My oldest was in the first grade when she came home one day with a long piece of paper and a homework assignment. She was asked to use words and illustrations to create a timeline of important events in her life, starting with her birth. My friend’s two daughters were in different first graders and came home with the same assignment.
Our children reacted differently. My child, who was adopted at birth and has an open adoption with his birth family, loved it. My friends’ two girls who were in foster care at the time were devastated.
The problem was immediately apparent. Many of our children simply did not have the known family history to complete the project as intended. Even in cases where we would have Information, in the situations of my friend’s foster children, the story was complicated and traumatic. There would be no cute stick figure family illustrations or happy memories to draw on the timeline. Her childhood – up until now – was 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such school assignment that does nothing but ostracize, embarrass, and shame many students who do not conform to the (outdated) family norm. Other projects that have been entrusted to my children and probably yours over the years include drawing up a family tree, recording dominant and recessive traits, interviewing biological relatives for reports, bringing in a baby picture and researching their ancestors.
The majority of children in America do not live with two biological, married, heterosexual parents who have two children, at most three. However, many of these assignments are designed with this nuclear family of the 1950s in mind. In short – it’s time we stopped insisting that these school projects are the only way to teach children certain lessons. Adding an illustration or “point and tell” to the task may make students feel even more ashamed.
You may think children can ask their teachers to change assignments at any time. That’s reasonable, isn’t it? From my point of view, the order should not have taken place in the first place. The year is 2022, not 1954. Families are very different than they used to be. Also, enabling students to ask for an exception or alternate assignment only embarrasses the child more.
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 through adoption or foster care, do not share biology with the families in which they live and grew up. However, they have biological families that are also their “real” families. The projects assigned to my children never accommodated more than two parents. However, each of my children has two mothers and two fathers – between adoption and biology.
The same applies to siblings. My children each have three siblings within our family, but they also have other siblings by birth. All of these children are “real” siblings, so why don’t they have a place in these assignments? In the eyes of my children, their siblings – all – are their siblings. We call our family an orchard, not a tree — but only because we’re lucky enough to have open adoptions. Many adopted children do not know the identity of one or both of their birth parents.
Children often do not know how many siblings they have. In some cases of foster care, the biological parents have been abusive or neglectful to their children, so the story is far from pretty. There may not be a house with a white picket fence and instead no place at all to call home.
However, let’s also not be quick to slander birth parents, some of whom have been subjected to unfair foster care, poverty, abuse, disability, and other circumstances. Some biological parents, in the case of my children, chose to put their children up for adoption. I’ve found that society in general is quick to write off an adoptee’s biological relationships – as if nature doesn’t matter and upbringing predominates. Now, as an adoptive parent, let me be clear and say that biology matters.
There are also many children who do not know their race or ethnicity; some can only guess. They have no access to biological grandparents who could interview them. Maybe the child was born into one culture but grows up in another. For example, the child may be Chinese but not speak Mandarin and not celebrate the Chinese New Year. Apparently, however, they are assumed to understand and practice them.
Families are formed in so many ways – sperm or egg donation, embryo adoption, gestational carriers, surrogacy, adoption, foster care or guardianship. Some children have multiple mothers or fathers, single parents, stepparents, or bonus parents. Children 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 would want to be open about if they know what it’s supposed to talk about anyway. There is no right way to be a family – but there is a right way to treat children at school.
Some of the worst jobs are all about dominant and recessive traits. When I was in high school, everyone was expected to check their biological family’s eye color and report in science class. I remember a girl, an adopted child and only child of her adoptive family, and I wonder how she dealt with this task. How did she feel about it?
We need to wipe the board clean and create better assignments that validate, rather than offend, the diversity of the students and family. For example, instead of writing 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 however they choose—be it specific or abstract. Students can learn about recessive and dominant traits without being forced to reveal biological family information. Students can also choose a fictional family from a book or TV show and share what they like about that family’s dynamic, explore the characters and their roles, etc. There are so many options other than clicking the shame button.
Old school, outdated family responsibilities do far more harm than good. They are exclusive at a time when a school environment should always prioritize inclusivity. I beg educators not to wait another semester to change or drop these assignments. Children need a nurturing, affirming, and open-minded school experience to grow into reciprocal adults.