Editor’s Note: This week’s Teaching Tolerance featured lesson focuses on the rich diversity of family structure. The four-part series helps students recognize and appreciate the uniqueness of their family and of families around them.
On a recent rainy afternoon, our 20 kindergarteners were kept indoors for playtime. I stood near a group of four children stringing beads for bracelets and necklaces.
Levi explained he was making a bracelet for his daddy.
The child next to him, Catherine, blurted out angrily, “I hate daddies!”
Levi searched for words, looked at Catherine and asked, “Why do you hate daddies?” He repeated it a few times.
“I don’t have a daddy,” Catherine replied. “I hate daddies.”
“Where’s your daddy?”
Catherine’s father has never been a presence in her life. Her family consists of her mother and a few other close relatives.
At this point, I step in, having listened long enough. “Well, all families are different.”
I explain the possible parental permutations of family structure: “Some families have one mommy and some families have one daddy. Some families have two mommies and some families have two daddies. Some families have a mommy and a daddy, some families have a mommy and an aunt and a grandmother. Every family is different.”
Everybody’s family is, truly, different. When so many children in the class have two-parent families with both a mom and a dad, things can get sticky fast. The question “Why don’t you have a father?” is simple enough, yet there is no easy answer.
With children so young, “less is more”—at least most of the time. Providing less detailed information may prove more relevant and meaningful to young children. Providing too much information about why families separate or why a parent might leave will only fill a child’s head with anxiety about what might happen to her family.
And really, having different adults in the household is no different than having different children in the household. Why do some families have three sisters while another has just one boy? The answer, simple enough, is that all families are different.
Helping children understand this idea, painting the many ways both people and families can be, allows young children to see from an early age the many colors of the world. These are the colors that define us. I’m sure there will be many more questions as the year goes on, but I have something to think about for the next time this issue comes up.
I also have a shelf of anti-bias books at my disposal. One particularly relevant title is Boundless Grace by Mary Hoffman, which details an African-American child with a mother, a nana and a cat. Some books that showcase economic diversity also showcase diversity of family structures, as in A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams.
Having these books at hand is an important first step to eliciting and beginning to answer any questions about families, a subject that’s frequently on the mind of young children who can’t wait until the end of the day when a person they love comes to pick them up, whoever that person may be.
Palenski is a kindergarten teacher in Connecticut.