11 years ago for my graduate school Masters thesis I created a preschool family curriculum designed to combat heterosexism (institutionalized homophobia). It is a piece of curriculum that is very close to my heart. My work is inspired by the homophobia I witnessed at my college and the pain and struggles I watched loved ones endure because of their sexual orientation. My mission as an early childhood educator has always been to teach acceptance, increase knowledge of diversity and honor the importance of caring for all people. What if children were exposed to all types of loving families (including gay and lesbian couples) at a young age? Would this help combat institutionalized homophobia? With these questions as my starting point, through a great deal of research I created a Family Study curriculum challenging institutionalized homophobia in early childhood education. Even as I write these words I’m scared of the comments I will receive when I hit “publish” and that just means that my work is still a necessity.
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WHAT IS INSTITUTIONALIZED HOMOPHOBIA?
Also known as heterosexism, institutionalized homophobia is the systematic discrimination against gay and lesbian people. In addition to the overt discrimination against the LGBT community, such as the lack of universal rights for same-sex couples, institutionalized homophobia also includes what we cannot see such as the lack of loving same sex couples on children’s television programming and a greatly lacking presence in children’s literature and toys.
When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. -Adrienne Rich, Invisible in Academe
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT? SOME QUICK BACKGROUND INFORMATION
Even though most young children cannot understand the complexity of the current debates concerning the rights of homosexuals, each day children are still thrown into this society enveloped in heterosexism. By the age of three children ‘show signs of being influenced by societal norms and biases and may exhibit “pre- prejudice” toward others on the basis of gender’ (Derman- Sparks, 1989, p. 2). As the courts continue to rule in favor of the rights of homosexuals it is our duty as members of society to find ways to increase the level of acceptance that some people currently do not have.
Children are influenced by, but not limited to, their caregivers’ views, their teachers’ views, television programs, toys, and children’s literature. Piaget’s concept of heteronomous morality states that ‘children’s beliefs grow out of their experience of the restrictions placed on them by powerful elders’ (Cole & Cole, 2001, p. 293). This idea demonstrates how crucial the ‘powerful elders’ in a child’s life are in forming their personal beliefs. For example, if an influential adult, such as a parent or a teacher, constantly relays the message that gay people are bad a young child will accept this opinion as fact and take the opinion as his/her own. This negativity does not need to be verbal, by ignoring homosexuality in the classroom a teacher is portraying the idea that homosexuality is either a forbidden topic or that it is not important enough to speak of.
In addition to the biased views of adult figures television programming is an influential medium in connection with the molding of a child’s opinions concerning homosexuality. Prior to 2014 there were no same-sex couples on children’s television programming even though there is an estimated six million to ten million children of lesbian, gay and bisexual parents living in the United States. In 2014 Disney introduced the first lesbian couple on the show Good Luck Charlie.
Another aspect of daily life for children is the use of toys as a play material. When searching for doll families I was only able to find the pairing of mom, dad, child(ren). While children from heterosexual families can turn on the television or go to the toy store and easily see images that parallel their lives at home, children with lesbian, gay and bisexual parents do not have this luxury. ‘To not include all those possibilities of families in an explicit way…is to make children from gay and lesbian families feel invisible at best and ostracized at worst’ (Casper & Schultz, 1999, p. 157).
Fortunately, the industry centered on children’s literature is miles ahead of television programs and the toy industry. Beginning in the mid-1980’s children’s literature depicting same-sex couples began to immerge (Casper & Schultz, 1999). While most children’s books with gay and lesbian themes are centered on the explanation of the different types of families that exist in society, there is a small selection of children’s literature that is emerging that uses lesbian and gay families as a secondary, more natural part of the story. Unfortunately, it is hard to find these book titles at the larger bookstores. I spoke with Barbara Edmonds in 2004 and asked why we don’t see more books with LGBT families. Edmonds stated that when she approached publishers about her books she was told, ‘we don’t think there’s an interest in that sort of thing’. There are 6-10 million children who have gay, lesbian or bisexual parents. We do need this sort of thing.
CREATING CURRICULUM CHALLENGING INSTITUTIONALIZED HOMOPHOBIA IN EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION
While heterosexism will take time to break down educators have the opportunity, and perhaps the responsibility, to use their classrooms as forums for change. As educators we must look at our own beliefs, the words we speak, the books we read to our students, the figures we place in block areas and dramatic play centers, and the holidays we celebrate, in order to honestly answer the question, “Are we part of the problem?” and equally as important a question, “How can we be part of the solution?”
As you embark on creating an inclusive classroom environment it is important to question your own beliefs on homosexuality. The goal of the curriculum is to create a classroom and school that reflects all types of families.
FOCUS ON WORDING
Before even working with children it is important to look at how we address families. What does your school application look like? Many schools still have one spot for the mother’s name and one spot for the father’s name. The simple substitution of parent/guardian creates an inclusive environment versus an exclusive one.
Educators of young children should also be careful not to use the words male and female interchangeably with the words dad and mom in reference to animals. When two animals are visible in a book do not assume that the animals are a male and a female and refer to them as daddy and mommy. When teachers refer to animals as the mommy bear and the daddy bear, for example, they are teaching their students that the pairing of adults figures needs to be a man and a woman.
Children’s literature is an important aspect of an early childhood curriculum. Teachers should make an effort to create classroom book collections that reflect the diversity of society’s current family dynamics, even if homosexual families are not present in the classroom. Using the current statistic that approximately 10% of Americans are defined as homosexuals, teachers must acknowledge that approximately 10% of students do or eventually will define themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual (Wickens, 1993). Here is a collection of picture books with gay and lesbian families. Starting at an early age it is important for children to gain the knowledge that we live in a society with many different types of people and that everyone deserves the opportunity to live without fear or hatred. By having a diverse selection of children’s literature teachers, without spoken words, are telling their students that they respect and acknowledge all forms of lifestyles.
HOMEMADE FAMILY BOOKS
In addition to establishing a classroom library that reflects the diversity inside and outside of school, making personal books about the children demonstrates to them that their lives are important. Invite parents or caregivers to bring in pictures of their families involved in a variety of activities, or volunteer to photograph the families if necessary. Possible topics for discussion in the books are favorite activities, favorite family foods, and members of my family. Children can dictate sentences that correspond with the picture of their families. The homemade books can be read to the class and made available to the children just as the published books are.
Often included in the block area of early childhood classrooms are accessories such as people. Too often the people are plastic Black and White figures. The Black and White females are clad in dresses and the Black and White males are dressed in jackets and ties. Instead of using figures that depict a certain gender and race, wooden block figures like these can be substituted. This gives children the power to create their own identities for the figures instead of forcing a visible identity on the children. Place an odd number of figures in the block area so that figures do not always need to be paired up.
DRAMATIC PLAY AREA
It is important for educators to examine the dramatic play area within their classrooms in order to explore whether the materials in this area are exasperating stereotypic gender roles. ‘Homophobic attitudes and misconceptions about homosexuality… interfere with opening up nonsexist play options for young children when teachers and parents accept the false assumptions that what a child does determines his/her sexual orientation’ (Derman-Sparks, 1989, p. 4). The false assumption that a male child’s participation in stereotypical female activities will transform him into a homosexual discourages some parents, guardians, and teachers from encouraging male participation in the dramatic play area. As young children grapple with their own sense of identity they may sense these deep seeded gender role expectations and conform to the stereotypical roles (Derman- Sparks, 1989). In order to ease children away from these societal pressures concerning gender roles it may be necessary to rearrange the dramatic play area in order to encourage male participation. The dramatic play area should not be an area that solely revolves around the kitchen with a sink, stove, dishes and a table. Expand the area to include a woodworking table for house repairs, keyboards, writing materials and books for a study, and a variety of clothes that depict both blue collar and white collar jobs as well as clothes that are not for a specific category of work (Derman- Sparks, 1989). I love dramatic play areas that are just an open space with hollow blocks and a few accessories to let children fully use their imaginations.
Re-thinking the use of holidays in the classroom is important for educators as they wrestle with the presence of heterosexism in the classroom. I cannot discuss the celebration of holidays without the image of my mother entering my mind whose father died when she was only ten years- old. As the other children made father’s day cards my mother was ignored as she sat quietly in her chair with nothing to do. During “father-daughter day” my mother was told to stay home from school. It pains me to think of my mother or any child made to feel like an outsider in her/his own classroom. It is impossible for me to ignore these images and emotions as I contemplate the negative and positive elements of celebrating holidays in the classroom. While all holidays deserve attention, for the purpose of this discussion Mother’s Day and Father’s Day will be discussed. Before introducing these holidays into an early childhood curriculum teachers must ask themselves why it is important to have these holidays celebrated in the classroom (Derman- Sparks, 1989). This is a personal decision that each educator must make keeping in mind personal beliefs, parents’ and guardians’ opinions, and the family dynamics visible in the classroom. According to national statistics 27% of the families in the United States are single parent families, one child out of every 25 children lives with neither parent, 2.4 million grandparents are the primary caregivers for children in the United States, one million children live with adoptive parents, and between six and ten million children are products of gay, lesbian or bisexual parents. With these statistics in mind the glorifying of mothers and fathers on a specific day seems to be insensitive to the children who do not fit the mold of having a mother and a father.
CELEBRATING ALL FAMILIES YEAR ROUND
Instead of relying on a United States holiday to tell our children when to express their love for family members, educators can use ongoing curriculums to celebrate the uniqueness of each child’s family through a family curriculum in an early childhood classroom. A family curriculum for young children is a direct way to combat society’s current state of heterosexism. In addition to furthering their knowledge of self- identity a family curriculum allows easy access into the education of differences and similarities of others. One important aspect of the family curriculum is the use of child- centered discussions. Opening up a discussion centered on the question, what is a family?, allows the teacher to recognize each child’s basis of knowledge and for the children to be given the opportunity to voice understandings that they may not have known that they have. These discussions are also a safe forum for children to listen to the experiences and opinions of their peers, which may contradict their own experiences and opinions. In addition to discussions children can explore the family through children’s literature, home made books using family photographs and children’s dictations, and family visitors who can share personal artifacts, stories, recipes, songs, or other activities such as a favorite art project.
When I made the conscious decision to pursue a career in early childhood education I knew that I did not want to be a teacher like those I experienced as a child in elementary school- the type of teacher who merely spits back facts out of a book and expects his/her students to demonstrate competence by memorizing these facts and placing them on a piece of paper in the appropriate spots. I became an educator to give children a forum where they can be free thinkers. I want to give each student that enters my classroom a voice and location for this voice to be heard and challenged. As our country currently wrestles with whether or not every citizen deserves equal rights I expect my students and children to grow up with the confidence and knowledge to take on the tough questions and make decisions that will create a more inclusive world.