I think a lot about how I can raise my kids to stand up for what’s right and demonstrate empathy for others. I take them to a fire station every December to donate unopened toys to Toys for Tots. For the 2017 Women’s March, my then three-year-old son and I attempted to take mass transit downtown, though the overcrowding of the trains scared both of us and we ended up doing our own two-person march on the Santa Monica Pier instead. This experience reinforced to me the complexity of building his social awareness and social conscience while also protecting his innocence and security. When the March for Science came around, we opted to help our friends make signs but skip the protest itself.
I continued to look for age-appropriate ways to teach both of my boys about peaceful protest and standing up for others. My own kids’ preference for fried chicken created an interesting opportunity to do just that. Anyone raising kids in the U.S. knows that chicken fingers are often a staple of kid diets or at least of their preferred diets. I was one of those adults who promised my kids would be adventurous eaters, and yet I often relent in the effort to get them to eat something.
Last year, while we were visiting my parents in Lexington, Kentucky, my then five-year-old son noticed a fast food restaurant with a huge indoor playground.
“What’s that?” he asked. “I want to eat there.”
I responded, “It’s Chick-fil-A, and we aren’t going to eat there.”
“Why not?” he said. “It looks like fun.” He wants to go anywhere that has kids’ meal toys and a playground.
“It probably is fun, but we don’t want to eat there because they don’t think we should be a family,” I said.
We are a two-dad family with two boys who came to us through the gift of adoption. My husband and I are not willing to give our money to an organization that donates money to nonprofits that oppose same-sex marriage or oppose allowing same-sex parents to adopt. Both of our sons came to us at birth. While we are open with them about their birth families and how much they love them, we are the only family they’ve ever known. It’s hard for them to understand why anyone would not want their family to be together.
The Chick-fil-A debate first broke in 2012 when Chick-fil-A president and COO Dan Cathy made public comments opposing same-sex marriage. Criticism from the LGBTQ+ community reignited in 2019 when 2017 tax returns revealed corporate donations to three nonprofits with anti-LGBTQ+ interests, including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Salvation Army. While the latter says on their website that they do not discriminate, both organizations adhere to a traditional definition of marriage.
Chick-fil-A is rapidly expanding in our area. They recently opened one in our neighborhood and one near my brother-in-law’s. When we first drove by the finished restaurant, my son said, “We aren’t allowed to eat there.” I corrected him, saying, “It’s not that we can’t eat there. We choose not to eat there.” He responded, “My cousins can eat there because they live with a dad and a mom.”
It’s an interesting observation because many people we know and love do eat at Chick-fil-A. I don’t think most of them are doing it to make a political statement. To them, it’s just good chicken.
I responded, “Well, they can eat there, but some may choose not to because they don’t want to eat anywhere that doesn’t think everyone should be treated the same. Would you want to eat somewhere that didn’t think your cousins and aunt and uncle should be a family?” His answer was an emphatic “No!”
This dilemma is not unique to our family. Patrick, who lives in the suburbs of Nashville with his husband Logan and their son and daughter, shared that Chick-fil-A can’t be avoided in their community. The chain sponsors their elementary school fundraiser, donating a percentage of the sales proceeds on a given date. Eager to support their school, Patrick’s kids asked to eat there. Before they entered the restaurant, Patrick spoke with them from the car in the parking lot. He said, “I don’t like eating here because they don’t think we should be a family, but we also believe in supporting your school and being involved.”
From my Los Angeles bubble, where my kids see families of all kinds in their school, I was shocked to know that a public school would align with such a polarizing business. Patrick responded, “We are the only two-dad family in the school, so it doesn’t occur to anyone else because it doesn’t impact them. To them, Chick-fil-A is a great, family-friendly business that gives back to the community. Why not choose them to support the school?” Patrick and his family have a lot at risk in surfacing this issue within the school due to fear of alienating themselves and their kids, which is a real concern. Straight families with less to lose would make valuable advocates in this situation.
In November 2019, the Chick-fil-A Foundation refocused their charitable giving on “nourishing the potential in every child” through programs addressing education, homelessness, and hunger. This move away from less inclusive organizations softened my opposition to eating their food. My son, however, hasn’t budged.
Last month, I tried to pick up takeout from there for a last-minute trip to the beach. I told my boys where we were headed, expecting them to be excited. Instead, as we approached the parking lot, my old son said, “Papa, I don’t want food from there.” When I pressed him, all he could say was, “I just don’t.”
I considered trying to explain to him why things had changed. If pressed with the question “Do they now think we should be a family?” I wouldn’t know what to say. I then remembered a valuable lesson from this year’s important dialogue on racism: It’s not enough to not be racist. We have a responsibility to be anti-racist. And without saying another word, my son taught me why stopping support for organizations that oppose equality is not the same as supporting equality.
In some odd way, I am grateful that this debate provided teachable moments relevant to my children. The next time you wait in line, think about what messages your kids are picking up along the way. There’s more than chicken in that bag. And if there’s another issue that your family holds dear, think of age-appropriate ways of teaching your kids how to stand up for your family’s values.
Peter Gandolfo, a partner at Evolution, is a certified executive coach and career coach who works with leaders at all levels to build awareness and make progress towards their goals. He’s passionate about working with fathers who want to continue to achieve in their careers while also being present for their children. He lives in Los Angeles with his husband and their two young boys.