What do you think of when you hear the word family? More often than not, it may be a heterosexual couple – a mum and dad – and their two biological children. The classic nuclear family setup.
But the reality is that many families no longer look like this in the UK, despite those old stereotypes holding fast. In 2021, there were 19.3 million families in the UK – of these, 3 million were solo parent families.
Around 1.1 million children in England and Wales are estimated to live in a stepfamily, while statistics on same-sex parent families are harder to come by. According to charity FFLAG, the most recent statistics for the number of same-sex couples raising children are from 2013, when 12,000 couples were doing so. It’s safe to say there’s probably a lot more now.
For children who come from single parent, LGBTQ+, adoptive, blended, foster and kinship families (where family members or friends raise children), being bombarded with the message there’s only one type of family can cut deep.
Journalist Freddy McConnell – a self-described solo seahorse father – issued a plea on Instagram recently after his tearful child came home from school and said everyone in his class had a mum and dad.
“I don’t know if this was someone else’s observation or his,” wrote McConnell, before urging parents to tell their children what families actually look like. “If your kid has a mum and a dad, please don’t let them out into the world under the misconception that *that* = family,” he said.
“Please take every single opportunity to point out that ‘family’ is a huge and never-ending idea,” he said. “That love makes a family, not who’s in it. That everyone’s family means the world to them, so be gentle.”
Sadly, the othering McConnell’s children’s faced is not unique. But while there are some amazingly diverse books and TV shows for kids out there, as well as references to different types of families when learning at school, the classic 2.4 family is still very much the norm in lots of the media kids consume from a young age. Bluey and Peppa Pig, for example (though a shout out to Hey Duggee for doing things a bit differently).
Lots of the classic children’s books we end up buying our kids (mainly for our own nostalgic pleasure) also centre around very ‘traditional’ family units, not necessarily reflective of 2023. Think: Mog, The Tiger That Came For Tea, Peepo.
Louisa Herridge, a solo mum who is 43 and from Warrington, says films and books can sometimes be triggering for her daughter Emilie if they’re just about dads.
“I would love to see a single mum narrative in books and kid’s films and one where they are thriving and not just trying to get back with dad,” says Herridge, a positive psychology and mindset coach, and founder of Mamas Ignited.
She praises the latest Disney films which “have much more powerful messages for young girls in particular – and we do see different family makeups.”
The mum actively teaches her daughter about how families are all different, and says her daughter’s school makes an effort in this area too. One example she gives is that they say “grown-ups at home” instead of mum and dad.
“But schools are still portraying stereotypical norms,” she adds. “In her school Nativity this year, they portrayed four family setups showing how they celebrate Christmas. In each scene, there was a mum, dad and two kids.”
Discussing the impact, the solo mum suggests children who do not come from nuclear families “have the potential to feel different – and very early on in life” which, she says, can impact their self-worth and self-esteem.
“Children that stand out as different are at risk of bullying – and as an ex-teacher this is something that I have experienced,” she adds.
“I remember the stigma attached to single mums and the societal message was that I should aspire to get married and have a baby.”Louisa Herridge
Herridge recalls feeling guilt when she separated from Emilie’s father because she didn’t want her daughter to “come from a broken home” – something that was shaped by her own perception of what a family should look like growing up.
“I grew up terrified that my parents would split up and that I would come from a ‘broken home’,” she says. “Looking back this stigma of a ‘broken home’ comes from how family life is portrayed in society.
“I remember the stigma attached to single mums and the societal message was that I should aspire to get married and have a baby.”
Her daughter has, on occasion, been impacted by the narrow view of family that is sometimes portrayed in society and culture.
“The first time I can remember it having an impact on her was at her Reception Nativity,” she recalls. “After the Nativity she was very upset that she didn’t have her dad there and, in her head, everyone else did.”
Sometimes families have one parent, sometimes two, sometimes even three. And sometimes one – or all – aren’t necessarily the biological parent.
Mok O’Keeffe, a LGBTQ+ historian at GayAristo, has been helping his sister-in-law raise three children after his brother died in 2010.
“I promised my brother I would keep his memory alive and be there for the girls. And I have done that. They have a wonderful mother and I am their father figure,” says O’Keeffe, who is married.
“They were flower girls at my wedding and mean the world to me. My sister-in-law says we are the modern family,” he adds. “We certainly are unique at sports day!”
The children – who are now all teenagers – “think it is quite cool to have a gay uncle as a father figure,” says O’Keeffe, who is 53 and splits his time between Chelsea in London, and Abergavenny, Wales.
Their experience as a family unit, while tinged with tragedy, has been an overwhelmingly positive one – helped, O’Keeffe says, by their extended family who live in Spain.
“The aunts and uncles and grandma are loving and welcoming to the girls,” he says. “They spend summers in Spain and, in many ways, my girls may have lost a father, but as a result have more loving and invested adult role models than they might have had if he had lived.”
The historian says he’s had a positive experience with their schools, who have accepted him as the father figure in the girls’ lives – something that came about after he and his sister-in-law set up a meeting to explain their situation. “Both their junior and high schools were 100% supportive,” he adds.
“I have not experienced any negativity around what my sister-in-law and I call ‘our modern family’. I have found that the girls’ friends and parents have been totally accepting of me as a significant part of the girls’ lives.”
The UK is a more diverse place than it’s ever been – with so many families of all shapes and sizes. But it’s clear that some children are still being made to feel like outsiders because of the narrow view of family that still presents itself.
While schools and media are doing their best to move with the times, it’s clear more needs to be done. And caregivers – especially those in more ‘traditional’ family units – are the ones who can be doing some serious legwork here.
Freddy McConnell suggested parents must be the ones to “keep talking” to their kids about this stuff. “However you want to explain it, with however many picture books to help, please just make sure you *actively* do,” he said.
“So that kids with a solo dad or solo mum, two mums, two dads, more than two parents, adoptive families, donors, guardians, carers, blended families etc etc, don’t find themselves having to defend their loved ones at school or anywhere else.
“So that school is as safe a place for us as it is for your family. And, to put it bluntly, so that no one’s little one has to put on brave face in class, before letting it out through tears at bedtime.”
While parents are a great place to start, Herridge caveats that “unfortunately the same messages will not be given [by all parents] as there will be old prejudice and misrepresentation in some families”.
Given this is the case, schools have a huge opportunity to make a difference.
What are children taught in schools about family?
Guidance provided to primary schools states that children should be taught “families are important for children growing up because they can give love, security and stability”.
Children are told “that others’ families sometimes look different from their family, but that they should respect those differences and know that other children’s families are also characterised by love and care”.
The guidance says teachers must teach pupils that there are many types and sizes of families, for example:
Diversity is needed more widely is needed in the media, adds Herridge. “This is a much wider issue than just families as there needs to be more representation of colour, disability, gender and sexuality.
“Diverse resources in schools would be a great start, along with breaking down the patriarchal expectations of women that are still so often represented in books and films.”
So what is a family then? “Families come in many different varieties, changing and adapting over time,” says O’Keeffe. “They are no longer fixed entities, with traditional mother and fathers – and educational establishments are recognising this.”
“Family are the people who love you no matter what, who you want to be with and who add that extra spark to your life,” adds Herridge.
Her daughter Emilie, who is seven, says families “are happy, go on nice days out, are loved and [there’s] no falling out”.
“The people in families are mums, nannies, dads, children or maybe not a child, aunties, uncles and cousins. There doesn’t need to be a number of people,” she says.
“You are family because you were made a family. In any shape and sizes, you are still a good person.
“Just because you don’t have a dad, doesn’t mean you are different.”
A reading list for you and your kids to explore what different families look like
Do you have recommendations for more books or shows about the shape of families today. Email email@example.com to let us know about them.