What role should schools play in educating all children about donor conception?

Being discombobulated since returning from New York on Monday meant that I completely forgot to watch Generation Cryo last night so if anyone can catch me up on significant happenings in Episodes Three and Four I’d be grateful.  Have put a note in my diary to make sure I watch it next week.

I have been reading through the answers to the electronic survey DCN sent to members who attended the recent national meeting.  Unlike some American commentators on this blog, British parents seem very keen that schools should be raising with children the topic of the different ways that families come into being.  A couple suggested that DCN should seek to contribute to the Personal, Social and Health Education curriculum or that the organisation could write an A4 Fact Sheet, available on the website, that could be downloaded and taken into school by a child or sent in by a parent to educate and inform teachers about donor conception.  In fact DCN did apply to one of the grant giving foundations for money to do some educational work with teachers but were not successful with the bid.  But writing a Fact Sheet would be fairly straightforward and would not need additional funding.  I’d love to hear from others – perhaps particularly in the UK – about what they think of this idea.

I do believe that it is possible to explain anything to a child of almost any age as long as you do it in a developmentally appropriate way and are ready to continue the conversation at a more sophisticated level as the child gets older.  This is the principle on which DCN bases it’s advice to parents on how to talk with their children about DC.  Why would you not want children of 8,9 upwards in schools to know about the many ways in which families come into being and for teachers to be able to talk with ease about assisted and donor conception, step-parenting, adoption, re-formed families, single parent or lesbian families, with children of any age should the topic arise in class conversation.  I can see there are those who might not wish these family forms to be ‘normalised’ but I personally don’t believe that allowing a child to feel significantly different or even deviant, is helpful to that child’s well-being.  It is a tribute to the resilient upbringing and self-esteem of the children on the panel at the DCN meeting (see previous blog) that they took on the role of educators in their schools and communities, but it was harder for some than others…one girl in particular having to face both religious prejudice and sheer ignorance.

I’m off on my travels again tomorrow, Amsterdam this time, but hope to return to your thoughts and feelings on this topic next week.


About oliviasview

Co-founder and now Practice Consultant at Donor Conception Network. Mother to two donor conceived adults and a son conceived without help in my first marriage.
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35 Responses to What role should schools play in educating all children about donor conception?

  1. Sazzle says:

    I’m parent to 7 year old twins, conceived using donor sperm. We have spoken to them about how they were conceived since they were very small, we used the DCN book ‘My Story’ to share with our children.

    By the time they started going to pre-school at 3.5 years, they would sometimes talk about ‘daddy having no sperm seeds’, so we thought it was important that their teachers were aware of their story. This was to ensure that should our children bring up the subject of sperm seeds, then they would be supported within school, and should they feel the need to ask a teacher a question, whilst on a subject of babies, then teachers were able to help.As they change teachers each year, we still make a point of talking to their new teachers about our childrens story, we use the story book as well as the information sheets from DCN. By using the DCN literature and talking to them, we know that the teachers are getting the right information, the right language and will not be surprised should it come up in conversation. Our school has been great, and a few teachers have learnt something from us too.

    I do think that children should be educated about the different ways that families come to be, but how, when and who by is a tricky thing. Our 7 year olds understand that there are different ways, DC, adoption, step families, but this is down to them being in contact with other families and having supportive parents who will answer their questions, no matter how complex they appear.

    However, children in general are all different, and lots do not have parents at home who can support their understanding. With this in mind, sadly, I feel that if schools do start to include DC etc within their learning then it may be better when children are older, and able to reason for themselves. Ideally it would be great if children were taught when they are younger, they are so much more accepting of difference, and it is us as adults that teach our children prejudice.

    I will continue to educate our teachers on DC and as Im a school governor, maybe at some point I can influence our PHSE policy.

    • gsmwc02 says:

      I like that the ability to teach about the diversity of families. This goes beyond DC but with Divorce rates what they are the Nuclear Family is very rare today. All types of families should be celebrated and kids should learn that different doesn’t mean bad and just because a child lack biology with a parent doesn’t mean they aren’t family. There are too many adults today that are closed minded and only see one definition of family. To help future generations be more open minded as to the diversity of families.

  2. oliviasview says:

    Thank you Sazzle for your wonderful example. We too told each new year teacher in primary school and this bore fruit when Zannah was 9 and chose to tell her class about being donor conceived following a conversation about the shape of ear lobes! Her teacher supported her without surprise or comment and then went on with the lesson.

  3. Eliza says:

    I’m not UK based (or US based either) but I think it’s a great idea.
    So my child could be supported if a discussion came up at school I did tell the Kindergarten and Year 1 teachers and included a copy of My Story and the Todd Parr, Family book for use. Rather than catch them on the run I wrote a note that also advised how we handled it in our family and the level of comfort there was about discussion. I mentioned it in passing to the Year 2 teacher and didn’t after that unless it came up – probably because of the comfort level my child had about answering or deflecting questions on it. She’s off to help staff the Mothers Day stall at school this morning. Which includes gathering kids from their classes to helping the kids, especially the younger ones select a gift. That’s always exciting for the younger ones. It was funny to hear her say “of course not everyone will be purchasing for their Mum, it might be another person that they live with like a grandparent or they might have 2 mums or dads. We’ve got lots of different family types, our school is so cool about that it’s really good!” While there is an awareness of different family structures I’m not sure that different conception options/situations are easily covered by the wider community and I think it would be good to have resources available – and as ever, age appropriate!

  4. marilynn says:

    I’m American and I don’t have a problem with assisted reproductive methods being discussed with school aged children in or out of a school setting. I think it’s dandy. What I would like you Olivia and your readers who comment to respond to is the technical split between teaching biological reproduction and teaching social living and custody arrangements.

    At home people may be perfectly well inclined to say that Mommy and Daddy conceived them using donor sperm, but that is technically an inaccurate statement for the purpose of teaching biology and health. It is also not germane to teaching social and custodial arrangements.

    In school assisted reproduction should simply be taught as a variation on a theme which would be that a man’s sperm fertilizes a woman’s egg and it turns into a zygote and then a fetus and when delivered that man and woman are the biological parents of that newly born person. That couple, may request assistance from doctors for the fertilization process or from a gestational carrier to carry and deliver their child. There are many forms of assistance available to people to help them either reproduce or gestate but none of the assistance alters the fact that those two individuals become biological parents to their own offspring when born.

    There are the health class aspects of that which would be personal responsibility for one’s own body and the resulting offspring and respect for other people’s bodies. I would say that school is not the place to teach anyone to ‘use’ anyone else’s body or cells because you are trying to educate children to have respect for other people’s bodies and boundaries while teaching personal responsibility for their own bodies and making them understand that they must take responsibility for themselves and any offspring they have and make sound choices and plan and use birth control and what not.

    Then in teaching the social aspects of family life you teach that bio parents do not always raise their children and that there are an endless variety of arrangements people can grow up in and teach tolerance of everyone’s different situation. School should stick to the facts though. If in fact someone does have two legal mothers it should be explained that it does not mean the child has no father, but rather that the father is not a legal guardian of the child and that a second female has been granted legal parenthood. It should all be as factual and specific as possible.

    Some of the cute little books that people read at home make it sound like an infertile person can reproduce using someone else’s genetic material. There are even books that flat out lie and say that women are biological mothers because they carried and gave birth to another woman’s genetic offspring and that sort of whimsical thinking should not be taught in school. There is no difference between a genetic and a biological mother. The child did not get their biology from the birth giver and their genes from their genetic mother. A gestational carrier can refer to it has her own biological pregnancy experience but her biological experience happens to be gestating someone else’s biological child. These sorts of things would be critical for a school to get right where I suppose at home you can say whatever you want and whatever makes you feel good. We tell kids about tooth fairies and such and they then ultimately learn the facts in reality are not what they were taught at home and I can’t say that is terribly traumatic we all go through that. Thank goodness there is school to provide the factual information.

  5. Lorraine Nowlin says:

    I’m really torn about this. Yes it’s important that various families are talked about but it’s my humble opinion that it should be presented objectively. In other words, not as a right or wrong way to create a family but that non traditional families exist. I’m not sure that it should be discussed at all outside of high school level. If we discuss various family dynamics and celebrate them, where does it end? What about polygamous or polyandrist families? I guess I’m concerned about a slippery slope.

    I can certainly understand why anyone would want to include DI but I’d like to know specifically how it would be implemented.

    • Liz says:

      “I guess I’m concerned about a slippery slope.”

      It seems to me that public schools don’t need to teach about families that are unrecognized in law (ie-polygamy) to explain donor conception.

      • marilynn says:

        fair point but what do legally recognized families have to do with conception? What exactly is it that is proposed to be taught?

      • Lorraine Nowlin says:

        Agreed. But a child from that type of family might feel excluded or abnormal amongst a sea of recognized families. I’m wondering if we should just stick with conception? In any health ed class I’ve been in, I don’t recall the man being referred to as father or woman as mother. It’s always the male sperm joins the female egg to create life. That includes everyone. Family formation is a separate issue, IMO. In children’s and YA literature allowed in public schools I’ve taught in, I see very little about divorce or even adoption, definitely not a peep about same sex families. Never seen anything on donor cenception.

        • marilynn says:

          As time passes there is more history to teach, so must be the same for science. The goal of health class is generally responsible reproductive behaviour, respect for your own body and respect for the bodies of others. My concern would be to avoid concepts of ‘using’ other people’s bodies to achieve something for ourselves. Even with a donor you are supposed to be dealing with people who have made conscious decisions to procreate and the effort is by all accounts a consensual one. I do think it is very important to teach children and young adults about the concepts of respect and consent.

        • Liz says:

          Polygamy or other types of historical marriage formations could be fairly easily explained in a social studies class. Children can grasp the concept of one person marrying two people. The idea of marriage has already been introduced to their framework of thinking. It’s much harder for children to understand new biological concepts.

          Young children typically do not fully process an understanding of basic genetics until they are between the ages of 10-13. Many elementary school children don’t fully grasp conception, much less DNA and genetics. They “get” pregnancy to some basic degree (“I grew in mommy’s tummy”), but the other aspects are very confusing to children.

          (“You grew in your mommy’s tummy – what do you mean she needed help to make you from another women? I don’t understand. All kids grow in their mommy’s tummy.”)

          We shouldn’t really expect an 8-year-olds to explain this without a good amount of frustration from both the explainer and his fellow listeners.

          It must be quite frustrating for children. They are having to explain the situation to many young friends who have not been introduced to a basic introduction of conception and genetics.

          • marilynn says:

            I don’t know why what I’m about to say is relevant – maybe someone could explain it to me but here goes. ..When my husband who is in reality the father of my child, moved out and my brother moved in (and onto the couch in the living room) she said to me that my brother was her new father. I was floored and explained her uncle was her uncle whether he was living on our couch or living a million miles away and her father was her father whether he slept in my room or slept a million miles away. Soon after I fell off my bike and broke both my arms and my dear friend moved in to help me care for my child. She slept on the chaise in my room and my daughter said that my friend was her second mother because she was sleeping in Mommy’s room and took care of her. Again I explained the facts to her.

            It is fascinating though the way children view the other adult in the home to be a parent. The closer they are to tthe bedroom seems to make them more parental. There is no doubt my firend is my daughter’s other mother – according to her school and according to her own heart. It took a significant amount of (armlesss) effort on my part to keep her centered and grounded in her understanding that a parent is a parent no matter where they live or what they do for her. Her father would be her father whether he spent time with her or not. Luckily he is a very dedicated father even if he was not such a dedicated husband. I respect that relationship for what it is separate from me and I hope one dayh my child will appreciate the important value all these good people contributed to her sense of self.

            • Liz says:

              Young kids tend to see mothering and fathering as verbs, not identities. The verb creates the noun for kids.

              What is ice cream? It’s something yummy you eat at parties.

              At that age their brains are working intensely to enlarge their language skills. Defining words is a big part of that. Since actions tend to be what play the most significant role in their lives, they “verb” things to define words.

        • Liz says:

          The only health class I took was in 12th grade. It was a requirement and excessively silly.

          If schools plan to teach this in high school, I don’t think there’s much of a point. High school students understand how conception and genetics operate.

          I’d imagine most of the frustration is felt by children attempting to explain to Elementary or Jr. High school friends.

  6. marilynn says:

    Olivia specifically what is it that you would propose to teach about is it assisted conception? Which is literally how the medical profession assists the conception process for the male and female. The players in the conception are the same so all you would be introducing is medical professionals and various assistance techniques.

    In school you can’t mix conception and science up with sociology and whatever all how people choose to live and raise kids they are separate. Do they want you to teach about conception or about how not everyone is raised by bio parents? It’s the overlap that is the problem for me trying to make child rearing sound like its an exercise in biology or trying to make biology sound like child rearing.

    I don’t understand why it would overlap at school or in your literature – why does it? Other than like romance and picket fences when a donor is involved the donor is one of the two people conceiving – they just don’t do any raising.

    • Every country might be different in that regard. The UK system just might already have a curriculum where the two are blended. The only way I could imagine donor conception is mentioned (not taught) is in a literature class. Perhaps there is a story or film dealing with the subject and comes up in class that way.

      • marilynn says:

        I see your point. I have a nine year old and we live in San Francisco where I grew up. She is certainly exposed to a variety of family living arrangements and I’m glad. I’m glad that I was exposed to the same growing up. There may be a need to draw a clear distinction between familial living arrangements which are a social construct and family formation which is a biological construct. I find this question compelling.

    • Liz says:

      Elementary school age kids are introduced to the idea of sex = conception. The idea that that conception can occur in medical offices isn’t explained to most kids.

      Elementary school kids are told about parents getting in bed, and a basic understanding of how “babies are made.” “The sperm swim to the egg….”. I remember a young friend being completely disgusted when she was told that the penis was the “delivery method” of the sperm. She didn’t believe that babies were made with something that voided waste material. (She declared she would never have children because it sounded so disgusting.)

      Kids could be told that sperm can be “delivered” to the egg in other ways:

      “Doctors can pick out a sperm and put it into the egg. That new seed is called an embryo and it grew into a baby. Not all babies are made in bed.”

      I would think that other kids understanding these basic facts would make it easier for donor-conceived children to explain how they were conceived.

      • marilynn says:

        Liz I find this that you just said here to be the most reasonable way to put it although the sticking point for me here is that what you describe is assisted reproduction, not necessarily reproduction with a person you don’t know. Assisted reproduction can fairly well be taught as part of basic biology. The donor thing is really just a social construct where the individuals who agree to reproduce with assistance don’t happen to be married or together as a couple. They never the less decide to have a child together and seek assistance with that jointly and then rearing is a separate issue to explain.

      • Liz says:

        There are legal facts, and there are ART biological facts. If one wishes to explain this in school, explain each in an age-appropriate manner.

        It is easy to define donor conception using simple facts. In the UK, legally recognized donor-conceived families all use ART:

        (1) First, the teacher explains ART. (Hey, kids, babies can be made in the doctor’s office, without sex.)

        (2) Next, if the teacher wishes to explain donor conception, the teacher could state that donor conceived children are part of a legal family, created by ART, in which the parent(s) may, or may not, be genetically related. In these families, the law can recognize one mommy, two mommies, one daddy, or two daddies as the legal parent(s). If the teacher wished he/she could explain about the national registry.

        Then the class moves on to math.

        • gsmwc02 says:

          Completely agree about it being taught in an age appropriate manner. I think you have the potential to confuse kids who are not cognitively able to process DC and ART. I’m all for explaining the diversity of families so kids families are respected rather than mocked.

          But getting into the biology and social constructs of DC, ART and Adoption are more geared towards late High School at the earliest and more appropriately geared towards college level courses. But that’s just me.

        • Liz says:

          Pedagogically I’m a strong believer that complex concepts can be taught to young kids. You can teach 7 year olds geometry if you do it right.

          That said, it’s up to school districts/ school boards and governments to decide what they want to teach. Anything that has to do with sex (or, in this case, explaining sex doesn’t happen) can cause controversy. But, we should remember, if schools don’t explain it, the kids will be the “explainers” to their friends.

  7. Bothways says:

    I think having a fact sheet that schools and parents can download to assist them in any class discussion (to help teachers who may not have come in contact with this form of building a family before) would be very useful. And I would be very grateful to DCN if the produced one.
    My donor conceived twins (6 years) have never discussed their origins with anyone outside the immediate family (they are simply not interested at present) but I would be quite reassured if I knew their (very young and innocent) teacher was equipped to deal with any questions from the class (using correct, age appropriate terminology) if the topic was raised in a group forum. I am concerned that the reaction of outsiders to the topic (disgust, interest, acceptance) the first time my girls choose to discuss it may well colour their views on what their parents have chosen to do (hopefully not too much as we are very relaxed/open about the choices we have made and can’t imagine having built a family any other way and I hope this will support the girls going forward).

    As for whether donor conception should be discussed in PSHE lessons (particularly in the absence of any donor conceived children or children of donors (who always get forgotten in these discussions)) I don’t know. On the one hand, I think there are more relevant, pressing issues that young people need to understand about the world around them. However, if adoption is covered even briefly I am sure Dc could be dealt with at the same time – not sure there is any need to worry about what children do and don’t understand about reproduction (although I would think from about the age of 10/11 they know about sperm and eggs) my 6 year olds seem to get it quite well!

  8. Bothways says:


    As for generation cryo, it has been a bit of a roller coaster. Very enjoyable. Bree and three of her siblings travelled to the donor’s university to track him down with year books etc. they found a name and a photo. To help find the current address (I think) they also did a birth/death certificate search. In order to access this info you need to state (with a threat of perjury if you give false information) that you are one of a list of categories including “child”. Jonah asks Bree “do you consider yourself a child of the donor”, answer: “well biologically”. They find the address and Bree writes the donor a letter. In the next episode all the sibs go to Lake Tahoe. Bree tells them about the information they have found and all of the siblings (even Hilit) want to know the name and see the picture (which I found quite an interesting turn around from where they all were before). A lot of them even seem interested to meet for coffee.

    The results of the search are emotional for some of the families and Eric (Jonah and Hilit’s dad) continues to make the search and the reality of the donor all about him and his infertility which make it difficult to know if Hilit and Jonah’s ambivalence to meeting or contacting the donor is really how they feel or simply a natural reaction to preventing someone you love from feeling pain.

    The sibs that have previously applied to the cryo bank for contact with the donor receive a message from him that he is willing to exchange non-identifying info through a third party but at present does not want them to know his address etc. Bree then feels very bad about the fact that they have invaded the donor’s privacy. I actually found this difficult to watch, all of these young people seem to put others needs above their own (the need for their social parents to be happy, the need for the donor’s privacy as opposed to their own natural “right” to know about their biological origins). As a more selfish thirty-something if I put myself in Bree’s or Jonah’s shoes I would be thinking to hell with Eric’s unresolved infertility issues and the donor’s “privacy” issues, I didn’t choose all of this and I have a natural curiosity about it that you ought to help me to explore.

    Anyway it ends on a good note when the donor contacts Bree directly by email suggesting that they chat and get to know each other. I am quite looking forward to see how that pans out.

    • Lorraine Nowlin says:

      That’s what made me wonder if the banks are being honest when they claim the donor wants contact only through a third party? The banks said one thing but the donor another.

      • marilynn says:

        Think about this: If you were running a business, would you pay a worker to do a task that was not essential to generating income for the business?
        Cryo banks, adoption agencies and the like make money by helping people who want children, get children. In the case of cryo banks they don’t guarantee that people will get the child they want (ie the right color, height etc) which is to say if they don’t have the sperm of the guy the person paid for, there is nothing stopping them from just giving them the sperm of some other guy – what are they going to do, bring the kid back and ask for a refund? They really don’t even have any incentive to keep track of who donated which sperm after it’s been tested and cleared for venereal disease.

        Can you really see a business paying a staff member to track down guys that donated 20 years ago to facilitate contact between them and their children when they won’t make any money from that? The kids were not customers of the bank, they paid no money. The donors were not customers of the bank, they paid no money. Their mother’s were customers of the bank, they paid money and got what they wanted.

        I once read where an adoption attorney told his staff to answer responses for non id information by giving a generic form photo copy that said 5′-5″, 120 lbs, protestant, brown hair, hazel eyes, hay fever, likes cooking, does not want contact now. – It was a fast, easy cheap way to deal with requests for information from kids about their mothers. The article was by a woman who found her mother and said she was much taller than the non id information she’d received on her from the attorney. Years later she saw the attorney at a restaurant and he confessed it was just a generic form he gave out because it was less work than having the actual files pulled and photo copied, he was running a business facilitating adoptions, not reunions.

        That article really impacted my understanding of how the world works. Popped my innocence bubble and made me never trust intermediaries. Not that people should not request the information, just don’t trust that it’s true.

        • Lorraine Nowlin says:

          Problem is, some moms are paying more for donors and expecting contact at a later date. The CCB markets their openness policies. So why lie about it? There’s a rumor that another big name bank will start it’s own registry facilitating contact between donors and families before children turn 18. If that takes off, there will be an incentive for banks to follow suit. Contrary to popular belief, many mothers are closed to that idea. Still, my point is that it seems CCB lied.

  9. Bothways says:

    That’s an interesting thought. What interest would the banks have in limiting (or acting as a go-between) in a case such as this (where the donor has presumably stopped donating)? Do you think it’s something they just assume is better for the donor or are they paid to act as a go-between?

  10. marilynn says:

    smart thinking going on here

    • Bothways says:

      I’m still really confused as to why it has been suggested that it would benefit the cryo bank in this case to have said to Bree and sibs that the donor only wanted contact through a third party if the donor had been genuinely open to direct contact.

      Even accepting that there are a lot of unscrupulous providers out there, why lie in that way? If they simply didn’t want to be bothered with facilitating contact either don’t offer the service or (if they really wanted to be devious and had no fear of being audited) just don’t contact the donor at all and then tell the sibs that the donor did not respond to their request. Why go to the effort of lying/trying to impose indirect contact if direct contact was sought by both parties?

  11. I was thinking back on my high school years during home economics classes. I can see donor conception coming up in those types of classes since we had to create our future families and children as a class project.

  12. oliviasview says:

    Sorry to have been absent from this very interesting discussion. Since returning from Amsterdam I have read every comment and am grateful to you all for your views. I had and still have no fixed views on the content of Fact Sheets that can be given to teachers, but I remain clear that they are needed. I completely understand the need to separate biology from the social structures of family foundation but believe that the UK system of teaching Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education as an integrated topic provides a forum for understanding the links between the two and discussion about the different ways in which families can be founded. All in age appropriate ways of course, but definitely starting in Primary School (age 7-11) which is the time that DC children find themselves questioned by others. The DCN joint Trustee and Steering Group will be having a discussion on this topic at it’s meeting on Saturday.

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