Until recently, my plan for talking with my children about sexuality followed a linear approach. Introduce the basics, I thought. Help them understand their bodies and the fundamentals of God’s design for sex within marriage, and then slowly move toward discussing topics such as same-sex attraction, gay marriage, or transgender identity. (In my mind, “slowly” meant years down the road.)

Today’s culture, however, has altered that trajectory for me and many other moms I know. Amid quickly changing laws and norms pertaining to sexuality and relationships, a strictly linear mindset is no longer realistic. Depending on the age of our kids, many of us find ourselves needing to discuss both the basics and the more complex issues simultaneously.

This is no small task, especially when so many of us as adults are trying to navigate the shifting sand ourselves. We don’t want to get these conversations wrong. Deep love, kindness, and respect for all people—who bear God’s image—must accompany any concepts or convictions I attempt to relay to my children. Where else will they spend more time learning how to love and view people through a gospel lens (or not) than at home? These discussions ultimately are not about issues, but people—many who’ve been hurt, shunned, or altogether rejected by the church. Real people, real pain, real families.

Traveling this road well will be a challenging spiritual practice for me as a mom and also for my three kids, ages 4, 8, and 11. Yet it will also provide a wonderful opportunity and one that today’s cultural issues prod us to embrace. As Ron Sider expressed on ChristianityToday.com: We are “being compelled to examine our beliefs and practices. This is a good thing. We deeply need a new approach to our neighbors and our churches’ own members, especially those who live with a same-sex attraction or orientation.” To that end, I’d also add we need a more loving, thoughtful, and thorough approach to how we teach and influence our children.

Continuing, Not Starting, the Conversation

Perhaps the best place to begin is with a realization that a discussion with our kids about the changing norms needs to be part of more expansive, ongoing conversations about human sexuality that should be taking place in our homes. The reality for many of us is that we compartmentalize and minimalize these kind of interactions. Even the topic itself has taken on the age-old colloquialism of “The Talk”—implying a singular discussion with maybe a few follow-up conversations before a child leaves home. The discomfort and uncertainty many of us feel is often directly correlated with the infrequency in which we choose to engage these issues.

Article continues below

“A lot of the way we educate about sexuality has been very reductionist,” says Deb Hirsch, the author of Redeeming Sexuality. “It’s what we do or don’t do with our genitals. We’ve failed to connect our sexuality with our spirituality, so our kids are floundering. Teenagers in particular often tell me they feel their sexuality is in direct competition with their spirituality.”

Instead of this juxtaposition, we need to teach our children to see their sexuality as something that completes their spirituality, Hirsch says. We are both profoundly spiritual and profoundly sexual by God’s creation and design.

“Our sexuality is intrinsic to our humanity; it’s part of the way we reflect God,” Hirsch says. “It’s ultimately a longing to know and be known and to love and be loved. We’re all sexual beings trying to navigate our own orientation, but we are also all profoundly broken in areas of our sexuality, as Genesis 3 tells us.”

This viewpoint changes our posture, Hirsch explains, because we stop viewing sexual minorities as the only ones who are broken. We learn to include ourselves in the same story. “I might not feel like a man trapped in a woman’s body, but I’m still trying to determine what is it to be a woman,” Hirsch says. “Am I conforming to what the world is saying a woman should be or what God is saying a woman should be?”

Sider adds that we have also “frequently failed to distinguish gay orientation from gay sexual activity—even though if any of us were judged by the persistent inclinations of our hearts, on sexual matters or otherwise, none of us could stand.”

Hirsch grew up in Australia and engaged in romantic relationships with both men and women before identifying as a lesbian and entering into a serious relationship with her partner in her early twenties. Shortly after this, she became a Christian. She says the Holy Spirit gradually led her away from her gay lifestyle following her conversion. She eventually met her husband and joined a church group of new Christians comprised mostly of people who’d formerly identified as gay or transgender.

Article continues below

At the time she entered church, she felt fairly sexually liberated because of her past relationships. “So imagine my shock when no one in church ever talked about sex,” she says. “I wondered if any of them were having sex at all. I knew they were, because they kept having kids, but they just didn’t talk about it.”

The instinct for parents in particular to not talk frequently with their children about issues of sexuality is one that stems from a desire to protect, says Stan Jones, provost of Wheaton College and professor of psychology. “Unfortunately, that’s exactly the wrong instinct.” Jones once taught a Christian college graduate course on sexuality and expected that his students would have a solid understanding of the topic, yet he found that “more often than not, they didn’t know anything, didn’t hear anything from their parents, and were not as informed as he would have expected,” Stan’s wife, Brenna, recalls.

This influenced Stan and Brenna to write God’s Design for Sex, a children’s book series that has collectively sold more than a million copies throughout the past 20 years. From the beginning, the couple has advocated for parents to begin with children as young as age three discussing age-appropriate sexual concepts in light of Scripture and God’s design for their bodies. What’s different now is that these conversations also need to include the reality of same-sex relationships. “Kids as young as four or five are going to see things on billboards or on television or in person,” Stan Jones says. “So we urge parents to start early and talk about these issues in an age-appropriate way.”

Pushing Past Discomfort

While silence may seem to buy us time, what it really communicates to our kids is that we’re uneasy talking about the subject. “If you wait for your child to ask, they may not,” Stan Jones says. “By proactively raising the subject, you’re telling your kids, ‘I’m open for business on this. I want you to trust me. I’ll tell you the truth. I won’t get uncomfortable, and I want you to come to me first.’”

For Jenny (not her real name), a friend of mine in Nashville, this meant initiating a conversation with her six- and eight-year-old children about their gay uncle they were preparing to visit in Chicago. “I wrestled with knowing what to say to them for a long time because in my mind I thought the conversation needed to tie into sex, and I haven’t even had a complete talk with either my daughter or my son yet about the birds and the bees,” she says. “I thought, How can I explain to them what it means to be homosexual when they don’t even understand sex in heterosexual terms?

Article continues below

Jenny and her husband started praying and seeking wisdom from several local pastors. They discovered it wasn’t necessary for “The Talk” to come first. And they decided to speak with each child separately to foster a relaxed environment where individual questions could be answered.

“We began by talking about romantic love and how our love as husband and wife is different than any other kind of love we have for anyone else,” she says. “We told them, ‘Mommy and Daddy are married, we kiss, and we sleep in the same bed. We don’t have that same kind of love with anyone else.’

“Then we reminded them of our need for Jesus—how we all need a Savior because we all make decisions every day that are outside of God’s plan for our lives. We live in a broken world and every single one of us needs Jesus,” Jenny says. She and her husband discussed God’s design for family while also explaining that their uncle and his partner love each other. They clarified, “They don’t agree it’s outside of God’s design. But we love them so, so much. We want to respect them. We’re so glad they are part of our family.

“We disagree on what God says about this,” Jenny and her husband emphasized, “but even when we disagree, we want to always show them God’s love.”

Reflecting on that conversation, Jenny explains, “I’ve always wanted them to hear words such as gay or sex come from me first instead of a movie, a magazine, or a friend.” She continues, “I want them to clearly understand that same-sex relationships are not God’s design, and yet I don’t want them to think that this issue is worse than anything else.”

Jenny and her husband were surprised by how few questions arose from their kids after their initial conversation, but they know more are eventually coming. When faced with more specifics (How does gay sex work? How do gay couples have children?), approach these topics with discernment and gentleness, Brenna Jones says, gradually building on what they already know. “With our kids, we followed the rule of definitely answering their questions while giving five percent more of what they were asking. If they were satisfied with the initial answer, great. If not, they kept asking for more.

Article continues below

“It’s really important to get over any uneasiness for the sake of our children and lovingly tell them the truth,” she continues. “Having this issue come up is an opportunity to share that sex is about more than a physical relationship. It’s about our relationship with God, it’s about obedience to God with our bodies, and it’s about worshiping God with our bodies. Broach these subjects with an attitude of shaping their character, telling them the truth about God, and helping them understand the goodness of his creation.”

Modeling Christ, Expanding the Table

As children grow, emphasizing compassion as part of these conversations is critical. “Cultivating compassion is teaching our children to take a realistic look at their own flaws and faults while helping them understand that God sees them, loves them, and forgives,” Brenna Jones says. “It’s also encouraging our kids to put themselves in someone else’s shoes—what must the other person be feeling or walking through? How are they being perceived or treated? How can I best walk alongside them even if I don’t agree with their choices?”

Parents modeling this kind of compassion might be one of the most important ways to engage older children on the topic. “The 30-and-under demographic has a finely tuned hypocrisy meter,” says Dorothy Greco, a Christian writer in Boston with three sons ages 15, 19, and 21. “It’s perhaps the number one thing that turns them off from Christians and church. This has prompted us to examine our own hearts,” she says. “It’s been extremely important for our kids to see and understand that we do not perceive ourselves as better than anyone who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. What that means practically is that we do our best to show love, mercy, and respect to everyone in our life, even if we disagree with their choices.”

For many families with high school or college-age students, the reality is that their children are often leaps and bounds ahead of their parents in actually fostering relationships with gay or transgender peers. “Parents needs to cultivate an environment where engagement and questions are warmly embraced,” Hirsch says. “They may even need to learn from their kids. Ask the kids to bring their gay friends to dinner. And above all else, don’t jump to simplistic answers that come from a place of fear or a lack of understanding. That only does more damage. Our kids already know this is complex.”

Article continues below

Greco and her husband try to help their sons understand that alongside emphasizing God’s love and mercy is the notion that God is holy and calls each of us to holiness. So they’ve worked through several Bible studies together that contrast current cultural ideas with what Scripture says about sexuality. “Following Jesus means making difficult choices and sometimes experiencing rejection because of those choices. This can be a hard reality. But we’ve also coached them about how to share their views without coming across as hateful or judgmental,” she says.

Convicting Truth, Compelling Love

“How easy it is to forget that truth, in order to be true in the truest sense, must be spoken in love,” my pastor in Nashville, Scott Sauls, often says. “How many people do you know who started following Jesus because someone scolded them, disapproved of them because of their substandard ethics, or made it clear how appalling their ‘lifestyle’ is? I have been a Christian for more than 25 years and a minister for 17. I have never met one.”

This is the spirit of grace I pray God would cultivate in my own heart and in the heart of my children as we navigate the realities of a new cultural landscape. I’m encouraged by moms such as Jenny and Greco. Yes, they’re engaging in hard, truth-centered conversations—but they’re also sharing meals, trips, laughter, and heartache with members of the LGBT community. They’re offering love and affirmation in every way they can. May the same be true for me and my children.