LGBTQ+ Pride Month: First-hand Experiences of Same Sex Families through Early Childhood and Primary School Education
To celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride Month in June 2023, Portobello Institute is examining important issues centered around LGBTQ+ rights to raise awareness and understanding across the sectors in which we specialise.
One of those sectors is in the Early Years where Portobello Institute tutor Rachel Dunne has interviewed two same-sex couples about their experiences with early years settings and primary schools.
“No one has the right to tell anyone what makes a family.” - Drew Barrymore
When I was asked to do a blog regarding the inclusion of same sex families within education, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to write.
For anyone that knows me, they know that I have always been passionate about human rights and the rights of every single child.
I thought maybe I could write about the importance of inclusion, the impact of inequality and discrimination or the lack of visibility of same sex families in today’s educational settings.
All of these are important concepts are explored here in this blog and concepts that I am all too familiar with.
However, what is really important and needed, is to hear the voices of same sex families, rather than myself as a heterosexual woman who has not had the same experiences.
Subsequently, I asked parents of two same sex families to share their experiences with me. They were so kind to give me their time.
Whilst they did explain that there was a positive shift in attitude in areas, their experiences sadly highlighted what I have thought for a very long time – things need to improve – and fast.
Here is an introduction to these wonder women below:
“My name is Trina. And I am Amanda. We have been a couple for 10 years and known each other for about 18 years. We represent the L in LGBTQIA+. There’s not much to tell really, we are a pretty run of the mill family – like most football runs, play dates and indoor play centre visits, the same as all other parents in that sense really. We have two children, a girl P who is 8 and a boy D who is nearly 1.
“My name is Fiona, and I am Ann Marie. We have been together for 12 years and we are getting married in October. We have a son, S who is a year and a half old. He will be starting preschool in September 2024.
When asked about whether they felt welcome in P’s early years setting, both Trina and Amanda gave a resounding yes.
Trina: “We loved the place; we have stayed friends with the manager and are still in contact with the teachers that work there.
However, when asked about whether their family dynamic was reflected, this was a strong no - in fact:
Trina: “Five exclamation marks behind the word ‘no’ here. To our knowledge, there are no same-sex families in the village. It was not reflected in books or talked about or anything, it was just common knowledge that P had two moms, but it was not reflected in the environment or anything.
As early years professionals, it is so important that we reflect children and their family structure within the environment.
If this does not happen, it can have a detrimental effect on the child’s sense of self and belonging.
Not doing this, can potentially lead to the child feeling invisible in the classroom.
Fiona: “We would like to see age-appropriate books with same sex parents normalised in educational settings when S goes to preschool and primary school.
So, what about the move to primary school then?
Amanda: “In regard to P’s primary school, we made a point of going to the headmaster and informing him that we were a same-sex family. We were aware that it was a Catholic school and were aware of potential reactions of parents as a result. The only reason we went with this Catholic school was we did not want to take her away from her pals. We did plan to send her to a different school where diversity and inclusion was promoted. The headmaster openly told parents at the welcome night that he is gay, married and has two children.
Goldberg (2010) highlighted that often lesbian parents will seek out more welcoming and diverse schools, that promote and celebrate difference in order to prevent potential homophobia, bullying and bigotry.
On both a personal and a professional level, it deeply saddens me that 13 years after Goldberg’s work, change has not been progressive or significant enough.
Trina and Amanda still felt the need to consider a different school than the one P wanted to go to, in order to protect her and their family.
Trina: “She got on so well in here creche and made so many friends and this school was across the road that’s why she went to it. They were extremely welcoming and made a point of normalising the fact that P had same-sex parents to the other children in the classroom. It was never hidden. Visibility is so important. We do not mind being the first ones to do these things, but we did not want any push back. P is a very sensitive kid, and we have her very guarded. They make us two cards for Mother’s Day and for Father’s Day P makes cards for her two Grandads.
Children, as outlined by John Dewey, are inquisitive by nature and they are curious learners (Pound, 2006).
It is unfair and unrealistic to expect that they will not ask questions when they hear or see things that are different to their own individual contexts.
Children are not born prejudiced; their ideas are shaped by their environments and their social matrix.
When educational settings do not include either consciously or subconsciously same sex parents and the family dynamic, this can shape children’s thoughts and beliefs that there is only 1 type of family that is good or accepted (Gomez, 2021).
This can be where stereotyping, and bigotry begins. Not only in the case of same-sex families but for other family structures as well.
I asked Amanda and Trina if they recall a time where they felt isolated or disrespected.
Trina: “In creche no – they were just so good to us – they were really great. We did not feel isolated in the primary school, but I did meet a new teacher P would have for the new year. Basically, I had baby D in a sling, I was still on maternity leave. P wanted to show off her baby brother to her friends and her new teacher. When you meet your child’s friends Mam or a teacher they tend to say Mam/ Dad/ Granny or whatever – like oh here is Mam coming to collect you now or whatever. This teacher knew who I was as I had baby D in my arms and P had said this is my brother. The teacher became very, very awkward and then started laughing and said ‘so which one are you?’
Amanda: “What she actually said was - ‘I really do not know what to say which one are you Mama A or Mammy or what is it?’ I just said we are both Mam.
Trina: “It may not seem like a big deal to everyone, but it was a big deal to me – I am still not very fond of her because of this interaction, she just handled it so wrong.
Pestalozzi argued that a child’s parents and their teachings are paramount (Fitzpatrick, 2012). This concept was later echoed by Froebel and Montessori, who emphasized the importance of the mother’s role in their child’s education. (Pound, 2006; Gray and Mac Blain, 2015).
There have been well known barriers in regard to partnerships between parents and teachers.
In general, parents may feel they do not have the knowledge or expertise to share their views and insights into their child’s education (French, 2008).
Oke, Butler and O’ Neill (2020) endorsed this further, as they summarised that parents who believe that their input and participation would be of no value, are less likely to get involved.
With these general day to day barriers highlighted already – and given what we have just read above- it can be argued that same sex parents are subjected to further barriers as when both Trina and Amanda made an effort with their child’s teacher, this is how they were treated.
Cowan and Flewitt (2021) emphasized that the importance of in person engagement between parents and teachers and stated that discourse should not be understated.
How could anyone expect them to feel confident or comfortable developing partnerships with teachers after an experience like this?
I asked Trina and Amanda to tell me a little bit about their experiences with other parents.
Trina: “So far so good. Sometimes we shock them. When P was in creche we had a birthday party for her in our garden as it was during the summer. Other parents would not have known me as I work in the morning and Amanda would do the drop offs. I introduced myself at the party as P’s mom- I saw the flutter in their eyes and the shock on their faces which I do not mind as it eased quickly. We have been invited to and attended Mam evenings and everyone was nice but they do ask a lot of questions. Not inappropriate questions, just a little invasive. They ask a lot about how P accepts that she has two Moms.
Amanda: “We are trying to explain to them that she does not know any different
Trina: “They think P has to accept she has two Mams – she doesn’t. P does not have to accept anything. She knows we are her parents.
Ann Marie: “I would be concerned as a parent because we are two moms that we will be treated differently by the other parents. Are they going to be saying things about us in front of their kids at home which could then be said back to S in school
Just under two years ago, Ranae von Meding and her wife Audrey Rooney became one of the first same sex couples in Ireland to be recognised as parents to their two daughters, following an exhausting five year battle.
Wilson (2021) wrote that the family has experienced anxiety, distress and uncertainty.
Whilst huge strides have been taken at a government level, the Marriage Act 2015 and the Children and Families Act 2015, it seems that society itself on a ground level is not as still not as ‘accepting’. P, should not have to accept her dynamic.
The narrative needs to be altered significantly, so that society does not just accept her family dynamic but promotes it.
Amanda: “At the same time, P is very welcoming and accepting of the fact that children have different kinds of families.
Trina: “Oh yeah! She knows all about different family structures like Mam and Dad, Mam and Mam, Dad and Dad, Granny alone, Uncle alone. She just knows that differences are normal – everyone is different in their own way.
Trina: “One mam told Amanda that her child is now so open to difference like family structure and dynamic because of her friendship with P. Whereas other kids well – they still find it a bit odd.
Albert Bandura coined the term observational learning or the social learning theory. In this, he believed that children learned through the imitation of others around them (Gray and Mac Blain, 2015).
This imitation as we know can be either positive or negative, emphasising the importance of positive role models.
For example, like Ann Marie said above, if children hear their own parents or families passing derogatory or offensive comments at home will these be copied and brought back into the classroom to S?
This is a concern. However, we can also see above that P has grown up around kind, open-minded and welcoming family and role models and what happened? She grew up as a kind, open minded and welcoming little girl to others.
We have a responsibility as early years professionals to model positive attitudes to difference as we also are a huge component in a child’s life and can have a significant impact on how they approach change or difference.
Answering appropriate questions is not something that early years professionals should shy away from.
What is important is how these conversations are approached. They should be viewed as teachable moments and should be respectful and meaningful.
These conversations should happen regardless of whether there are children who have same sex parents in the room. This is a core element of what we call anti-bias education.
Sometimes, early years professionals may need some help in these discussions and that is fine too.
Talk to parents in same sex families and ask for their input.
In 2012, IT Sligo students Katie Young and Grace Hughes felt passionate that every child and their family should be included in the setting and produced the following video that could be played in early years settings.
I asked Trina and Amanda; do you believe that educational settings can improve?
Trina: “Yes, we strongly feel that early years settings and primary school need to improve quickly.
Amanda: “It needs to be spoken about.
Trina: “At the moment, it is just not enough, culture is celebrated as is language, but our family structure is not. I believe that anyone who is out and wants to be included and should be. We want a same sex family to be as normal as a heterosexual family.
Ann Marie: “I guess I just want him to feel normal.
When a child goes to an early year setting or school it is a huge adjustment for all.
Transitions, stress, separation anxiety – this is something all parents will have experienced in some aspect or another. However, same-sex families are sadly vulnerable to discrimination and ignorance as well as these other fears and worries.
A huge thank you to Trina, Amanda, Ann Marie and Fiona for sharing with all of us here in Portobello Institute. Your views and experiences are so important, not just for Pride Month, but every single day.
About the Author
I started my journey in the Early Years sector back in 2012. After three fantastic years and a wonderful adventure at IT Carlow, I graduated with a BA (Hons) in Early Childhood Education and Care. Working in the sector thereafter, I was room leader of the preschool room and worked with children in afterschool club for a few years. As much as I loved these roles, I wanted to build on my knowledge and found my Masters Degree. I moved to Wales and completed the MA in Developmental and Therapeutic Play from Swansea University. As challenging as this was, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute. Back working in the sector, I started to work with Portobello Institute in October 2018 and have not looked back since!
If you are interested in learning more about gender equality and inclusion, it is explored in-depth on the BA (Ord) Early Childhood Studies degree, specifically the 'Challenging Inequalities in the Ealry Years' module.
You can see the upcoming start dates for our BA (Ord) in Early Childhood Studies and BA (Ord) in Inclusive Education Practice here.
Portobello Institute also offers a BA (Hons) in Early Childhood Studies, BA (Hons) in Inclusive Education Practice, an MA in Early Childhood Studies and MA in Inclusive Education and SEN.
View all of our Early Years and Montessori courseshere.
If you are interested in finding out more about any Early Years courses at Portobello Institute you can reach out to our Early Years Admissions Advisor, Jennifer Matteazzi, who will answer any questions you may have. You can book a 15-minute free consultation call with Jennifer at a time that suits youhere. Or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call her directly on 01 892 0031.