The rainbow elephant in the room: Representing all families
The Sector > Workforce > Advocacy > The Rainbow Elephant in the Room: What message are we sharing when we don’t talk about family diversity?

The Rainbow Elephant in the Room: What message are we sharing when we don’t talk about family diversity?

by Kate Redward

July 03, 2024

How do you talk to children about families at this kindy?” the parent asked. Her tone suggested this was a loaded question. After she skirted around the issue for a few minutes, I realised she was talking about rainbow families – two-mum and two-dad families, queer solo parents by choice, or families with a trans, intersex, or nonbinary parent. 


The parent continued, explaining that she didn’t think discussing family diversity was appropriate for four-year-olds. She asked that I “not expose her child to the idea that these types of families exist,”. Without knowing it, she was talking about families like mine. 


In my profession as an early years’ teacher and education advisor, as well as in my personal life as a proud member of a Rainbow Family, I have found that these conversations are not only appropriate – but essential. 


I could share countless examples, like the gender-fluid Kindy teacher who wants to wear dresses one day and pants the next, but who is also struggling with subtle messages of discomfort from parents; the child with a single, lesbian mum who is teased because “everyone else has a dad”; the parent who is transitioning from being dad to being mum; and the child who felt safe to explore their gender identity in childcare but who is now struggling in their first year of school because they aren’t allowed to wear the uniform or use the bathroom that feels right for them. 


I have also heard from educators who are not quite sure what to say when a parent (or another educator) says things like the parent I encountered – that early years’ classrooms are not the place to be having conversations about gender or sexuality. 


Yes, these are big conversations, but as every teacher and parent knows – our children are highly capable of ingesting and understanding complex ideas. 


Recently, my four-year-old and I were eating breakfast and a crow landed on the balcony railing. “Mama is that crow a boy or a girl?”, they asked. I told them I wasn’t sure, and without batting an eyelid, they responded, “I guess we won’t know if we don’t ask them!”. At four years of age, they already understand that it’s better to be curious about gender than to make assumptions. 


In Australia, approximately 11 per cent of the Australian population identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex.


6 in 10 have experienced verbal homophobic abuse, and data has shown that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are three times more likely to experience depression. 


The 2021 Census found that 17.3 per cent of same-sex couples had children living with them. The Census did not collect gender, variations of sex characteristics, or sexual orientation, so it is impossible to know the exact number of children living in Rainbow Families – but we know that those numbers have increased significantly since the previous Census. 


These LGBTIQ+ families and their children are in our communities and our classrooms.


So – why should we push through discomfort to have these “tricky” conversations? 


As educators, we have legislated responsibilities to be inclusive and to ensure that children are not discriminated against. We also have a professional Code of Ethics that guides our decision-making around inclusion. 


We need to do whatever we can to create safe and inclusive learning spaces for all children and families. That includes ‘doing the work’ to understand the role we play as educators to support, empower and celebrate all children. 


Research shows that from an early age, children internalise messages of power and privilege while also forming ideas about fairness and their sense of identity within the larger world (Boutte 2008). With this in mind, I would argue that kindergarten is the perfect age to begin to address equity and social justice issues, through a high-quality early childhood curriculum. 


The EYLF V2 implores us to take action to redress unfairness, challenge stereotypes and “engage with concepts of social justice, fairness, sharing, democracy and citizenship” (p.18).


As early childhood professionals, we are encouraged to think critically and be reflective. Exploring the concept of a “nuclear family” as a team is a great opportunity to do just that. 


What messages are we sharing with children when we don’t discuss things like family and gender diversity? I would argue that continuing to work in these ways, of holding on to outdated ideas of knowing, being and belonging, holds little benefit for children. 


Knowledge-sharing is powerful. Imagine what might be possible if we expand our notions, dismantle our biases, and simply welcome children when they challenge the dominant discourse and hold space for open, honest discussions with them about family and gender diversity.


I witnessed a moment recently that made my heart swell with joy. My family and I were spending time with friends we don’t see very often, and I overheard their 8-year-old say to my child, “Wow two mums! That’s like having two couches and getting to decide which one to sit on! You’re so lucky!“. 


Having a family as a queer person often involves overcoming so many challenges (being deemed ‘medically infertile’ so you can access IVF, battling for the non-birth parent to be listed in the role they identify with on the birth certificate, being asked who the ‘real mother’ is, and fighting with Centrelink to access parenting payments to name a few). In a world full of microaggressions and occasional outright bigotry, moments like what I shared remind me of what is possible.


In 2023, I was lucky enough to work with the visionary early years professional, Amanda McFadden, who implored us to consider the concept of “pedagogy of the possible”. 


If we use our imagination for a moment, we can imagine a world where early years classrooms lead the way in reimagining gender roles instead of reinforcing them, where concepts of global citizenship such as equity and social justice are modelled daily and where views of what makes a family are expansive enough to hold every version imaginable. 


Because we know what makes a family – it’s love.


Kate Redward (pictured right) has worn many professional hats including early childhood teacher, centre director, primary school teacher and tertiary supervisor. These days, she is finally using that old public relations degree for the ‘greater good’, channelling her passion for advocacy into helping teachers share their stories of uplifting pedagogy. In her spare time, she climbs mountains, plays the ukulele, sings sea shanties and solves the world’s problems with her four-year-old. 

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