My oldest was in first grade when she came home one day with a long strip of paper and an assignment. She was supposed to create a timeline of significant events in her life, starting with her birth, using words and illustrations. My friend’s two daughters were in other first grade classes and came home with the same assignment.
Our kids reacted differently to them. My child, who was adopted at birth and has an open adoption with her birth family, was excited. My friends’ two girls, who were in foster care at the time, were devastated.
The problem was immediately obvious. Many of our kids simply didn’t have the known family history to complete the project as assigned. Even in cases where we had information, in my friend’s foster children’s situations, the history was complicated and traumatic. There would be no cute stick-figure family illustrations or happy memories to draw onto the timeline. Their childhood — thus far — had been riddled with police interactions, bruises, and neglect.
This is just one such school assignment that does nothing but ostracize, embarrass, and shame many students who don’t fit the (outdated) family norm. Other projects that my kids, and likely yours, have been assigned through the years include creating a family tree, dominant and recessive trait charting, interviewing biological relatives for reports, bringing in a baby photo, and researching their ancestry.
The majority of children in America do not live with two biological, married, heterosexual parents who have two children, three at most. However, many of these assignments are designed with this 1950s nuclear family in mind. Point blank — it’s time for us to stop insisting that these school projects are the only way to teach children certain lessons. Plus, when an illustration or “show and tell” is added to the assignment, students may be further ashamed.
You may be thinking, kids can always ask their teachers to amend the assignments. That’s reasonable, right? In my view, the assignment should have never happened in the first place. It’s 2022, not 1954. Families are very different than they used to be. Plus, putting students in the position to ask for an exception or alternative assignment only further embarrasses the child.
I run a large adoption and foster care support group in the St. Louis area. Our families are all “different.” Our children, almost all of whom came to us via adoption or foster care, don’t share biology with the families they live with and are raised by. However, they do have biological families who are also their “real” families. The projects my kids have been assigned have never held space for more than two parents. However, each of my children has two moms and two dads — between adoption and biology.
The same goes for siblings. My children each have three siblings within our family, but they also have additional siblings by birth. All of these children are “real” siblings, so why is there not a place for them within these assignments? In my children’s eyes, their siblings — all of them — are their siblings. We refer to our family as an orchard, not a tree — but only because we are fortunate enough to have open adoptions. Many children who are adopted do not know the identities of one or both of their biological parents.
In lots of cases, children don’t know how many siblings they have. In some foster care cases, the biological parents were abusive to, or negligent of, their children — so the history is far from pretty. There may not be a house with a white picket fence and instead, no place to call home at all.
However, let’s also not be quick to villainize birth parents, some of whom have been subject to an unfair foster care system, poverty, abuse, disability, and other circumstances. Some birth parents, in the case of my children, chose to place their children for adoption. I’ve found that in general, society is quick to write off any adoptee’s biological relations — as if nature doesn’t matter and nurture prevails. As an adoptive parent, let me clear the air now and say that biology matters.
There are also many children who don’t know their race or ethnicity; some can merely only guess. They don’t have access to biological grandparents whom they can interview. Perhaps the child was born into one culture, but they’re being raised in another. The child may be Chinese, for example, but not know how to speak Mandarin and may not celebrate Chinese New Year. Yet, based on appearances, it’s assumed that they understand and practice these.
Families are formed in so many ways — sperm or egg donation, embryo adoption, gestational carriers, surrogacy, adoption, foster care, or guardianship. Some kids have multiple moms or multiple dads, single parents, step or bonus parents. Kids may be raised by grandparents, older siblings, aunts or uncles, older cousins or siblings — the list goes on and on, and these “different” family structures may not be something a child wants to openly discuss, if they know what to discuss at all. There is no right way to be a family — but there is a right way to treat children in school settings.
Some of the worst assignments are all about dominant and recessive traits. When I was in high school, everyone was expected to research their biological family’s eye color and report in to science class. I remember one girl, an adoptee and only child to her adoptive family, and I wonder how she handled that assignment. How did it make her feel?
We need to wipe the slate clean and create better assignments that affirm students and family diversity, rather than insult them. For example, instead of write about your birth culture, let’s allow students to write about a culture that interests them. Instead of assigning a family tree, ask students to define family and illustrate it as they choose — be it specific or abstract. Students can learn about recessive and dominant traits without being forced to disclose biological family information. Students can also choose a fictional family from a book or television show and share what they enjoy about that family’s dynamic, explore the characters and their roles, etc. There are so many options besides hitting the “shame” button.
Old school, outdated family assignments do far more harm than good. They are exclusive in a day and age when a school environment should always prioritize inclusivity. I implore educators to not wait another semester to amend or ditch these assignments. Children need a nurturing, affirming, and open-minded school experience in order to become adults who return the favor.
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