In Stella Brings the Family, a recently published children’s book, a young girl’s teacher announces that the children can bring a special guest to school in celebration of Mother’s Day. Stella frets—at first silently and then publicly—because she doesn’t have a mother and everyone else does. Stella has two dads. Her teacher unintentionally causes pain and stress for Stella and her classmates wonder aloud who does all the things for Stella that mothers typically do. The story ends well because Stella finds a solution by inviting her Dads and members of her extended family to the festivities.
As we enter the season of Mother’s and Father’s Day, it is important to remember that Stella’s situation is familiar in classrooms across the country—both because there are many kinds of families and because most teachers often default to traditional concepts of family (i.e. two-parent, heterosexual households), not always realizing the harm that causes. Unfortunately, many of these situations like Stella’s do not resolve happily as her story does. Making the assumption that most children reside in one kind of family is problematic on many levels.
Assumptions about families often aren’t accurate. Less than half (46%) of U.S. children under 18 live in a home with two, married, heterosexual parents in their first marriage. According to the 2010 U.S. census, 220,000 children live in same-sex couple households. More than 24 million children live in single parent households, representing 34% of total children. In 2013, 402,000 children were living in foster care and 7% of all children lived in the home of their grandparents.
Despite these numbers, well-meaning educators regularly make assumptions about children’s home lives. These incorrect assumptions can cause children like Stella and others to feel badly and send an inaccurate message to all young people about the current reality of our nation’s families. Whether teachers have none, one, some or many children in their classroom who don’t fit the “traditional family” perception, it is important to be inclusive and accurate about what family means.
For preschool and elementary age children, family is a huge part of their lives and often an integral part of the curriculum. For Mother’s and Father’s Day and throughout the year, it is important to be thoughtful about how to create classrooms where all children feel included, affirmed and comfortable to be themselves. Here are some suggestions for making that happen:
- In discussions about family, actively discourage the concept of a “traditional,” “average” or “normal” family. Work to broaden children’s definition of family, emphasizing that family is not based on structure or specific members but rather, living arrangements, love, sharing home responsibilities and common activities and traditions. Beginning at a young age, acknowledge that there are many kinds of families and bring that into your discussions of home and family. Use books and other media in your classroom that feature many kinds of families.
- As a school, evaluate the messages you convey through language, policies and procedures. Re-think forms, permissions slips and other procedures that explicitly ask for “mother” and “father” identifying information. Instead, change these designations to parent/guardian across the board. In talking with children, use terms like parents and guardians or adult family members rather than mothers and fathers. Think carefully and find alternatives to “father-daughter” dances and similar activities.
- In early childhood and elementary classrooms where these holidays are typically celebrated, teachers should get to know their students and family situations to avoid making some children feel left out. If you are going to commemorate Mother’s and Father’s Day, consider making the day more general like “Family Day” or “Parent/Guardian Day.” If you decide to go ahead with the language of Mother’s and Father’s Day, be more inclusive and allow children to include other female and male family members or friends such as aunts, uncles, grandparents, family friends, etc. If children have two moms or two dads, allow them to create two cards/gifts for these occasions.
Rather than causing distress, holidays and observances should be an occasion for bringing children together, sharing similarities and differences and helping everyone feel included.