Why should I tell my children that I am gay?
If you don't level with them about who you are and what you're feeling, you can't expect them to level with you about the difficulties and challenges that are part of their life.
We expect and want our kids to be open and truthful with us. A necessary precondition is that we be open and truthful with them. Secrecy about any subject, sexuality included, destroys the trust that is essential for good communication with your kids.
If you hide an important aspect of yourself from your kids, bad things will start to happen. First, they will begin to suspect the truth, or some distorted version of the truth, no matter what their age. Because you're not levelling with them, there will be no way for you to communicate with them (or they with you) so as to shine the light of reality on the suspicions and distortions that will inevitably arise.
Another bad possibility, especially when parents are going through a divorce, is that kids will blame THEMSELVES for the divorce, even though the reasons for the divorce have nothing to do with them. This sort of thinking leads kids downward to guilt, and anger, and self-hatred. This is what we call childish narcissism, and it's quite natural for kids to think this way. So it will HELP your kids, a lot, if they know that one reason for the divorce is that daddy would prefer to live with a man, and that this is not his fault, or mommy's fault, and that it is definitely not their own fault.
This not to say that coming out to your kids is easy. When I first saw with clarity that I owed it to my kids to be open with them about my sexual orientation, I found that task to be so unimaginably difficult that I had no idea how I would accomplish it. (In the end, coming out to my kids was a lot easier than I expected, but I'm talking now about what it felt like in prospect, not what it was ultimately like.)
When should I tell my children?
There is no "best" age. In general, you should come out to your kids as soon as you feel strong enough to do so.
But, most importantly, you should level with your kids, no matter what their age.
On the other hand, the age of your kids will affect how you go about telling them, and how difficult it will be for them to process the information you give them. In general, little kids (say, 10 and under) don't have much difficulty when a gay parent tells them about his sexual orientation. Nor do young adults (20 and upwards). Pre-teens and teenagers have more difficulties, precisely because they are already struggling to define their OWN sexual identity.
Sometimes fathers believe that kids under 10 or 12 are too young to know about sex. That's clearly not so. For example, the sociologists tell us that most of us know with some clarity about our sexual orientation while we are still kids. The MEDIAN age for such knowledge is 11. That means that lots of kids know about their sexual orientation at 7 or 8 or 9. Little kids aren't stupid, just immature.
Once you have reconciled yourself to the need to tell your kids about your sexual identity, and once you feel strong enough to take on that task, the next step is to be on the alert for what might be called "teachable moments" -- that is, moments when kids are curious, interested, and ready to learn.
Waiting for a teachable moment is the opposite of having a solemn, pre-arranged conversation at a specific time. I can remember when my father decided to tell my brother and me about the "facts of life" as they were then known. The whole scene left me with the feeling that there was something ponderous, dangerous, different, and downright BAD about sexuality. Not exactly a good preparation for a happy adult life.
It would have been much better if my dad had just answered my questions when I asked them, giving me as much information as I seemed ready to absorb, and no more.
Fortunately, teachable moments happen all the time, if we are alert for them. Kids' questions to you are an obvious signal that a teachable moment has arrived.
Sometimes we can provoke a teachable moment. For example, if a television program has portrayed a gay character, you can ask a child "what do you think about him," and then take the conversation from there. Your question to the child gives him/her permission to open up a conversation with you about a subject they might otherwise be hesitant to discuss. Of course, the first time you ask such a question, the kid may clam up. That's O.K. Just ask again when the time seems right.
How Should I Tell Them
Telling your kids about your sexual orientation is no different than talking to them about any other serious subject. That's the first thing to keep in mind.
The second thing to remember is that it's important to use age-appropriate language when talking with kids. You know this already in a lot of different areas, ranging from how to get along with others in school (psychology and human relations), to why there are stars in the heavens (astrophysics), and on to why they should brush their teeth (medicine and biology). In all these areas, you talk to kids in ways that are appropriate to their age and understanding. Talking to them about your sexuality (and theirs) is no different.
A third thing to keep in mind is that your kids will inevitably have questions as soon as they begin to understand what you're telling them. One of the common questions is "If you're gay, does that mean I'll be gay?" Give them a chance to ask those questions.
Not all the questions will occur at once. It takes time for us to process information, whether we're young or old. It's therefore appropriate to ask a kid, a day or two after your first discussion, whether he/she has any questions about the things you discussed earlier. Even he or she doesn't, this will give you a chance to extend an open-ended invitation: "Well, if you do have questions, I'd be glad to talk with you." That leaves the conversational door open, when and if the kid wants to walk through it.
Here's a final note: I don't think there's any special recipe for a good conversation with your kids about an important subject. In general, however, it's best to select a place where you won't be distracted or interrupted. I can think of few things worse than trying to talk with your kid in front of someone (such as a wife) who's not sympathetic. In circumstances like that, the adults can easily get in an argument, and that will greatly confuse and worry the kid. So wait for a trip in the car, or a quiet walk in the neighbourhood, or some similarly suitable time.
But don't fall into the trap of waiting for the absolutely perfect time to talk with your kids. It will never come! I missed a lot of suitable conversational opportunities that way. Don't let the best be the enemy of the good.
If you have several kids, it will probably be easier for you to talk with them one at a time, rather than all at once. But you should be the best judge of that. The decision should depend on how close together the kids are in age, and how well they get along with one another.
If you decide to talk with your kids one at a time, I suggest you AVOID swearing the first child to secrecy before you talk with the next kid. Swearing a kid to secrecy leaves him/her with the idea that there's something awful about the information you've shared. There isn't, but a child may have difficulty seeing that. One possible approach is to say to the first kid: "I haven't yet had a chance to talk with [name of next kid] about all this, but I will soon. In the meantime, there's nothing wrong with talking with him/her if you want to."
Finally, there are GREAT rewards in being out to your kids. Depending on your situation, those rewards may be slow to materialize. There may be a lot of anger and unhappiness at first. But, in the end, your kids will respect you for having been truthful with them, even though that was hard to do. And you will communicate better with them about lots of difficult and important subjects, because you (and they) both learned to communicate effectively about the important subject of sexuality, and what it means for you and them.