How should preschool teachers handle topics that can be sensitive when youngsters bring them up? In this post, J. Jennings, a teacher at Park West Cooperative Nursery School in Chicago, explores how children talk about love and marriage as part of their exploration of the world around them — and how teachers can facilitate those conversations. This first appeared in “Rethinking Schools,” a magazine that balances classroom practice and educational theory while also addressing key policy issues. It is published by a nonprofit of the same name and writers include teachers, parents, researchers, and I am republishing the piece with permission.
By J. Jennings
I teach in a play-based preschool on Chicago’s north side, and I can accurately say that not a week has gone by in my decade-long teaching career when the topic of marriage has not come up.
It can be a part of a game: “You be the prince and I be the princess and we get married.”
A child’s story: “Then they danced and got married.”
To taunt another child: “You’re going to marry him!”
A declaration of infatuation: “I’m gonna marry her.”
A subject of inquiry: “Are you married Ali? Are you a mom?”
Even a hope for the future: “When I get big, I’m gonna be a dad and get married.”
One day, Rory approached me during playtime, visibly shaken. “Those kids are telling me that girls can’t marry girls and they can!”
“Well, let’s go and talk with them about it,” I responded.
When we reached the two girls, I told them that Rory was worried about the conversation they were having and asked what they were talking about. I learned that, just as Rory reported, the two girls had been discussing marriage and how girls couldn’t marry girls. Rory had been insisting they could. He was certain of it. His mom had told him. The other two were skeptical. They all looked to me to clarify this point of contention.
I was delighted to be a part of the conversation and also struggled a bit with how to answer truthfully. Gay marriage is now legal in Illinois, but at that point, only civil unions were legal for lesbian and gay couples. Of course, this fine point has the potential to be lost on 4-year-olds. I generally feel that when talking about marriage, most children mean adults loving one another, so I went that route.
“Two girls can be in love with each other,” I responded.
“Yeah!” agreed Rory, vindicated by his teacher’s affirmation of this point.
I continued: “And girls can love boys. And boys can love boys.” The three children mulled this over.
“Like my mom and dad love each other,” one of them answered.
“Right,” I said. The kids continued their conversation of marriage and were no longer looking for my input. I listened for a few more minutes as they tossed around the idea that love might not be constrained to a mom loving a dad. Rory mentioned that he had a friend who had two moms who were married. The other two children were willing to accept this and incorporate the new information into their understanding of the boundaries of love and marriage.
Challenging Binary Thinking
As an educator (and a person), I value conversation as a way to build understanding and transform perspectives. It is an incredible curricular tool for addressing issues of identity (e.g., race, class, size, gender, sexuality, ability, religion). It can be especially meaningful when our students initiate the conversations. So I work to create a classroom environment where differing points of view can be addressed and explored. My goal is for the children to feel confident about articulating their point of view and safe enough to consider other perspectives. As teachers, through careful listening, we can identify the issues that kids in our classroom are grappling with. And, through conversation, we can model nonjudgmental behavior and challenge binary thinking.
This is especially significant in early childhood education. As young children develop their understanding of the world, they tend to rely heavily on binaries. If we understand the binaries a child is working within, we can encourage that child to think of counterexamples or introduce counterexamples ourselves into the conversation. These provide useful stumbling blocks that encourage them to expand their thinking.
For example, I have very short, sometimes dyed hair and it tends to be a common topic in my classroom. A child will look at me and ask, “Why do you have boy hair?”
“Do you mean why do I have short hair?”
This is often met with a quizzical look. “Yeah. It looks like boy hair.”
“This is how I like my hair to look. Do all boys have short hair?”
Usually at this moment in the conversation, that child or a peer will think of a boy they know who has long hair or a girl who has short hair. Even a simple conversation like this challenges children to expand their thinking.
If parents witness their child asking me this type of question, I often sense nervousness about their child acting “rude.” However, if I were to shut down the conversation by saying, “It’s not polite to say something like that about my hair,” the interaction would be lost, and the child would continue to believe that only boys have short hair.
It’s easy to feel vulnerable or overwhelmed when children ask questions about identity, but when we don’t engage the issues involved, we are sending a message that the subjects are taboo. In terms of gender and sexuality, avoidance and silence can be particularly harmful for students who are or will later identify as LGBTQ (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer) or who come from families with LGBTQ family members. Silence is not a neutral response.
This is not a packaged curricular activity. I know that many teachers prefer to plan ahead and address gender and sexuality with self-contained lessons. I’d like to challenge that desire. Although there is a time and place for preplanned curricular activities, I believe that setting up our classrooms so conversation is honored as part of the curriculum provides children with repeated opportunities to develop their critical thinking skills, empathy, and worldview.
We can model active listening, teach the children to engage respectfully, and set up guidelines for what is and is not acceptable in a conversation. For example, when kids are engaged in a heated debate, they tend to talk over one another, and I will often insert myself to help them practice conversational turn-taking. When I do that, my goal is not necessarily to have the children agree with one another, but rather to help them understand that a different point of view exists, and that not all people think the same things.
Further, I work to help children understand that just because someone thinks something different from you, it’s not a reason to be mean or dominate the conversation, but a chance to expand on what you know. We cannot plan how conversations will unfold or what our students’ experiences and perspectives will add. That means our own perspective might be challenged and perhaps changed. Sometimes I realize later that a conversation didn’t resolve in a way I’m comfortable with, but I know I can revisit it with the class in a day or two.
And Tango Makes Three
Of course, there are many resources to help initiate conversations and help frame our students’ thinking. For example, we read And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson. This charming picture book is based on a true story of two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo. A zookeeper provides them with an egg to raise into a chick after he recognizes that they are mates and “in love.”
As I was reading the story, a handful of kids chimed in that they knew two boys who loved each other or two girls who loved each other. Again the conversation turned to marriage. Some kids were insistent that boys could marry boys and girls could marry girls, others were sure that could not happen, and still others listened without sharing their ideas. The country’s debate on gay marriage had reached the 4- and 5-year-olds in my class. The book prompted a conversation about an issue that kids were actively working to understand.
At this point, I felt a twinge of unease about potential parent responses. As I thought later about my nervousness, I realized I have never run into a parent who asked me not to talk about heterosexual marriage with their child. Why not? Heterosexual marriage is an acceptable part of dominant culture and is therefore not considered taboo. So it is seen as nonthreatening. Parents trust that, as a teacher, I can talk about heterosexual marriage without the conversation being dominated by sexuality. Heterosexual marriage is viewed through the lens of love. Same-sex marriage does not feel quite as benign because it is viewed by its opponents through the lens of sex. Gay sex, to be exact, which is perceived as inappropriate subject matter for young children. Based on religious beliefs about the immorality of “homosexual behavior,” there are people who would rather that discussion of gay relationships be omitted entirely from their children’s school experiences.
Too “Sensitive” for Class Discussion?
Some parents say they want to “save sensitive conversations for the home.” Although I can understand a parent’s desire to pass along their ideas and values to their children, the hope that those conversations will happen exclusively in the home is unrealistic. Students have a vast array of experiences and bring those to a classroom full of peers. For example, not many 3-year-olds have the experience of a parent dying, but when a child does, that tragic experience becomes part of the classroom dynamic. So even if teachers never initiate conversations about gender, sexuality, race, death, ability, religion, or any of the other “sensitive topics,” those issues are present because they are a part of our students’ lives and we would be remiss to silence them in the school environment. Helping to provide language for our students to discuss these nuanced issues is a beneficial and incredibly important tool.
I am acutely aware that my values may be different from those of families I serve. As teachers we live in a gray area—we each have our own ideas, biases, and values, often as varied as those of the children and families we serve. Regardless of any one of our ideological slants, a large part of our job is to help our students explore questions deeply and be able to think for themselves.
As the year unfolded, my students continued to play at themes of love and marriage. The conversations expanded and both kids and I were able to introduce new and different stumbling blocks: One can be in love and not get married, not all married people are moms or dads, and not all moms and dads are married. The conversations shifted based on what information the kids had internalized.
For example, a table was full of kids working in their journals. Jack began to tease Joe: “You’re going to marry your sister!”
Joe: “But I don’t have a sister. I have a brother.”
Jill: “Boys can marry boys. Girls can marry girls.”
Jack: “You’re going to marry your brother then.”
Joe starts to color in Jack’s journal.
Teacher: “Joe, did you like what Jack was saying to you?”
Joe shakes his head.
Teacher: “You could tell him you didn’t like it.”
Joe: “I don’t like that. I don’t like it when you tell me that.”
Jack: “I was trying to ask him who he was going to marry.”
Joe: “No. I don’t know who I’m going to marry yet.”
Jack: “Well, when you’re a teenager you can decide who you want to marry.”
Teacher: “Does everybody have to get married?”
Jane: “When you’re a grown-up you do.”
Teacher: “I’m a grown-up and I’m not married. Not all people decide they want to get married.”
Jane: “You can’t marry someone in your family.”
Joe: “You could when you get bigger. Like when I get big I could marry my brother.”
Jane: “No. You can’t. ’Cause then you’ll lose your hand or your leg or something.”
As this deeply layered conversation moved on, many points of view were stated, more questions were posed, and the children were able to articulate what they thought. I made a mental note to myself about topics to revisit, including finding a way to talk about inherited traits and Jane’s ideas about the dangers of incest. There’s always a new challenge!
Earlier in the year, the group of kids may have gotten stuck on the question of whether or not two boys could get married. But because we had previously engaged in full-class discussions and many smaller conversations about same-sex marriage, they were able to move further with the conversation. What started as one child’s effort to tease turned into a conversation that many were involved and invested in. Even if I’d tried I couldn’t have planned this conversation, but I’m glad there was time and space for it in the classroom. It left us with big questions and ideas that I hope my students will ponder and continue to revisit.