Grandpa is mom's stepfather, that mom's birth father died, that Uncle Dave is mom's stepbrother, that Uncle Joe is mom's half-brother, etc., etc.? Among the adults in my family, the distinctions never come up, everyone is just "brother," "sister," "dad," etc., so it never really occurred to me to explain the true nature of the relationships to my kids, and it feels unnatural to point out these distinctions. But, I don't want to spring this info on them when they're older and have them feel shocked or disoriented or like I was keeping anything from them. Any insights would be really appreciated! Thank you!
From: Unsure, Boston
I agree: make this a talk-able subject now; if they find out later in life -- and by that, I mean as teens -- they may see it as shameful and wonder what other "secrets" you aren't telling. In other words, you don't want it to surface at a critical time in development that puts your credibility as a parent at risk.
As family secrets go, these are easy ones; step parents and half sibs are not a big deal in this day and age. But this advice goes for any so-called secret: It is always better for your kids to hear the whole (true) story of their family from their parents rather than to get it in bits and pieces from overheard adult conversations (which they will embellish with magical thinking), or from older cousins who may or may not have the story right, as in, "You know, grandpa isn't your real grandpa." By all means, be open with the information now so that in hindsight, it will seem to your children as if they never were without it.
Don't bring it up out of the blue, though, wait for an opening -- the mention of a step-father or a half-brother in a story or a video, or in convention. Then: "Did you know that mama has a half-brother? Uncle Joe is mama's half brother." You can stop there, wait and see if there are questions, and then add this: "That means mama and Uncle Joe have the same mother/father and a different father/mother." Add more (or not) based on questions they ask.
The goal is to put the subject on the table in as simple terms as possible; young children don't need the whole story or complicated explanations they can't understand. By speaking the words, "step-father," "half-brother," you're putting the words in their vocabulary, making it possible to refer back to it some time in the future when their cognitive skills are more developed and the subject comes up again. Then keep that answer simple, too: "Remember when I told you grandpa is mom's step-father? Mom's birth father died. When grandma and grandpa got married, grandpa became mama's step-father." Answer all the complicating factors (how her birth father died; how grandma and grandpa got married) only when they ask questions, or if there's some concrete, real-life opening, for instance, a classmate's mom remarries and now that classmate has a step father.
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