Most parents know that they should tell their children about conception through donor sperm, egg, or embryo, but often tell us that they don’t know where to begin. We share our top ten tips for telling children about third-party reproduction.

Children conceived by third-party reproduction (donor sperm, donor egg, or donor embryo) deserve to know. Secrets are destructive in families, plus, kids will likely find out anyway. Someone in the family will accidentally tell, the child will become suspicious in high school genetics studies, or the child will join the millions of other who runs a genetic screening.

Parents know they should tell their donor-conceived child, but have no idea how to tell. Here are some practical tips to get you started.

  1. Telling is a process, not a one- or even two-time event. You start simple laying the groundwork and add detail as your child ages. Don’t over tell. The temptation is to put it all out there, tell everything you know, and be done with the darn thing. That is not how it works. No matter what the age, start off with the basics and add detail in subsequent conversations.
  2. Don’t wait. It is simply easier to start the process when your child is young and predisposed to believe everything about themselves is magical, and usually not inclined to ask detailed or tough questions. As an added bonus, more resources are available to help parents of younger kids. Yes, it’s easier to cut your parental telling chops on the 6 and under set, but…
  3. It’s never too late. Even if your child is now sprouting facial hair and slamming doors, it is not too late. Read Talking with Older Kids about Conception via Donor Sperm, Egg , or Embryo  for ideas on telling older kids and adolescents for the first time.
  4. The basic ingredients of the story are “simple”.
    • We wanted you very, very much.
    • We had trouble getting pregnant.
    • We got help from a doctor, and when that didn’t work we got more help because when you have trouble you get help and sometimes you have to try a lot of different things before it gets better.
    • We were so so happy when you finally came.
  5. Language matters. It is important to use the word “donor” rather than “mother” or “father” to describe the person or people who donated gametes or embryos. This is the case even if you are a single mom or same-sex couple (unless, of course, the donor has embraced a parental role).
  6. Leave the door open to further questions. When the conversation is over, make sure that your child knows that they can always come back to you with more questions and that you expect that they will have more questions.
  7. It’s the child’s story. Even if you do not want the world to know, there is a mighty fine line between privacy and secrecy. It is fine to encourage your child to only talk about their conception within the family, but if you go overboard you risk making it a secret, and secret implies there is something wrong or shameful about their conception.
  8. All information belongs to the child. Not immediately, but ultimately, any info that you have should be given to the child. Yes, that includes identifying information if you have it.
  9. Don’t get thrown by the “Can we meet” question. Many kids will ask at some point if they can meet the donor(s). This does not mean they are looking to replace you in their heart as their mom or dad; it likely means they are curious. Answer the question honestly. If you have identifying information, the answer is likely yes, when all parties are ready, and you as the parent will decide, with their input, when that time will be. If you do not have identifying information, the answer is maybe, but complicated with a lot of considerations, such as no identifying information and the donor’s wish for anonymity. Assure the child that if it is still very important to them in the future, you will help them in any way you can.
  10. Check back in. After you’ve told your child, you need to periodically bring the subject up again to see if they have additional questions. Many parents want to assume that if the child does not talk about it or ask questions that the child is not thinking about it. This might be true, but just as likely it might be that the child senses that the topic is uncomfortable for the parent, so they keep their thoughts and questions to themselves. It is the parent’s job to raise the subject and ask for questions.

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Originally published in 2015; updated in 2018.