This is such a big topic that I’ve divided it into four instalments – preschoolers, primary schoolers, secondary schoolers, and issues for families that have started out as straight families with a parent coming out later on. Part 1 – preschoolers.

I don’t think that in Australia lesbian and gay families have it any worse than other minority groups. Non-Anglo parents need to think about how to shepherd their children through a racist society; parents of kids with disabilities need to figure out how their children can be included in the normal day-to-day activities and friendship circles of childhood.  I do think it is salient that we are the last group about whom it is legal to discriminate. Although people do still discriminate against Indigenous people, people with disabilities, Muslims, Asians, pregnant women, ad infinitum, they have to maintain a polite fiction that there is some other reason the person didn’t get the job/rental house/isn’t included in the social group. Meanwhile, gays and lesbians having relationships are openly being compared to incest in supposedly rational, decision making debate.

My two are very young, so they haven’t experienced any homophobia directly yet. However,  it is now that Elisabeth and I are laying the foundations for how Pearl and Louis see and respond to the world .

There are two parts, I think, to preparing our young children for the world into which we have brought them. One is seeing their rainbow family as a normal part of the rich spectrum of different sorts of families. The other is developing kids’ resilience, so that when the inevitable emotional disasters happen – homophobia-related or not – they are able to bounce back unscathed.

Learning about being part of a rainbow family

Preschool is a magical time, when our children see their own families as perfectly normal and the best of all possible families.  Our task as parents at this stage is to become comfortable with how we talk about our families to the world, and to be aware of how our own extended families position themselves in relation to our family. Grandparents have to learn how to come out too! We also need to practice how we are going to tell our children the story of how their family came to be. The more confident kids are with their own family story, the easier it is for other kids around them to take it for granted, too.

As our children become verbal, interact with other children, read books and watch television, they start to form concepts of the world. Childcare centres need to validate both parents. Grandma needs to be able to say “your mummies” without stammering. It’s easy to avoid gender stereotyped and nuclear family type books at this age – there are so many great books – and relatively easy, if you look on the net, to include in your bookshelf some fun kids’ stuff that include gay and lesbian families. We like Todd Parr’s Family Book and Okay Book, and have ordered this alphabet book for Christmas (disclaimer –  a friend of mine developed it). You can add in your own photos so we’ve included a couple of photos of two mummies. I’ve also been referred to Alyson Books, Buddy GDottie’s Magic Pockets, Learn to Include, Only Women Press, and Two Lives Books,  although I haven’t checked them out yet – hopefully some time I’ll do some reviews for you.

I also think  it’s important for my kids to get to know other families with gay and lesbian parents. They may not be our best friends (although some are!) but maintaining contact with other kids with similar family structure to ours will give them somewhere to go when they are older and want to talk about stuff without hurting our feelings (rainbow families suck!), or just be understood without having to say anything. In Brisbane I’ve been organising a Rainbow Families Christmas party for the past two years – I hope it becomes an annual event – come along if you are in town.

By the time they reach primary school age, our children will know there are lots of different families. Some kids have a mummy and a daddy, some kids have one mummy, some kids have step-parents, and some kids have two mummies or two daddies (or whatever permutation you have settled on). Some families come from different countries, some families include people with disabilities, and on and on it goes. Difference is no big deal.

Developing resilience.

I’m sure you’ve heard that from 0-5 is the most important time, developmentally, in a child’s life. How they learn to approach life now will determine how they respond to positive and negative situations for the rest of their lives.  Preparing our children for possible homophobia, and just other unpleasantnesses that life may throw up, involves promoting resilience in our kids – the ability to bounce back after setback.  Resilient kids are optimistic, have faith in themselves, and are able to identify and feel okay about their emotions. And we, the parents, have a lot to do with whether kids learn the skills they need to be resilient.

There’s a lot of great stuff about this at Half Full: The Science of Raising Happy Kids,a highly readable blog abut childrearing research maintained by a Berkeley University academic. For example, teaching kids how to be grateful will have an impact on their optimism.   They say gratitude is a learned skill, and parents can have a big impact on how much kids take notice of the good stuff in their lives.  There’s a recent post here on strategies to promote gratitude, which are mainly just fun ways of articulating the good things that are happening each day.

Emotion coaching helps kids identify what they’re feeling, and says that all emotions are okay (it’s okay to feel angry/sad/jealous, and we as parents can help kids learn appropriate things to do with their negative emotions). I’m consciously practising this at the moment. Pearl shows her emotions quite strongly, and I’m catching myself trying to jolly her out of a sad moment, saying things like, “Look at the pretty flower! Smell! Here, do you want something to eat! What about a story?”. I’m trying to replace this with acknowledging, “Oh, do you feel sad? Poor Pearl, you feel sad.”

And then there is some interesting stuff about praise. It seems there’s a fine line between not praising kids enough, and praising too much. With too much praise, too generally directed  (Great work! You’re a great girl! That’s wonderful! Wow, you’re so smart!) children can become too dependent on external approval, and don’t learn the skills of working out for themselves whether they like something they have done.  I find this interesting, because I’m an over-praiser. I think my kids are wonderful, and I tell them all the time.  So at the moment, I’m playing with the idea of asking them how they feel about their play (“Look at you! You’re so high! Do you like being high up?”) rather than reflexively praising them (“You’re such a great climber!” ). It’s a slight difference, but one emphasises what they think of what they’re doing, and one is me giving a judgement of what they’re doing.   This blogger tries to work out the difference.

So, in the early years it comes down to: letting our kids know that our families are part of the wonderful range of family types, and helping our kids develop the emotional skills to deal with distress.

If you have toddlers, what are you doing to prepare your kids for life in a non-traditional family? If your kids are older, what did you do, or wish you had done more of?