Flight of the Stork

By Anne C. Bernstein
ISBN: 0-944934-09-9
LCCN: 94-21672
Paperback, 288 pages
Price: $14.00

Flight of the Stork: What Children Think (and When) about Sex and Family Building

Winner of the Pact Praise Award (Pact: An Adoption Alliance) for outstanding parenting skills book of the year.

“Children think differently from adults concerning sex and birth,” reads the 9/1/94 review in Library Journal. “Page after page of enlightening interviews take us deep into the minds of children 3-12 years old…This understanding of child development will help adults communicate better with children about the origin of families as well as the origin of babies.”

Other reviews can be read in just a click from the left column.

The original 1978 version of Flight of the Stork published by Delacorte was adapted from her doctoral study. I (Pat Johnston, PPInc’s publisher) stumbled upon that book when my oldest son was a toddler and was immediately engrossed in it. I gave copies to many friends over the years and was disappointed when it went out of print. In 1994 I was able to make contact with Anne through Dr. David Brodzinsky, and I coaxed her into revising the book–expanding it  with special sections for families with special challenges in how their family was formed–through stepparenting, through adoption, through collaborative reproduction, as single parents, etc. She agreed, did more research and interviews, and the result was an all new Flight of the Stork: What Children Think (and When) about Sex and Family Building. I continue to give it as a gift to parents, only now its an entirely new generation of them.  Additionally, our customers confirm that this has been a perfect gift for any and all of the parents they know, not to mention teachers! 

Flight of the Stork is now available in Kindle ebook reader format on Amazon.com and in nearly all other ebook formats on Smashwords.com. Buy that through our ebook page on the  button bar above.

About the Author: Anne Bernstein, Ph.D

Anne BernsteinPsychologist and family therapist Anne Bernstein’s doctoral work laid the foundation for sex education work with parents and children that produced an original and then a 1994 update of Flight of The Stork: What Children Think (and When) about Sex and Family Building. Liberally sprinkled with humorous and enlightening anecdotes and interviews with children, Flight of the Stork helps parents understand how children experiencing several stages of cognitive development between two and teens change their understanding of how people get babies and what family relationships mean. The Perspectives Press update ofFlight of the Stork contains, in addition to the core which pertains to all families, special chapters focusing on more complex family issues: adoption, collaborative reproduction, step families and gay and lesbian families.

This material and the material from her book on step families from another publisher (Yours, Mine and Ours) provide the foundation for frequent speaking and writing. Anne’s own family includes sons by birth and through step-parenting.

Table of Contents of Flight of the Stork: What Children Think, and When, about Sex and Family Building

Notes for the Second EditionChildren Think Differently from AdultsTalking with Your Child about Sex and Birth and Forming FamiliesThe Geographers-Level One Identity


Level One-Geography

Nine Pounds Four Ounces at $10 a Pound

The Heavenly Nursery

Mommy’s Body

Talking with Children

The Manufacturers-Level Two Talking with Children The In-Betweens

Level ThreeTalking with Children

The Reporters-Level Four Talking with Children

The Theoreticians-Level Five Talking with Children

Sexual Intercourse



Putting It All Together-Level Six Talking with Children

When the Doctor “Mostly Does Help”

ART without Collaborators

Collaborative Reproduction: A Controversial Family Secret

When Mommy AND Daddy Have a Collaborator

Raising the Subject of Collaboration with Children

When Mother is “Just Mommy”


Why Become Pregnant with a Child When You Won’t Be Her Mommy

It’s Not Our Baby, It’s Jack and Karen’s Baby

Collaborative Reproduction in Nontraditional Families

Talking with Children as They Grow

Why Collaboration Was Necessary

How Can They Give Away Part of Themselves?

Who Am I Anyway?

Talking with Children about Adoption

Level One: Parroting Adoption Language

Level Two: If Grandma’s your birthmother, who’s your adoptive mother?

Level Three: Cause that’s the way it is when you’re adopted

Level Four: Questioning Permanence

Levels Five and Six: Adoption Is Forever–Again

Open Adoption

Cross Cultural Adoptions

Making Sense of Step Families

Can I Draw a Stegosaurus Now?

Understanding from the Heart

Mom’s Child, Dad’s Child

When the Mutual Child Has Been Adopted

The Extended Stepfamily

What’s a Stepparent?

When There’s A New Baby




Flight of the Stork’s Reviews

From Midwest Book Reviews September, 2005… “Now in a new revised edition, Flight of the Stork: What Children Think (And When) About Sex And Family Building is a straightforward guide especially for parents, but also valuable to educators and child psychologists, about what children understand about human reproduction at which ages, the stages of cognitive awareness young people pass through concerning the subject, and how parents can best educate young people about it. The revised edition specifically deals with topics pertaining to twenty-first century advances in assisted reproductive technology, donor insemination, and surrogacy. Above all, Flight Of The Stork emphasizes good parenting skills: listening to children, understanding one’s own issues, and the importance of honesty and empathy. Flight of the Stork is very highly recommended reading, especially for parents who find themselves flustered explaining the birds and the bees.”

From the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry quot; …The chapters on adoption and assisted reproduction are superbly written for both professional and lay audiences. Bernstein excels when explaining the complex relationships and feelings that arise when a child has a birth parent or parents and one or two adoptive parents. It is worth purchasing this book for these chapters alone…This book is well written and reasonably priced. I strong recommend the book to all mental health professionals, teachers, parents and aunts and uncles. It does tell you all you wanted to know and may not have known whom to ask.”

From Pact Press… “Flight of the Stork is must reading for parents who are uncertain about how to talk to their children about sensitive issues, including sex and adoption. Anne outlines developmental stages in terms that are easily understood and describe what children’s capabilities and tendencies are at each level. You will come away understanding that even if your child can use correct terms, it will take them a long time to put the whole concept together. The book is filled with examples of her many interviews with children on the subjects first of sex and later adoption (and collaborative reproduction and stepfamilies). This makes the reading enjoyable and easy. There are many concrete suggestions for words and more importantly approaches to use when talking to your children… I suggest you ahve your children nearby while reading this book so you can try some of her suggestions out. When I first read her assertions that young children misunderstand (by adult standards) certain aspects of the baby making process even when their words are accurate, I was doubtful. When I asked my three and five year old children som equestions in the manner Anne suggests, I was converted…This book is enormously useful in understanding who our children are as well as the outlook and capabilities they bring to any topic we discuss. I have found myself referring to the information she presented repeatedly. The truth is she is describing good parenting skills; listening to your children, understanding your children’s concerns and issues, and responsiveness with honesty and empathy. This book should be onevery parent’s shelf.”

from Library Journall (9/1/94)… “Where do
children think babies come from? You may be surprised by the answers
gfiven in this revised and expanded edition of the popular 1978 title.
Bernstein examines how children think differently from adults concerning
sex and birth. Page after poage of enlightening interviews take us depp
into the inds of children three to 12 years old. The interviews
demonstrate each child’s level of mental development and also show how a
child’s thinking changes with age. This understanding of child development
will help adults communicate better with children about the origin of
families as well as the origin of babies. The revision also deals with
such 21st century topics as assisted reproductive technology, donor
insemination, and surrogacy. These valuable additions make the book
essential even for libraries already owning the first edition.

From RESOLVE of Dallas/Ft Worth (February/MArch 1995)…”In
the final three chapters, added in this revised edition, Ms Bernstein
discusses artificial reproductive technologies, adoption and stepfamilies.
She relates how children who are in these situations think about
reproduction and suggests how to talk to them in each developmental stage.
It might be tempting for infertile couples to skip directly to these
chapters, but don’t. The first chapters provide the understanding of how
children think and are necessary to fully understand the later chapters.
They are also just plan fun to read! I found myself wishing I had read
this book before my six-ear-old nephew asked me, “Why don’t you and
Uncle Mike have children?”

From RESOLVE of NYC (March, 1995)… Bernstein combines “kids-say-the-darndest-things
entertainment, research on what kids understand at various ages, and
scripts to help us talk to our children ‘in ways that maximize
understanding and minimize feeling deviant.’ Unless we deal with our own
discomfort first, we may leave ‘destructive omissions.’… Bernsteins’s
scripts have rich, honest emotional contexts…”

Excerpt: Talking to Children about Sex and Adoption

The following article, adapted from the author’s book Flight of the Stork, first appeared in an issue of Pact Press, the magazine ofPact: An Adoption Alliance. Those reading it as a print out will find it on the internet at http://www.perspectivespress.com/absexed&adopt.html.

A mother who had angered her adopted seven-year-old recalls thefollowing conversation:

Child: You won’t get a birthday card from my birth mother. Only I will.

Mother: Yes, you are the only one in the family who gets a card from her.

Child: EIlen is my real mother. The key to talking to children about sensitive issues such as adoption is first of all understanding what you yourself think and how you feel about what your child knows and hears. Second, you need to understand what your children already understand and how they have interpreted it. Third, you need to understand their developmental capability in order to give them just enough information to expand their thinking without losing their interest or attention.

I have come to thinking about how and when children understand adoption through my work and research over the last 20 years in how children understand sex and birth. As I have studied the field of adoption and talked to children about it, and especially as I studied the work of David Brodzinsky and his colleagues, I have seen dramatic evidence that the process of understanding not only parallels the process of understanding sex and birth, it is intimately tied to it. This makes a lot of sense, because children begin their interest in sexuality as preschoolers when they talk about babies and where they come from. Young children are egocentric and concrete. Of course they want to hear their own story… which is where adoption enters as part of the same exploration of origins.

Let’s go back to what I first suggested. Most of us have strong feelings, emotional and ethical, regarding sexuality and adoption. First we must examine these and be clear about our goals for our children, Children, even and perhaps especially very young ones, will understand the feelings associated with the discussion of a subject long before they can clearly understand the details. Often parents have a lot of conflicted feelings on these subjects. It is important to identify your own feelings so you can clearly distinguish when you are discussing your feelings and when you are discussing facts when talking to your child. Children will pick up on mixed messages, so parents will do well to try to resolve their own conflicts. Sometimes I have had parents suggest to me that, since they have ambiguous feelings on the subject, perhaps it would be better not to talk about the subject with their child. These parents then run the risk of not being viewed as resources that the child can depend on in time of need.

Early discussions can be excellent practice ground. The first goal is to create an atmosphere of trust and openness. It is not neceassary to include every detail. Children will understand and misunderstand information, but it is the feelings that leave a lasting impression. It is also OK for adults to acknowledge that it is not easy for them to talk about certain things as long as they also say they are glad the child asked and that they will try their best to answer. Just remember to label your own feelings as such rather than letting your child infer them, which can lead to erroneous and disturbing conclusions. You will be doing great modeling for your child about how to cope with their own ambiguous feelings.

Now that you’ve explored your own feelings (and don’t forget that this work never ends), you are ready to explore the feelings and concepts your child already possesses. In my research with families, the single biggest mistake parents made was assuming that their children understood something accurately.simply because they used the “right” words. Children take information and draw vastly different conclusions than adults, nor do all children of the same age or developmental stage think alike. Let me give an example from my book, Flight of the Stork

Two children came to the conclusion that, because the baby grow in the mommy’s belly, the food she ate must go directly to a baby in her stomach. One little boy concluded that this was the way the mommy was taking care of and feeding the baby. He was delighted to think that the baby got to eat some wonderful confection whenever mom did. A little girl, with the same assumption, herself stopped eating for fear that she would harm her future baby, which she thought of as already in her belly. She was worried about putting food on her fantasized baby, who might get hurt or dirty or somehow not be OK. Each child had the same mental picture, yet the meanings they derived were significantly different. We cannot predict what meaning our children will attribute to the information we give them. We must ask them, so that we can understand their assumptions and conclusions before we can help to further their knowledge.

At the same time we need to understand where our children are on the continuum of developmental abilities. Piaget’s ideas about child development are useful in understanding the characteristics of children’s thinking, both in general and with regard to these topics. I have outlined these stages in detail in my book. Briefly, when it comes to thinking about ad ption, young children (preschoolers) use the words without having much of an idea about what they mean. Yet they do understand the feelings underlying the story, and that’s really all that will be retained. This means the goal should be to create an open and non-defensive atmosphere for discussion. As development progresses, children have some ideas about adoption, but tend to talk about birth and adoption as almost interchangeable. Because their perspective is egocentric, they often come to the conclusion that their own experience is universal. Children between ages 4 and 8 exhibit a great deal of curiosity and will be interested in understanding details of all sorts. They still understand things in concrete terms and will often create elaborate schemes to explain to themselves the ircumstances that are described to them. Typical for this age range are elaborate scenarios that include magical thinking even when they use accurate words to describe their conclusions. As they move into the next stage, children are often aware that their understanding may contain some conflicting pieces of information. They are still not able to build the story into a coherent whole, nor are they overly disturbed by that reality. Between the ages of seven and twelve, children become still more concerned with accuracy, and it is often hard to get children at this stage to speculate about things they don’t understand. They are capable of a more accurate understanding of social relationships at this age, so this is a time when sadness and questions regarding permanence may arise in children who are adopted. It is not until children are about twelve or more that they are able to come up with theories that integrate all of the information they have into a coherent and comprehensive account.. It takes many of us well into adulthood, if ever, to weave the social, physical and ethical aspects of our understanding of sexuality or adoption into a cohesive whole.

Getting more concrete, most parents want to know: what do I say, how do I do it? First let me say, don’t worry about giving the definitive, perfect story the first time the occasion arises. You will get many opportunities to go over this material. Be reassured that if you don’t like how you handled something the first time, you will get a chance to do it again. Second, remember the most important thing your children will retain is their feeling about what it was like talking with you. Be responsive, be empathic. The more you validate their thinking process in the face of misunderstanding or misconception, the more they will be able to incorporate the new information you will eventually impart. Statements like “I can see how you might have thought that,” are always helpful. Ask questions first, answer them later. Ask them what they think happens or happened about the specific issue you are discussing. Encourage them to problem solve. Don’t feel compelled to tell the whole story, but do answer what they actually asked. You can then inquire if they want to know anything else. Often children only want one bit of information at a time, so that they can chew on it for a while before coming back for more. You can also ask them what they remember from the last time you talked about the same subject, as a way to hear what conclusions they have drawn. After all of this, you have very often had time to feel more comfortable and confident, first about what it is they want to know, and second about what it is you want to say.

Remember, this is a lifetime dialogue, one that you and your child will remember with love and laughter as well. This is the breeding ground for healthy intimacy and comfort with our own feelings, both happy and sad.

Adoptive parents’ often are fearful that their children will not see them as their “real” parents. Because children often do use this term in talking about a birthmother, it is important not to overreact, which discourages dialogue. An example from Flight of the Stork suggests how a parent might handle this topic:

Mother: When you talk about your birth mother as your ‘real’ mother, I wonder if it’s hard to figure out how to think about having two mothers, a birth mother and a mommy?

Child: Yeah, most kids just have one. And when I say I’m adopted, kids ask me about my real mother.

Mother: It is sort of confusing, when things are different for you than for some of your friends. But let’s think of all the things that ‘real’ mothers do. Can you think of some?

Child: They grow babies that come out of their bodies.

Mother: Yes, so one way of being a real mother is to be pregnant and give birth. Can you think of other things that ‘real’ mothers do?

Child: Well, take care of babies, and make their lunches and their Halloween costumes, and work for money to buy them things.

Mother: Yes, so your birthmother is a real mother because she gave birth to you, and I’m your real mother because I do all the other things real mothers do.

Child: Can I have two real mothers?

Mother: You can have a birthmother and a mommy, and both can be real. Neither one of us is a doll or a puppet or a storybook character or something that’s not real.