My five-year-old daughter, Little Miss E, loves to talk about weddings. Since she was two she’s talked about who will be invited to her big day (it’s going to be expensive!), what we’ll have to eat (pizza), who her bridesmaids will be (seven of them), and the kind of dress she’ll wear (one like a princess). She talks a lot about who she’s going to marry. Sometimes it’s one of her brothers – three-year-old Little Man O or just-turned-one Baby Boy I. Sometimes she and Little Man argue because they both want to marry Baby. Sometimes she wants to marry Daddy, and when I remind her Daddy’s already married to me, she says I can marry someone just like Daddy and we can all live next door to each other. Other times she wants to marry one of the boys she knows. One in particular, she says, looks like a handsome prince when he wears his glasses. Other days she wants to marry one of the little girls she is friends with.
Cardiff Daddy and I tell her that people don’t really marry their parents or their siblings – we’re family, so we have an extra special kind of love. We also tell her that Mummy and Daddy didn’t meet until we were at university, so it might be a while before she meets the person she’s going to marry. We explain that sometimes you can love someone as a friend, but it doesn’t mean you are going to marry them. We tell her that as long as she loves the person she wants to marry the most, and they love her the most, and they are kind to her and she is kind to them, then she can marry who she chooses.
Last week, she was talking about wanting to marry one of her best friends, a girl she has known a good few years. “But Mummy,” she said quite suddenly. “Sammy (another friend, and not their real name) says a girl can’t marry another girl because it’s called gay and it’s naughty and wrong.”
I was absolutely blindsided hearing those words coming out of her mouth. My five-year-old daughter is kind and caring and compassionate and intelligent and thoughtful. Sure, she has her moments like all children, and I know she’s not perfect, but she is the kind of girl who will collect every pinecone in the park for her Daddy because he once told her he liked them. She’s the kind of girl who wanted to spend the pocket money she had been diligently saving to buy a new toy for her baby brother. She’s the kind of girl who cries if her brother hurts himself. And here she was recounting something that was hateful and hurtful and homophobic – without the slightest inclination of what any of those things even are.
My eyes welled up with pure emotion. They’re welling up now even writing this. I’ve written on my blog before about how hard I’ve found the fact that my daughter needs me less and less. She goes to full-time school, and other after-school activities where parents don’t stay, and when we meet up with friends her age, they go off and play out of the watchful eye of the grown-ups. She has a lot of influences in her life that aren’t me, her Daddy or our immediate family and close friends. I get emotional about her growing up partly because I miss her so much it hurts, but partly because I love her innocence and the beautiful way she looks at the world and it makes me sad that she’ll see violence, bullying, hate, prejudice, death and so much more.
I want my children to be able to stand on their own two feet in this big wide world of ours, and I know I can’t protect them from it all. It would be wrong to even try. I would be doing them a disservice as their mummy and it wouldn’t set them up very well for adulthood to be shielded from life. But when your child says something like this for the first time, completely unexpectedly, it’s another milestone they have reached and another reminder that they really don’t stay little for long.
I took a deep breath and told her calmly and happily that a man can marry a man, a woman can marry a woman, or a man can marry a woman. If you both love each other, anyone can marry who they choose. I told her about people I know who were in same-sex marriages and had loved each other for way more years than even Daddy and I had been together (a really long time, in her mind). I told her that sometimes children can have two mummies, or two daddies, or one mummy, or one daddy, or two parents that don’t live in the same house together. There are lots of different kinds of families and as long as everyone is kind and happy and looks after each other, then that’s okay. I told her that sadly some people don’t always think the same way, but we should always try to be kind to everyone. She nodded and said okay, and then skipped off to play.
Inwardly I was raging. I don’t blame the child, because they have obviously heard it somewhere else. Maybe at home, maybe from an older child, maybe accidentally overhearing a conversation not meant for them; who knows?
I addressed it in a way that was sensitive and appropriate. I’m not passing judgement or blame, or saying my daughter’s account is the definitive version of what happened. All I know is that we had never used the word ‘gay’ when talking to her before, and she’d suddenly come home not only knowing this word but with the idea that it was wrong and naughty. I couldn’t sit back and not do anything because I didn’t want other children hearing statements like this and no one telling them it’s okay to be who you are.
Chances are someone my daughter knows will be gay. Maybe one of my own children will be gay. As a journalist, I’ve written a lot about homophobic bullying and discrimination. I know people who have experienced it at school, the workplace, from family and friends, and from complete strangers. So many gay people realise their sexuality in early childhood. How damaging would it be to be told aged five that what you are feeling is wrong and naughty?
I’ve tried to handle this as best I can. Maybe I could have done things differently, or maybe I should have talked to my daughter in an age-appropriate way about prejudice before I was presented with it on the spot. Sometimes it’s hard being a parent. The world will throw things at your children that you don’t want them to see. All you can do is prepare them for it the best you can and trust that everything they learn from you will help them to make the right decisions and be a kind person.