Understanding what is meant by working in an 'inclusive' way is at the heart of relationships within early years settings.
The Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage makes this explicit by stating, 'Providers have a responsibility to ensure positive attitudes to diversity and difference - not only so that every child is included and not disadvantaged, but also so that they learn from the earliest age to value diversity in others and grow up making a positive contribution to society' (page 9).
Recognising that children live in a wide range of family forms is an aspect of the inclusive approach that can present a challenge.
The following exchange took place between two five-year-olds. Josh, whose mother and father had recently separated, needed to continue to believe that his parents had loved each other when they had him. Karla, whose lesbian mother had had her through artificial insemination, knew that love was not a necessary part of having a baby!
Josh: Do you know how babies are made?
Karla: Yes, you need an egg and a sperm.
Josh: The mummy and daddy have to love each other and then they have a baby.
Karla: No, they don't have to love each other. They don't even have to know each other.
Lesbians and gay men come to parenting in many different ways. Some are in long-standing relationships and some are single parents, just as with any other group in society.
Many lesbians and gay men adopt. Since the Adoption and Children Act (2005), lesbian and gay couples can adopt as a couple. Before the Act, only one person in the partnership could legally adopt a child.
As with other couples being assessed to adopt, lesbian and gay couples need to show that they can care for a child within an 'enduring family relationship'. Legal recognition that they could create enduring family relationships was a significant step after previous legislation that saw these relationships as 'pretended family relationships'.
Many lesbians become mothers through artificial insemination using sperm from a known or unknown donor. When the donor is known, he might be involved in parenting the child.
Take 18-month-old Lisa. Her biological mother, Lynne, lives with her partner of four years, Susie. They very much wanted their longed-for child to know the father, so chose a known donor, Gary, who lives with his long-term partner, Steve. Both couples share Lisa's care.
Some lesbians use clinics to conceive and although the donor is anonymous, the child can receive details of the donor when they are 18 if they wish. Since the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (2008), both partners in a same-sex relationship can be named on the birth certificate. They are both legally recognised as parents.
It is not unusual for lesbians and gay men to have been in previous heterosexual relationships and become parents. When they 'come out' as lesbian or gay, their role as parents will continue within the context of their new relationships or as single parents. Thankfully, children are no longer taken from their parents purely on grounds of sexuality.
Children of lesbian and gay parents will arrive in early years settings with a wide variety of experiences. A truly inclusive setting needs to be aware of the home lives of all the children in their care.
Reuben attended his local nursery five mornings a week. One of his 'mums' took him everyday and he was usually collected by his childminder. Occasionally, his other 'mum' would fetch him.
One day Reuben was very upset when collected from his childminder because a nursery practitioner had asked who the 'other lady' was who sometimes fetched him. When Reuben said she was his mum, the practitioner replied, 'Don't be silly, that's not your mum!' Both his mums then explained the family situation to the nursery manager - something they had not done before as they were apprehensive about the reaction they would receive. The manager was supportive and Reuben felt happier once everyone knew he had two mums.
In Unlearning Discrimination in the Early Years, Babette Brown describes how challenging this issue can be. 'We may feel uncomfortable about addressing issues around sexuality because in many cultures and religions, homosexuality is not accepted or is considered a sin. We may share the concerns of many parents that having a book about a lesbian or gay family will promote homosexuality, or that boys wearing skirts and playing with dolls will encourage them to "grow up queer".' (page 63).
It is vital that practitioners receive training and support to enable them to move beyond this view and to be able to provide an atmosphere in the setting that welcomes and includes lesbian and gay parents and their children. Practitioners need to ask themselves if children from such households see themselves and their families reflected in the setting. Do practitioners:
- provide some resources with images of families they can recognise?
- refer to 'mummies and daddies' or to a variety of family forms?
- encourage children to make a card for Mother's Day and Father's Day?
- feel comfortable using language such as 'lesbian' and 'gay'?
- feel equipped to challenge any homophobic language used, whether between children, from a parent or a colleague?
Lauren (now 20) recalls feeling like she was the only child with a lesbian mother while at nursery and school. 'I remember having to make a family tree at infant school and feeling really upset because I didn't know what to put. I felt angry that my family was different to everyone else's, and angry at my teacher for making me do it. When I look back now, I also feel angry that I live in a society where a child feels they can't be honest about their home situation for fear of bullying and isolation.'
Some practitioners may say that this issue is irrelevant, as their setting has no children with lesbian or gay parents. However, working together to develop truly inclusive practice and create a tolerant and accepting community is of benefit to all. And there are other points that practitioners need to consider:
- They may yet have to deal with gay and lesbian parents.
- Children in their setting may have other lesbian or gay relatives or significant adults in their lives
- Some of the children they will care for over the years will grow up to be lesbian or gay themselves
- Other practitioners may be lesbian or gay but, being fearful of colleagues' and parents' attitudes, have opted not to be 'out' at work.
All children deserve respect and acceptance from the adults in their early years settings and the wider community. For the children of lesbian and gay parents, this means that their families are seen as being equal to other families, that their parents are treated with respect and that they feel valued for being the unique child that they are.
- Kath Taylor is a lecturer with the Open University on the Foundation Degree in Early Years.
- Brown, Babette (2007) Unlearning Discrimination in the Early Years, Trentham Books
- What additional issues may lesbian or gay parents and their children face if the child has a learning difficulty or physical disability or is from a different culture and has English as an additional language?
- How can the key worker system help with supporting lesbian and gay parents and their children?