Four-year-old Derek calls out to me, “Joel just said that he doesn’t have a mommy and I told him that everyone has a mommy! Doesn’t everyone have a mommy?” Derek asks.

As a nursery school teacher, I was on the spot for the answer to Derek’s question as well as providing a supportive strategy for Joel, who in this case confidently defends his position that he, in fact, does not have a mommy!

It was my responsibility to get to know every child’s story before conversations like this begin. Learning each child’s story can be challenging in so far as the need to respect a family’s privacy is balanced with the need to gather information that can help one to support the child. Nursery school broadens a child’s social experiences outside of the family and as such, children may be scrutinized and questioned by other children who may only have experiences with a traditional family model.

Before I could respond in the best possible way to Derek and Joel, I needed to develop a relationship and rapport with their families. This relationship was developed in several ways, including events designed to help us get to know each other. In meeting one-on-one, teachers can ask same-sex couples and single parents, as well as parents of children who are adopted, if there is anything they would like to share about their child’s story that can help staff to be supportive.

Inquiries can be made about how parents would want the school to handle Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, as well as our beginning of the year Unit on Families, long before these topics arrive on the schedule. While sometimes parents have not themselves anticipated their response to such events, it is a useful entrée into areas that may raise questions for their children, and it allows some time for parents to craft the narrative that they are comfortable with. 

In Joel’s case, he has two fathers. When I asked his parents how they would like Joel’s teachers to handle Mother’s Day, one of his fathers shared the following story. Before they began the process of finding a surrogate, they met with a counselor to prepare for their journey as parents. One of their assignments was to practice looking into a mirror and saying the words, “you do not have a mother, you have two fathers and a surrogate.” The therapist stressed the importance of the fathers’ own comfort level with this truth.

As those of us who work with children know, they can handle life’s challenges, if we, their caregivers, can handle those challenges. Children are incredibly resilient, especially when they have loving and supportive adults who communicate with them in an honest and age-appropriate way.

Communication is critical in every relationship. I was able to respond to the conversation that Derek and Joel had, by backing up Joel’s assertion that he does not have a mommy and that every family is different. I can give examples that some families have two mommies, or just one daddy, or two sisters, or one sister and one brother, etc. I can ask Derek to tell us about his family, his parents, siblings, and grandparents. I can remind them both, that it isn’t who is in a family that makes it a family, it is love that makes a family, and it comes in all shapes and sizes.

This post originally appeared on www.littlefolksbigquestions.comn.