Silence is not golden: exploring the experiences of lesbian parents in Australian Early Childhood settings
Lesbian parented families attend Early Childhood (EC) settings in Australia. Little is known, however, about how they experience these settings. This is especially important as the discursive construction of non-normative sexualities in these setting is not neutral: interactions between educators and lesbian-parented families, and the pedagogies that guide them, are frequently at odds with the needs of these families. To aid analysis and understanding of these families’ experiences, this study uses ‘heteronormativity’ as a sensitising concept; it captures the privileges of heterosexuality that also silence and marginalise the study’s participants. There was a gap in the research literature that suggested that researchers had failed to adequately address lesbian parents’ perspectives in EC settings along a range of dimensions. These include overall experiences, disclosure decisions, resource preferences and constructive suggestions for early childhood educators. In 2009, the introduction of the Australian Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) —the national early childhood curriculum framework— presented a starting point from which to consider the experiences of lesbian parents and explore their suggestions for pedagogical practice and policy reform in Australia. An online survey and subsequent interviews captured qualitative and quantitative data, which were analysed to ascertain responses to four main questions that emerged from the identified gap in the literature: (1) How do lesbian parents negotiate the disclosure process in EC settings? (2) What are the perspectives of lesbian parents on the usefulness of children’s picture books featuring same-sex parented families? (3) How do lesbian parents experience EC settings? (4) What do lesbian parents suggest that early childhood educators need to know to work effectively with lesbian-parented families? Quantitative data provided information regarding general trends of the experiences of lesbian-parented families in EC settings in Australia. The qualitative data were interpreted regarding the meaning of these trends, allowing an overview and more idiosyncratic examination of the experiences of lesbian parents. Data were analysed in response to each research question and findings were collated in three overarching themes: ‘educating the educator’, ‘the not so innocent child’ and ‘diversity is the new normal’. This thesis aims to contribute to the literature by inviting educators to consider more fully how heteronormativity, as a social process, affects the experiences of lesbian-parented families. The findings from this study offer educators a point of reference for reflecting on their pedagogical practice and respectfully responding to family diversity. Taking the lead from these lesbian parents, the findings ask educators to reflect on their use of language and resource selection as well as on pedagogy and policy as a means to authentically incorporate and affirm lesbian-parented families in EC settings. The findings have broader implications for preservice education, curriculum planning, policymaking and future research involving lesbian families and may inform others who reflect non-traditional representations of families, including those who identify as gay, bisexual and transgender. This thesis contends that there needs to be a more concerted effort to unpack and reconceptualise constructions of childhood that favour discourses of childhood innocence because these constrain educators’ practices and maintain silence regarding lesbian-parented families. Further, there is a need for a more thorough examination of how the word ‘normal’ is used by lesbian parents and early childhood educators, how its usage privileges some families while silencing others. This study shows that there was a reliance on lesbian parents to educate the educators, but also how the situation is enhanced when educators accept responsibility for critically examining their own practice. In this way, educators can be motivated to understand the power of heteronormativity, and to use that understanding as an effective lens through which to examine early childhood policies, practices and pedagogies. It is hoped that this approach offers an effective path to dismantling heteronormativity and breaking the silence that prevails in EC settings.