Mothers and daughters Showing the children's drawings

What Rainbow Families need teachers to know – and how you can support this kaupapa

Kath Cooper, an early childhood lecturer who parents four children with her wife, believes all parents need to actively support LGBTQI-friendly environments at their children’s schools. With input from the Rainbow Families NZ community, she’s sharing this article in the hope that it will spark conversations at your child’s early childhood education centre, primary school, or high school.

It’s 2017 and families are changing.

Truth be told, they’ve been changing and evolving for many years – from extended family settings where everyone worked and lived together to nuclear families where a mother cared for children at home while their father worked.

Further variations found people parenting alone, blended families, and even more so now: Rainbow Families. A Rainbow Family is a same-sex or LGBTQI-parented family.

Research suggests that Rainbow Families have been around since the 17th century, however, the dominance of societal expectations has meant that it has not always been safe to disclose this family formation.

This dominance is called heteronormativity.

Heteronormativity is a discourse that works to maintain heterosexual hegemony. Heteronormativity is the societal expectation that women must be attracted only to men, and men must only be attracted to women. It’s also behind the expectations we put onto children.

For example, when a girl in an early childhood setting or school plays with a pram and a doll, some will comment “wouldn’t you make a great mum someday?”

Research has found that when a boy plays with a doll they often hear comments like “are you holding baby till mummy gets back?” or they are not given any feedback at all. No feedback, or silence, is a contributing factor to maintaining a majority voice or traditional gender roles.

Heteronormativity is the reason most people will ask a woman about her husband or boyfriend rather than asking about a partner. It creates assumptions within society, and it creates challenges when you are someone who doesn’t fit those assumptions.

The list below has been created by the Rainbow Families NZ Facebook community group. It is designed to support teachers and create a discussion with educators.

As parents, it is something you can push for to support your own children and ensure your child’s school or early childhood education centre is inclusive to all families.

Although the list is for teachers, feel free to take the ideas and use them in your day to day interactions with whanau, friends, and colleagues.

Ask! Don’t assume. This goes for the names of parents (mama/mami/mum) as well as pretty much everything else. It includes who makes up the family. Some Rainbow Families are parents parenting alone, some are parenting with involvement of donors or surrogates. Keep your mind open. A word of caution here: think about the point of the question. If it is to satisfy your curiosity, maybe don’t ask. Think about open ended questions where the parent can share what they are comfortable with, rather than direct questions. For example “what would you like us to know about your child’s family formation?” and not “so, who is the donor?”

Think about what you are going to do with the information. Will it inform your teaching? Will it change your actions? If not, then don’t ask. Some things in families are deeply personal, and if no action is taken once shared, this can feel very uncomfortable for the family.

Use non-gender specific enrolment forms. These should be used for both the parents section and the section for a child. It’s a really great way to include non-binary and genderqueer children and parents. The word ‘parent’ is an easy replacement for mother and father sections. Consider including more than two spots for parents. Many families have more than two parents caring for children. We know listing a child’s gender at birth is about data collection and we know that you might not be able to change that, but we want to start the conversation anyway.

Stop the ‘are you a boy or a girl?’ talk. In daily play and conversation, think about how you can be inclusive of all genders. When you ask “are you a boy or a girl?” what you are really asking is “what’s between your legs?” and that’s kinda gross, don’t you think? I mean, will you change your behaviour once you know? Don’t divide children by their assigned gender based on their genitals. For example, don’t have a “boys” line and a “girls” line.

Show our children that they’re seen. Please get heaps of books and resources that reflect diverse families. Have them on the wall, on the shelf, in the entrance way…wherever you can!

Axe the stereotypical gender roles. For example, boxes of spare clothes can be labelled “tops” and “pants” rather than “boys” and “girls”. Use the terms firefighter, police officer, mail carrier. Talk about male nurses and female pilots – change up your pronouns for jobs that are stereotypically gendered.

Have a plan for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. When our son was five, he worked hard-out on a Mother’s Day card. It was really lovely, but just as the bell rang for morning tea the teacher remembered he had to make two (one for each of his mothers), so before he could go and play he had to create another one. A wee bit of forward thinking would have made a real difference. If you don’t know what to do, ask how to include Rainbow Families in a manner that is respectful and appropriate.

Look into gaining a Rainbow Tick for your workplace. International and local research shows that a diverse and inclusive workplace is more likely to attract high quality applicants, retain staff, and boost productivity. The Rainbow Tick team can give you the tools to help you become an innovative and inclusive organisation. They will help you to create the policies and processes that will drive a supportive and productive workplace that specifically recognises and welcomes sexual and gender diversity.

Finally, we are both ‘The Mother’ and ‘The Father’. Asking “who is the real mum or dad?” is not OK.

We both are.

Personally, I like the word ‘parent’, it makes my wife and I both accountable for our children. This is really important. Please don’t ask this question.

I’m keen to keep this conversation open, so feel free to contact me any time at Kathleen.cooper@hotmail.co.nz.

Kath Cooper is an early childhood lecturer based in Wellington. She and her wife parent four children and are Nan and Nani to three delightful mokopuna. She is passionate about visibility of the LGBTQI community within the ECE setting. Her super heroes include Wonder Woman and researchers who have already started this discussion within Aotearoa New Zealand. 

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