by Ruti Kadish, Ph.D.
As parents of three young children, my partner and I worry — both separately and together — about how having two moms might impact our children’s experience in the world. And at the beginning of each school year, in particular, we find ourselves concerned about how our children will be treated by their peers and teachers at school. While we go through the same motions preparing for the school year as do all parents — buying school supplies, reviewing the bus schedule, lining up child care — we have the added anxiety about meeting a new teacher, introducing “our family,” and waiting to see how the school reacts to us and to our children.
I have, of course, found other things to worry about. For example, during the summer of 2006 I spent what many, including my partner, consider an inordinate amount of time on the sidelines of numerous baseball diamonds. With clenched fists and desperate prayers to the baseball gods, I willed my son to get a hit, make the catch and strike out the batter. It was almost more than a mother’s heart could handle. Having been a competitive athlete in my youth it had never occurred to me that being the parent of a player was much more fraught with emotion than being a player. You do everything in your power to “coach” and prepare your child, but at game time your role is limited to watching and cheering (and, of course, providing snacks and cold drinks). You can’t guarantee that he won’t get hurt; you can’t ensure that she’ll have a positive experience; you can’t actively do anything. Sitting on the sidelines — as a parent, mind you, as I have no difficulty being a spectator otherwise — I experienced a level of anxiety and a degree of helplessness that was at once unsettling and edifying.
If you are anything like me you may experience similar feelings as each new school year approaches. (Who knew that sending your kids off to school would be more nerve-wracking than going to school yourself? How come no one warns you about this?) But, much to our dismay, we can’t “sit on the sidelines” at school, ensuring that everyone is playing by the rules, that the coach is being a proper role model and that everyone has enough to eat and drink. Rather, the kids get on the bus (or out of the car as the case may be) and walk into the school and into their own world, about which we hear very little.
The good news is that, while we might have little control over what happens at school, we do have the ability to do a great deal — both emotionally and practically — to support our children as the children of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender parents. We can talk to our children about the ways in which all families are different, and give them language to help them talk about their family. You can help them understand and prepare for the reality that some people don’t “approve” of two women or two men having children together. We can also work proactively to make our schools welcoming and safe environments for all families. My partner and I have done everything we could think of — writing letters to and meeting with teachers, suggesting books on family diversity for the school library and being actively involved in our parent-teacher association — in an effort to help our child feel supported at school. Parent involvement, on every level, is a key factor in the overall success your child will have in school. Below, you will find links that will provide you with practical — “how-to” — resources, such as what to look for in your school, how to approach the principal and teacher, books about diverse families that you can suggest or donate to your school and more. But before that, I would like to offer three axioms that can guide us and shape our perspective and approach as we embark once again on this necessary work.
Research persuasively indicates that children who feel supported by, and have a sense of pride in, their family (in terms of ethnicity, for example) are better equipped to deal with and maintain a positive sense of self-esteem when confronted with prejudice. This also applies directly to our children. Children of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender parents who know their parents “have their back,” and who have had positive experiences in the LGBT community (pride parades, community picnics, COLAGE activities, etc.) and take pride in it are generally better able to identify and engage with anti-gay bias in their schools.
Our children do not need to bear the burden of the struggle for LGBT rights and diversity in their schools. Similarly, it is not their burden to come out. That being said, they may well see themselves as part of the struggle and want to contribute. As parents, we can help by having conversations with our children about what feels comfortable. For example, you can ask your child whether he would like you to have a conversation with his teacher about your family at the beginning of the school year. If and when you volunteer in the class, does your daughter want you to come out in any shape or form? When/if an anti-gay remark is made, does your child want you to speak to the teacher, principal or class? As a parent, and depending on the age and character of the child, one may also determine that these decisions belong to the parent(s) and are not decisions a child should make. But they are questions that should be considered, and issues that cannot be ignored.
Communicating with the school about your family structure and specific needs is a priceless and necessary endeavor. Unless proven otherwise, it is always worthwhile to start out with the approach that we — parents, teachers, staff and administration — are all on the same team and we all want what is best for all students. Most teachers genuinely care about their students and their academic and emotional well-being. They’re certainly not in it for the money. We are in a position to assist those charged with our children’s education in creating an environment that welcomes and embraces all students and their families, an environment that guarantees everyone’s emotional and physical safety — and, as such, an environment conducive to learning.
- HRC's Welcoming Schools program provides tools and resources for parents, educators and administrators focused on making elementary schools inclusive for all children and families.
- The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network strives to ensure that each member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. In 2004, GLSEN published the guide, "Is This the Right School For Us: A Guide to Assessing School Climate for LGBT Parents of Elementary-Aged Children."
- The Families All Matter book project, created by aMaze, allows children to explore diversity issues through reading.
- Groundspark created the highly effective That’s a Family video and curriculum, part of a series that includes It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School. The curriculum provides “how-to” instruction for introducing the program into the school, including practical tools such as a flyer template and a sample letter for parents.
- The Family Equality Council has a number of great resources for parents including Opening Doors: Lesbian and Gay Parents and Schools, a handbook that offers instructive suggestions and practical information.
- COLAGE has several excellent tools that address the issue of visibility in schools and a youth-written resource about making schools safer.