How to Explain the Meaning of Family to Children

by Stephanie Parker

    There is no single definition for "family." Many children live as only children, or with brothers and sisters, along with their biological mother and father throughout their childhood. Other children live with a single parent. Still others live with aunts and uncles, grandparents, adoptive parents or foster parents. Some children have two mommies or two daddies. As children grow, their close friends may become a part of who they consider family. No matter what your family looks like, one thing is certain -- family carries a great deal of meaning for everyone.

    Items you will need

    • Books about family
    • Family photos
    • Paper
    • Drawing tools
    • Painting tools
    • Permanent marker
    • Sticky labels (optional)
    • Picture frames or album
    Step 1

    Ask your child what is his definition of "family." He may surprise you with what he already knows, based on his own observations of the people around him, and how they interact with one another. Even at a very early age, children begin to develop their understanding of social constructs, like family, and finding out what your child knows about family will help you you decide what else you would like him to know.

    Step 2

    Read age-appropriate books that discuss family members, dynamics, and activities. Choose books based on what you would like for your child to understand about family, such as how adoption works. The book, "Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born" by Jamie Lee Curtis is a great book about adoption for children, for ages 3 to 5 years. Or, if a child has divorced parents, the book "Was It the Chocolate Pudding?" by Sandra Levin is helpful. For welcoming a younger sibling into the world, "Peter's Chair" by Ezra Jack Keats would be very helpful. Allow time to pause often as you read the books, so your child can ask and answer any questions that come up.

    Step 3

    Pull out your family album, or ask your mother for hers. Look through the photographs with your child, telling stories about the people you know and asking your parents to fill in the blanks when you don't recognize faces. Discuss how the relationships have both similarities and differences. For instance, as you look at a picture of you and your sister when you were children, explain that, "Aunt Rebecca is your aunt because she is my sister. Mommy's sisters are your aunts and her brothers are your uncles. 'Aunt' and 'uncle' are some of the words we use to describe people in our family." This would also be a good chance for Grandma and Grandpa to explain what family means to them. Grandma could point out a photo of her and a childhood friend and say, "This is a photograph of my best friend when she was a young girl. We were so close -- we were like sisters."

    Step 4

    Gather paper and drawing or painting tools and help your child create family portraits. "Portraits" may seem like a strong term, but though your little one's picture of Nana may look nothing like a real person to you, it is still a portrait, a pictorial representation of a person. This lets your child know that his art is as significant to you as the Picasso print that hangs in the hall, and it provides an opportunity to broaden your child's vocabulary. The tools you choose will depend on the age and developmental level of your child. For example, 4-year-olds can use markers, watercolors and tempera paints, but crayons may be more be safer and less messy for a 2-year-old.

    Step 5

    Ask your child to tell you about it, as each picture is finished, and use indelible ink to write what he says on a label, or directly on the picture. Also, ask your child to explain to you why each person he draws or paints is a member of his family, provided his language skills allow him to do so. Use the language you want your child to remember--"This is Cousin Sam. Yes, Sam is your cousin because he is Uncle Jim's son! He is part of our family." Use your child's explanations to decide whether your child has what you consider to be a strong grasp of the meaning of family. Place the pictures in frames or in their own "family album" for safekeeping and display.

    Tips

    • Be open to your child's questions, even the uncomfortable ones. You want your child to be able to come to you when he needs help.
    • Books written from a child's perspective help children identify with the subject matter.
    • Creating art provides a way for young children to express their thoughts, especially before they learn to write.

    About the Author

    Stephanie Parker holds a bachelor's degree in elementary education, and a Master's of Education in library science. She currently works as a school librarian and spent six years teaching Prekindergarten and Head Start.

    Photo Credits

    • BananaStock/BananaStock/Getty Images