“Is that your Mom?”—Children’s questions about families

nanny-with-babyby Sachi Feris

Whenever my daughter sees a seemingly unaccompanied child (for example, a five-year-old who is half a block ahead of their adult on their scooter), her immediate question is: “Where is that child’s mommy or papi?”

Her assumption is that every child has a mommy or papi like she does. This addresses the topic of diverse family structures including same sex parents, single parents, and other configurations of a family unit. So, I often challenge this for her.

“That child’s adult is walking behind her because she is bigger and is allowed to go a little bit ahead by herself. But we don’t know if this little girl has a mommy or a papi…she could just have one mommy, or she could have two mommies…or she could have two papis.”

She also often questions the particular relationship between a child and an adult. At two-and-a-half, she always assumes the person taking care of a child is the “mommy or papi”, regardless of the child’s and adult’s similarities or differences as far as physical appearances.

A few months ago, I was in the playground with my daughter and we started talking to a dark-skinned, Black woman and a pale-skinned, White, blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby. My daughter inquired (in Spanish) as to whether the woman was the baby’s mother. I asked the woman, saying, “My daughter would like to know what your relationship is with the baby.” The woman told us that she was the babysitter.

“She’s a good friend of the baby and takes care of her,” I explained. “Just like Abu (Grandma) takes care of you sometimes when mommy and papi aren’t home.”

Over the years, I have heard countless stories about children who are curious about the relationships between other children and their adults, often asking questions like, “Is that your mom?” or “Why don’t you look like your dad?”

These types of questions—though they come from a place of curiosity and, as an educator, I want to encourage this type of willingness to ask questions about differences—can have a negative impact on the child whose family relationship is being questioned, particularly in the case of biracial families.

I want to support my daughter’s curiosity and confidence about asking questions about race and other differences—but not at the expense of other children’s feelings. This is why I model inclusive language, such as: “What is your relationship?” instead of making an assumption about the relationship or questioning the relationship.

I also want my daughter to know that she can always ask for permission to ask a personal question, for example: “Do you mind if I ask you a question about your family?”

I always keenly remember the trip I took to Germany in my early twenties—and feeling like I met people who wanted to ask me about my family history as a Jewish person, but couldn’t find the words to ask. Meanwhile, I was really yearning to be asked and engaged with.

Not everyone wants to talk about their family history or racial identity, or family structure…but many people may welcome the opportunity. It may just a matter of asking the right type of question.

Click here to read a related story,  “Your curiosity about my bi-racial child isn’t cute.”

Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn.