It is that time of year, apparently, when “father-daughter” dances are staged, like one that took place at a Phoenix school a few days ago and was spotlighted in a cheerful Fox 10 newscast.
But not everybody likes such celebrations, it turns out. In New Hampshire, the Valley News reported on a mother named Jennifer Meade who attended a father-daughter dance at a community association that has held such an event for about two decades. She went with her boyfriend, 7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, but she and her son were asked to leave.
Now she is questioning the tradition — and she is not the only one. This post looks at why one elementary school just shut down such a dance. It was written by Marney A. White, a clinical psychologist and an associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Yale School of Public Health. She took a sabbatical this year to serve as president of the PTA at her child’s elementary school and as a practicing clinical psychologist. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia and has a master’s degree from James Madison University.
By Marney A. White
Valentine’s Day is upon us, and that means we are in the season of the “Father-Daughter Dance.” Our Facebook feeds will be littered with photos of young girls in pretty dresses, standing gleefully with their fathers. Dads don a suit and take their “little princesses” out for the evening. Who could have a problem with that?
As it turns out, many people in our community had a problem with that. For very good reason.
This year I have been volunteering as a PTA president at my child’s elementary school. It is a very active parent group, with exceptionally high membership rates and a packed calendar. In our first meeting, when reviewing the events calendar, parents reiterated that the “Sweetheart Dance” (as it is called at our school) is not an event just for daughters and fathers. In years past, we learned, girls were forbidden to attend the dance with their mothers. Girls without a father (including those who had lost their fathers to death or divorce, or those who have two mothers) were told they could bring a special male adult, but not their mothers. All agreed it had been critically important to revise that policy.
Within a few days of that meeting, I started to receive emails voicing concerns over limiting the dance to girls. Several emails. No one wrote to defend the “Daughter Dance.”
The emails and calls critiquing the dance noted that a few years ago it had been difficult for the adults to convince the dance organizers to allow mothers to attend. They reasoned that if it was so hard for adults to muster the courage to trailblaze in that regard, how much more difficult might it be for a child to advocate for themselves to attend a dance? What if a boy wanted to dress up and attend the dance? What if there were a gender-nonconforming child at the school? Should we wait until that time before making a change? Or shouldn’t we, as parent leaders, do whatever we can to make sure no child has to go through that?
Parents also wrote with concerns about gender stereotypes: What are we teaching when we create events where girls dress up and do crafts and boys are excluded from attending? Would we recognize the gender discrimination if only boys were permitted to attend Science and Math Night? They had a point.
I tried to figure out how to address these concerns. Although these were the only voices reaching out to me, I assumed some parents would disagree. I concluded we would run a schoolwide survey of parents about their preferences, and the majority would rule. I intended to request parents ask the children their opinions, as well, because, after all, this is an event for the children.
In thinking about how to put the survey together, I did an Internet search on father-daughter dances. I learned of multiple recent lawsuits in which schools were sued for holding gender-exclusive events. I found federal court cases in which schools had prohibited gay children from attending prom, and the children sued and won. Not being a legal expert, I did not know if our daughter dance could possibly be a legal problem. So I called the state’s education department. I was told holding a gender-exclusive dance is a violation of Title IX.
Title IX is a federal education law, in effect since 1972, stating no public school can sponsor an educational or extracurricular event that discriminates on the basis of gender. Holding such an event can make the sponsor subject to a lawsuit they would certainly lose. Title IX violations also risk loss of funding to the school or district.
I notified the PTA board of this, who swiftly determined the dance had to be inclusive. We announced in a letter to parents the dance would be open to boys.
To be clear, it is not the fear of being sued that motivated the PTA board’s decision. It was that we became aware holding a girl-only event is discrimination. Most of the parents in our community believe discrimination in any form is wrong. We teach these ideals to our children. We want our children to feel welcome and safe — and to be kind and welcoming to others — no matter who they are or what their interests may be. Our school may be home to children identifying as LGBTQ. There may gender-nonconforming children. Should we, as a community of parents, sponsor an event that creates feelings of loss or exclusion for any child?
Children who identify as gay or transgender have a four to ninefold risk of suicide before graduating from high school. One in six has seriously considered suicide. The emotional hardship experienced is attributable, in part, to the lack of support they receive from school environments.
While a few people in our community disagreed with the inclusion of boys in this event, the overwhelming feedback was positive. I did receive feedback from one person, which went beyond negative. It was riddled with misogynistic language and personal insults. It reminded me of lessons from history: Often when significant social change is occurring, there are some in the community who resort to violence to maintain the status quo.
So the fact that I, as a PTA president, received an abusive message from someone who was enraged by an anti-discrimination policy … well, I can only think of this as indicating what we did is important.
Many parents have recognized that beyond this being a “politically correct” decision, it is a correct one, made on behalf of children who might not be able to advocate for themselves.
I am proud to be a part of a community that is so thoughtful and invested in our children’s emotional well-being. I love that parents here realize it is more important to make the world a better and safer place for all children, than it is to preserve the parents’ own beloved traditions. I am grateful to the voices in our community who made me realize this.
As for the children’s experience? More girls bought tickets than ever before. The kids had a blast; children danced together and with their parents, and the children said it was the most fun dance they had attended.
I hope other communities recognize the importance of changes such as this in protecting and promoting the well-being of children. Some day a child may look back and say “Wow, the adults in my school really tried to make things better for me.” Because that is exactly what we did.