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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bert, Ernie and homophobia in childcare- is it an issue?

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you've probably already worked out where I stand on discrimination issues. (If not, you need to read this, and this, and maybe even this, and certainly this.)

I aim not only to educate about these issues, which are often accompanied by frenzied media hype, strong opinions and a poor standard of research-backed evidence, but to stand up and shout about them when necessary. Sadly I had to do that last night, when one of my 'favourite' play-based learning pages on Facebook posted some homophobic comments.

The comments were provoked by some clown (and I use the term loosely) who decided that Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street were a great vehicle for promoting same-sex marriage.

That is mischievous. That is misusing an innocent concept aimed at children for a political end aimed at adults, and to that point I agreed with the comments on the offending page.  If using Bert and Ernie was an attempt to create more discussion around the issue, then I guess it succeeded, but I don't think the strategy is creating respect for same-sex marriage- which is what that political issue most needs to gain. If anything, it's vaguely ridiculous (as well as showing complete ignorance of the plot lines and inter-puppet relationships expounded in Sesame Street).

The point at which I disassociate myself from the views of that page, however, was where negative personal opinions were expressed about 'that sort of behaviour', meaning presumably same-sex marriage in particular and homosexual relations in general. Under no circumstances will I let that pass without comment. I have removed that page from my feed after expressing my views there.

If a person is weighing in to public conversations and providing public information about childcare, even if it's merely play activities, I feel a responsibility to weigh up their suitability to interact with other people's children- and I mean ALL children- via parents and carers. As carers, we can't select what children we care for; we can't select a nice little group of white heterosexual Christian neurotypical children because that's what we're comfortable with. We have to be big enough in our hearts and minds to accept and work with all children, regardless of their colour, religion, sexuality, personality and ability, exactly as they are. Similarly, we have to be big enough to accept their parents and their parents' beliefs and child rearing practices exactly as they are. That is what 'inclusion' means.

Naturally there are some things we can't accept, because they have been proved to be to the detriment of the child. Years of research have shown that sexual abuse, for example, is not something we can allow even from the child's own parent, and so we draw the line and report our suspicions on this.

My problem with the offending page is that it drew a line which was not based on research, and allowed a negative and discriminatory personal opinion to take over an educational page. There is no research that shows a relationship between non-abusive homosexuality and harm to children. (Yes, there is research to show a relationship between abusive exposure to age-inappropriate sexuality, of any variety, and harm to children.)

Research is concrete, based on the collection of facts using scientific method to avoid bias. Opinions, on the other hand, are tricky.  When we care for children, whether our own or other people's, we do have to deal with a lot of opinion-based factors. What should we feed them- for example, should we allow junk food in small quantities or ban it? Where do we draw the line on discipline? Should we use the attachment parenting method, the Gerber-RIE method, some other method we've read about or heard about in the media, or no single method for infant care? We can find supporting research to help us choose the right method for our child when we find ourselves in one of these dilemmas.

But in all these areas, we find people who move on from scientific and educational research and become crusaders for their cause, torching anyone who disagrees with them. They refuse to acknowledge others' rights to an opinion, or others' rights to consult and rely on a different body of information. This represents, to me, the very deepest insecurity about their parenting or caring method. People who are secure in their own practice rarely need to flame others. Security is usually the result of finding that we can be wrong sometimes without being bad people.  Good people are those who deal best with their mistakes- not those who pretend never to make any.

Moving further down the evidence-based track, when it comes to issues which are wholly faith-based or opinion-based without any fact-based research behind their beliefs, we seem to find even more of these deeply insecure people who need to shout their opinions over the top of others' voices and refuse to acknowledge even the faintest doubt about the reliability of their information. I find these people difficult, because I have little respect for those who need to attack or disparage others to feel good about themselves- but anyone working in the public arena has to deal with them, sometimes on a daily basis.  When I find these people amongst my professional associates, I am morally bound to disengage from them. Feeling that you are 'right' about something is not a license to discriminate and disparage.

When these people are found amongst my children's parents, I am morally bound NOT to disengage.  I have absolutely no problem caring for children who have been brought up, for example, within different faiths. Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, atheist, Buddhist- all are common faiths in this country and all require some tweaking of approach and content within the care situation.  Their parents have the right to bring them up according to their own beliefs and traditions, and I do my very best to acknowledge this and work with the family in a way that they find positive and acceptable without being a hypocrite myself (yes, I also have personal religious beliefs, as do most of us). 

However, that right to one's own faith is not a permit for bigotry towards others. Nor is it a permit to teach bigotry to one's children. This is where the line gets very blurry indeed, but my line in my practice is similar to that of the medical profession: above all, do no harm (and I define 'harm' in a research-based way).

No, you may not insult and villify the lesbian, homosexual, bisexual or transsexual parents of the other children, or call others' children names in or out of their presence, even if your faith says their behaviour is an abomination. No, I will not allow your children to do so either. And no, you may not make bigoted comments in my Facebook feed.

That is the issue, and that is where the line is for me.


  1. Aunt Annie, thank you, this is brilliant. I love your passion, share your point of view completely, and have now removed that page from my favorites as well. I'm so glad you're out there encouraging children to continue to do what they do themselves and accept others as they are.

  2. Thank you for your support, Janet. I am prepared to lose a few followers over this as it is an important issue.

  3. I think you just gained one, if I'm not already a follower. Awesome post!

  4. Hurrah to you! I also commented on the facebook post and was shocked by some of the comments on there (mine was the first post saying how shocked I was at the level of homophobia shown!) - as 'childcare professionals' in one form or another, surely one of the main 'requirements' of our 'job' is to be inclusive and accepting of everyone (apart as you say from those that commit crimes) - regardless of age, colour, sex, religion, sexual persuasion, etc.
    I completely agree with you, well done for speaking out!

  5. Megan- I lost one and gained two so far, so I'm ahead :D ! Thanks for your support.

    Francine- good on you too for what you said on that page; I do remember you. Bad things happen when good people stay silent- thank you for speaking up too.

  6. Fair point, and a reasonable place to draw the line.

    I would comment on a semantic distinction, but an important one: 'faiths' is not actually a neutral term to deal with different belief systems. Referring to atheism as a 'faith' is rather like referring to 'transparent' as a colour. For someone who seriously objects to the idea of faith, it's not nice to be lumped in with belief systems that rely on it.

    Also, if a 'faith' teaches gender, racial, sexual, or intellectual intolerance as doctrine, I would say, no, parents have no right to pass it on to their children.


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