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Schools slowly break from cookie-cutter image of families

By Petula Dvorak
Friday, April 30, 2010; B01

What does the school do for Mother's Day?

How about Father's Day?

And what is the plan when the uncomfortable queries come rolling in?

Rather than focusing on test scores, foreign language programs or fancy facilities, these are the linchpin questions for same-sex parents in the great school search.

In a Northwest Washington school last weekend, I listened as about 150 people came to the Rainbow Families conference to navigate the tricky but swiftly changing waters of parenting in a nontraditional family.

Wait, let me scratch that.

These families have always been around, although we haven't always been willing to acknowledge them.

We have a way of continually imposing a traditional mother-and-father construct on our children, despite the fact that this is not always the way a family looks, whether it's because of divorce, death or sexual orientation.

And really, it's pretty sad that an annoying purple dinosaur, Barney, is the one who gets it right when he sings about families in his cloying, but spot-on song: "They come in all different sizes and different kinds/But mine is just right for me."

Look at your school directory: Does it list "mother" and "father"? If it simply lists "parent," that change probably didn't come easily.

"Those are the kinds of issues that come up," said Ellen Kahn, who is the director of the Human Rights Campaign Family Project and president of Rainbow Families.

It's subtle things, such as parent designations and what to do when the class is making Mother's Day gifts and a child has two daddies. And thornier topics, including how a teacher should deal with teasing or how to answer questions about a child's conception. And what exactly does the teacher do when kids are playing house and one kid divides up the parts, declaring that he's the daddy, she's the mommy and he's the donor?

The Human Rights Campaign runs programs for schools on how to become more welcoming and how to change their curriculum and classroom to get out of a "Leave It to Beaver" rut.

Our image of the Cleavers as the gold standard runs deep in the American psyche.

Sara Cytron, a senior lawyer at a federal agency in the District, found it happening in her son's otherwise welcoming and inclusive preschool in Kensington.

The kids were making a chart of things to do at home. One suggestion was, "Tell Mom and Dad what happened at school," Cytron said.

How about her son, Elijah, who would be dishing to his two mommies?

Or for that matter, how about Chloe, who lives with her divorced mom? Or Jake, who lives with his grandma?

Once Cytron brought it up at the school, the teacher revisited the issue with the children, who decided to change the chart to say, "Tell your parents what happened at school." Case closed. And now, a 4-year-old boy with two very loving and involved mommies isn't flummoxed by a school project.

Anyone who bends down and listens to the chatter at the snack table will see that children are the flexible ones here. In most cases, they easily accept that other kids' families are different, once an adult provides a clear explanation. They have no idea who the Cleavers are.

With same-sex marriage legal in the District and some states, the next logical step is for our schools to begin the work of including these families.

Which is a fantastic thing, because whether or not everyone agrees with same-sex parenting, these children are in our schools, and making them anything but welcome is certain to harm them.

So instead of meeting children's questions with blank stares or answering their playground questions with: "No, John and Erik can't get married. Only a man and a woman can get married," teachers are working on inclusion. A D.C. public schools official said the system is enhancing the already imbedded agenda of diversity in its school policy.

This really isn't new territory, when you think about it. Many of these answers have been around for years in the how-to-talk-about-adoption playbook.

One mother said her kid's teacher wanted to talk about the student's two mommies, but was struggling to find the right words. It is the mothers who can help.

"Go back to the parents. The parents have to engage on this," the mom said.

A gay father of 5-year-old twin boys said he deflects kids' speculation and teachers' discomfort by injecting himself into the classroom. Volunteering, chaperoning, bake sales, field trips, volcano construction -- the twins' daddies are always around.

This kind of concern for a child's well-being in the classroom isn't about religion, sex or politics. This is about good parenting. And it shouldn't take a dinosaur to tell us that.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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