When do you share family history?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  May 5, 2011 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,

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

Dear Unsure,

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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11 comments so far...
  1. I would add to emphasize that the important thing is that love makes a family, and that someone who is not a blood relation can still be a family member. My kids' Grandpa is not married to my MIL, but he treats my kids the same as his 'real' grandkids, and the kids all think of themselves as cousins. My kids know that their 'cousins' and Grandpa are not blood relations, but they are still family as far as we're all concerned.

    Posted by akmom May 5, 11 06:51 AM
  1. When our grandkids were younger, they visited us at our summer house. My stepdaughter and her oldest child, who was 5 at the time, were up early one morning and the little one was working on a family tree. They didn't know I could hear them. The 5 YO was very painstakingly erasing me from the tree. When her mother (my stepdaughter) asked why, the little one told her that "Daddy said Gramma JBar wasn't real family". My heart broke a little that day. I guess I just wonder why this distinction has to be made, and why at such a young age? I know my life isn't any better now that the kids know that I'm not their REAL Grandma. And I don't think they benefited from the honest truth either. If no one in the LW's family makes any issue of this, why should the LW? Sorry Barbara, but I respectfully disagree with you on this. If it pertained directly to the children, i.e if they were adopted, that's a different story.

    Posted by JBar May 5, 11 08:08 AM
  1. Another opening might be father's day, which is coming up. Assuming that the mom in this question actually knew her birth father, she could say something like "Father's day makes me miss (or think about) my first dad, who died [along time ago, when I was x years old, whatever that detail is]. But I'm glad that my mom married Grandpa and we can celebrate the day with him." And then fill in the half-sibling/step-sibling questions from there.

    My FIL is a widower and re-married a few months before my husband and I did. I never met my late MIL but we celebrate the anniversary of her death every year and the kids know of her and know that Papa's wife is not Daddy's mom. It's no big deal to them at all.

    Posted by Jen May 5, 11 09:23 AM
  1. As the mom of two adopted kids, I really don't understand why this is an issue at all. He's not her biological father? So what? Why is that even important?

    We always treated our family tree situation as a matter of fact thing. X and Y are your birthparents, some people live with their birthparents forever, some don't, no big deal. You have black hair, you like pasta, you're adopted, you go to Z school - all of these facts are just that - random facts. It's never been a big deal.

    My husband's familly had a major identity crisis when they found out that some ancestor 5 generations back was (gasp) adopted! Ohmygod! They are not really biological Smiths! That's just crazy. Does that make you somehow not who you are? Does that mean that you need to change your family name and live in a cave? If you have that much free time, come over to my house. You can wash windows with all that extra time.


    Posted by BMS May 5, 11 09:58 AM
  1. The letter writer says she doesn't make a distinction so I don't understand why she needs to explain one to her very young children. If it comes up when they're older I don't think they will feel lied to or betrayed in any way if the family treats and respects each other like family. She could say "I called so and so my brother because that is what he is to me. I've always treated him that way and vise versa." Doesn't sounds like a hidden agenda or any harm done, they are a family.

    Posted by m's mom May 5, 11 10:26 AM
  1. JBar, I'm sure your granddaughter was immediately corrected and you were an adult about it and did not take this misunderstanding personally. I think this is exactly the kind of situation that can be avoided by having open and honest discussions with children starting at a very young age. An informed child would have told her dad "no, she *is* real family" or "you mean 'biological', daddy!" Of course, it sounds like the dad may have made a mistake by using the word "real" instead of "biological," and I wish Barbara had emphasized much more strongly the importance of avoiding this error.

    Posted by geocool May 5, 11 02:49 PM
  1. Not seeing the need for explaining or making distinctions, either. And they are so very young now, to bring it up at all would be to place in their heads that there is "real" family versus "step" family -- while in some families, sadly, there is a difference, it sounds as though in this one, everyone is just "family."

    At 4 and 2, the LW's kids are too young for these conversations to be needed. At some point it will come up naturally, perhaps, that mom had a dad who died, and now there is grandpa. But, coming from a blended extended family myself, I've seen no kids in our big extended family get upset when they discovered that their Aunt was a "step" Aunt, or that grandma was grandpa's second wife. It just didn't matter to any of the kids -- perhaps because we all treat each other as family.

    Posted by jjlen May 5, 11 04:03 PM
  1. Morning geocool, I pretended to not have heard the comment. Her Mom told her that sometimes Daddies can be wrong and this is one of those times. I will confess that while I've never spoken to my son-in-law about it, it does sometimes still rankle (4 years later).

    Posted by JBar May 6, 11 07:33 AM
  1. I think my parents must have started young, because I don't remember this concept being any big deal. My grandfather married the woman that I consider my grandmother after his wife passed away. When my parents mentioned it (which was rare) it was always "Mom's mother died years ago, and Grandpa married Grandma because she made him happy." She may not have been related to me by blood, but she's the one who read me stories, wrote me poems, celebrated my birthdays, shared pizza with me, and regularly schooled me at Scrabble.

    Posted by Casey May 6, 11 11:59 AM
  1. I have to disagree with those who think it shouldn't be discussed, but agree that the kids may be a little young for there to be a strong need for the conversation. I think that's why Barbara suggested waiting for an opening and following the kids' lead on how much info to give. My career is helping kids cope with illnesses, medical treatment, and other challenges, and I totally agree with Barbara that being honest establishes trust (absolutely crucial for a healthy relationship with your kids) and prevents kids from getting misconceptions based on things they overhear.

    On a personal note, my Grandfather was actually my step-grandfather. I don't recall how I found this out, so I must have been very young when it was explained to me. Grampa was always just that to me, even though I knew in the back of my head that we weren't biologically related (though that fact sometimes still slips my mind, even though he and my dad didn't even share a last name). I really like the suggestion from one commenter to point out that families are based in love.


    )

    Posted by Kris May 6, 11 04:57 PM
  1. I didn't know that my grandpa adopted my mother when he married my grandmother until I was 18 and I was gathering my family medical history. It was not a huge deal (grandpa was still grandpa) and in some ways was a relief (his side had some bad hereditary medical issues). I was upset only because no one had bothered to fill us in when we were little and I didn't understand why it had been a big secret. I wondered what else they were hiding.
    i did tell my parents that if there were any other family secrets they had better speak up then and there or we would have real trust issues going forward.

    Posted by Ella May 7, 11 12:50 PM
 
11 comments so far...
  1. I would add to emphasize that the important thing is that love makes a family, and that someone who is not a blood relation can still be a family member. My kids' Grandpa is not married to my MIL, but he treats my kids the same as his 'real' grandkids, and the kids all think of themselves as cousins. My kids know that their 'cousins' and Grandpa are not blood relations, but they are still family as far as we're all concerned.

    Posted by akmom May 5, 11 06:51 AM
  1. When our grandkids were younger, they visited us at our summer house. My stepdaughter and her oldest child, who was 5 at the time, were up early one morning and the little one was working on a family tree. They didn't know I could hear them. The 5 YO was very painstakingly erasing me from the tree. When her mother (my stepdaughter) asked why, the little one told her that "Daddy said Gramma JBar wasn't real family". My heart broke a little that day. I guess I just wonder why this distinction has to be made, and why at such a young age? I know my life isn't any better now that the kids know that I'm not their REAL Grandma. And I don't think they benefited from the honest truth either. If no one in the LW's family makes any issue of this, why should the LW? Sorry Barbara, but I respectfully disagree with you on this. If it pertained directly to the children, i.e if they were adopted, that's a different story.

    Posted by JBar May 5, 11 08:08 AM
  1. Another opening might be father's day, which is coming up. Assuming that the mom in this question actually knew her birth father, she could say something like "Father's day makes me miss (or think about) my first dad, who died [along time ago, when I was x years old, whatever that detail is]. But I'm glad that my mom married Grandpa and we can celebrate the day with him." And then fill in the half-sibling/step-sibling questions from there.

    My FIL is a widower and re-married a few months before my husband and I did. I never met my late MIL but we celebrate the anniversary of her death every year and the kids know of her and know that Papa's wife is not Daddy's mom. It's no big deal to them at all.

    Posted by Jen May 5, 11 09:23 AM
  1. As the mom of two adopted kids, I really don't understand why this is an issue at all. He's not her biological father? So what? Why is that even important?

    We always treated our family tree situation as a matter of fact thing. X and Y are your birthparents, some people live with their birthparents forever, some don't, no big deal. You have black hair, you like pasta, you're adopted, you go to Z school - all of these facts are just that - random facts. It's never been a big deal.

    My husband's familly had a major identity crisis when they found out that some ancestor 5 generations back was (gasp) adopted! Ohmygod! They are not really biological Smiths! That's just crazy. Does that make you somehow not who you are? Does that mean that you need to change your family name and live in a cave? If you have that much free time, come over to my house. You can wash windows with all that extra time.


    Posted by BMS May 5, 11 09:58 AM
  1. The letter writer says she doesn't make a distinction so I don't understand why she needs to explain one to her very young children. If it comes up when they're older I don't think they will feel lied to or betrayed in any way if the family treats and respects each other like family. She could say "I called so and so my brother because that is what he is to me. I've always treated him that way and vise versa." Doesn't sounds like a hidden agenda or any harm done, they are a family.

    Posted by m's mom May 5, 11 10:26 AM
  1. JBar, I'm sure your granddaughter was immediately corrected and you were an adult about it and did not take this misunderstanding personally. I think this is exactly the kind of situation that can be avoided by having open and honest discussions with children starting at a very young age. An informed child would have told her dad "no, she *is* real family" or "you mean 'biological', daddy!" Of course, it sounds like the dad may have made a mistake by using the word "real" instead of "biological," and I wish Barbara had emphasized much more strongly the importance of avoiding this error.

    Posted by geocool May 5, 11 02:49 PM
  1. Not seeing the need for explaining or making distinctions, either. And they are so very young now, to bring it up at all would be to place in their heads that there is "real" family versus "step" family -- while in some families, sadly, there is a difference, it sounds as though in this one, everyone is just "family."

    At 4 and 2, the LW's kids are too young for these conversations to be needed. At some point it will come up naturally, perhaps, that mom had a dad who died, and now there is grandpa. But, coming from a blended extended family myself, I've seen no kids in our big extended family get upset when they discovered that their Aunt was a "step" Aunt, or that grandma was grandpa's second wife. It just didn't matter to any of the kids -- perhaps because we all treat each other as family.

    Posted by jjlen May 5, 11 04:03 PM
  1. Morning geocool, I pretended to not have heard the comment. Her Mom told her that sometimes Daddies can be wrong and this is one of those times. I will confess that while I've never spoken to my son-in-law about it, it does sometimes still rankle (4 years later).

    Posted by JBar May 6, 11 07:33 AM
  1. I think my parents must have started young, because I don't remember this concept being any big deal. My grandfather married the woman that I consider my grandmother after his wife passed away. When my parents mentioned it (which was rare) it was always "Mom's mother died years ago, and Grandpa married Grandma because she made him happy." She may not have been related to me by blood, but she's the one who read me stories, wrote me poems, celebrated my birthdays, shared pizza with me, and regularly schooled me at Scrabble.

    Posted by Casey May 6, 11 11:59 AM
  1. I have to disagree with those who think it shouldn't be discussed, but agree that the kids may be a little young for there to be a strong need for the conversation. I think that's why Barbara suggested waiting for an opening and following the kids' lead on how much info to give. My career is helping kids cope with illnesses, medical treatment, and other challenges, and I totally agree with Barbara that being honest establishes trust (absolutely crucial for a healthy relationship with your kids) and prevents kids from getting misconceptions based on things they overhear.

    On a personal note, my Grandfather was actually my step-grandfather. I don't recall how I found this out, so I must have been very young when it was explained to me. Grampa was always just that to me, even though I knew in the back of my head that we weren't biologically related (though that fact sometimes still slips my mind, even though he and my dad didn't even share a last name). I really like the suggestion from one commenter to point out that families are based in love.


    )

    Posted by Kris May 6, 11 04:57 PM
  1. I didn't know that my grandpa adopted my mother when he married my grandmother until I was 18 and I was gathering my family medical history. It was not a huge deal (grandpa was still grandpa) and in some ways was a relief (his side had some bad hereditary medical issues). I was upset only because no one had bothered to fill us in when we were little and I didn't understand why it had been a big secret. I wondered what else they were hiding.
    i did tell my parents that if there were any other family secrets they had better speak up then and there or we would have real trust issues going forward.

    Posted by Ella May 7, 11 12:50 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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