One thing people ask me about is how to talk to childless people. Specifically, people who are parents tell me they worry about saying the wrong thing to those who are childless. Such conversations can be a tricky bridge to cross.
I can understand this. I have been the recipient of a few “wrong things” in my time. I have also received a lot of supportive comments from insightful and sensitive people, so it is not all bad. But for those who remain unsure, what I offer below are my top five things not to say to someone who is childless.
Top Five Things Not To Say
1. “You have no idea what it is like to be a parent.” Besides being elitist and condescending, this statement effectively dismisses the childless person. Of course childless people do not know what it is like to be a parent. Just like parents do not understand what it is like to be childless. But this is not a competition. Hopefully, with a little empathy, we can both seek to understand one another, even our with different life experiences.
2. “You are a selfish person.” That sounds like an assumption to me. Fair enough, some people may choose to be childfree for selfish reasons. But I also know of people who have become parents for selfish reasons, who have gotten married and then divorced for selfish reasons and who have stayed single for selfish reasons. We are in no position to judge the choices of another. Judgement only gets in the way of our capacity to understand the other person.
3. “At least you have your partner/pet/health/career/insert other platitude here.” Any comment that begins with “at least” can minimise the hurt and loss of the other person. I know some people have offered an “at least” to try and encourage childless people, but it doesn’t carry. When childless people hear “at least”, they do not hear “count your blessings”, they hear “You should forget the grief and loss of childlessness and move on.”
4. “Why don’t you just adopt?” The thought of adoption has occurred to most childless people. But adoption is harder than it sounds. The criteria are complex and those who do adopt tend to find it does not fill the void of childlessness. Besides, childless people do not need your help with suggestions. They need you to listen and to understand their story.
5. “You will never know God’s love until you have a child.” Good to know. Guess I’m doomed then. Never mind that I’ve known God all my life. Apparently, as a childless person, my understanding of God’s love is inferior to those who are parents.
You get it. The best rule of thumb is empathy. Put yourself in the shoes of the childless person. Consider what assumptions people have already made about them and how society judges those who are childless. Suspend your questions and advice while you listen. Empathise with the experiences of the childless.
Some of the best responses I have received have been silence – the silence of an open, empathic mind, willing to listen. It helps me feel my story is valued. Every one of us has a story and each story makes us who we are: unique, courageous and worthy. Childless people are no exception.
What helpful or unhelpful comments have you come across about childlessness? Share your story – let’s have a countercultural conversation.