Disarming the Nuclear Family

The family unit is an important part of the gender discussion. This week we're sharing an article from Willow McCormick about the importance of recognizing that not all students come from a traditional nuclear family.

By Willow McCormick, Instructional Coordinator, West Linn, Oregon | Aug 20, 2018
Disarming Nuclear Family

The family unit is an important part of the gender discussion. Not all children come from homes with two heterosexual parents. Educators and other professionals who work with kids should be mindful that children may be living in homes with more complex gender and familial roles, such as same-sex parents, blended families, adoptive or multi-generational families. This guest post provides one tool that teachers can use to make all children feel comfortable.

This article originally appeared in a collection titled, “Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality”, a Rethinking Schools Publication. It has been shortened to fit this format.

 

I have more than 1,000 books in my classroom library, cobbled together from garage sales, used bookstores, and the collections of former students who have outgrown their picture books. As a social justice educator, I try to fill my primary classroom library with books that feature characters from a variety of cultures, traditions, classes and backgrounds. And yet, despite my efforts, I’m dismayed by how many of the thoughtful, well-written books in my collection feature the nuclear family unit, be it human or animal. Even my favorite authors default to the nuke.

When two-parent, heterosexual families are presented as the norm in story after story, year in and year out, an insidious message is conveyed: Families that don’t conform to this structure are not normal. And, of course, the message is reinforced in the majority of movies and television shows geared toward children. Shame, secrecy and evasion can result from this incessant messaging.

I see it play out in my classroom. Two years ago, I had a student with divorced lesbian moms, step-siblings, half-siblings, and a close-knit extended family. I doubt any children’s book out there includes a family like hers. They were a loud and loving family, and Marie was a loud and loving girl. Yet she rarely divulged that she had two moms and, in fact, fabricated an absentee dad at one point early in the year. Another boy, Andrew, didn’t want anyone to know he was adopted, afraid they would think he was “weird.” He said it was hard enough having brown skin when his parents and most of his classmates were white; he didn’t want kids to think of him in another way, too. I pride myself on having an accepting and appreciative classroom community, but the undermining effect of the dominant family systems in children’s books and media slips into our snug community like toxic smoke.

What is a 2nd-grade teacher to do? Dispose of all Kevin Henkes books, and deprive 7-year-olds of the pleasure of repeating “Chrysanthemum, Chrysanthemum, Chrysanthemum” as they root for the main character to embrace her unusual name and accept herself? Give periodic rambling qualifiers before read-alouds, trying to explain the heteronormative paradigm in kid-friendly language? Build a library where every family structure is represented equally, thus ensuring a library of 100 books or fewer? I’ve considered all of these scenarios in moments of exasperation, but nothing seems realistic.

Luckily there are resources out there that shine a light on a path forward. A few years ago I discovered a beautiful book by Susan Kuklin simply titled Families. Kuklin puts family structure in a larger context of diversity of all types. To create the book, she interviewed children aged 4 to 14 from a variety of family structures, mainly in New York City, but also in rural communities. She then worked with the children to select a page’s worth of text describing their family members, religious traditions, household, hobbies, and studies. A family portrait accompanies each page; the children themselves chose the location, clothing worn by all family members, pets, and props. The net effect is a refreshingly matter-of-fact look at 16 very different families. Ella is a summer camp aficionado who was adopted by her two fathers as a baby. There’s also Kira and Matias, biracial children who live beside a creek and love catching fish for dinner. Yaakov, Leah, Miriam, and Asher are Orthodox Jews who make themselves laugh with goofy invented languages. Chris, Louie, and Adam are close-knit brothers whose parents came from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic; they discuss food and language, only mentioning in passing that Louie has Down syndrome.

Families has all sorts of potential for classroom use. I use it as a mentor text for writing our own class book of families. Each day I read aloud one family story to the class. The straightforward tone of the book leads easily to a straightforward discussion afterward. I ask the kids to make connections between the family we just met in the book and their own families, or the families of their friends or neighbors. What do they have in common? What are some differences? The class often starts with the goofy languages—they make up silly words, too!—or the hobbies or study habits they share with the children in the book. But it’s not long before the conversation gets more personal. Finn mentions his gay aunts, two children of divorced parents compare how they split up—or don’t—their time between households, devout Christian Isaiah notices that he and a Muslim boy in the book both consider themselves servants of God.

Over time, we begin to craft our own narratives. First, we brainstorm themes that come up again and again in the book—food, religion, traditions, sports and hobbies, descriptions of family members—and the kids start to make lists from their own lives that fit into these categories. Then they write, each in their own style. Ramona tells how her cousins came to live with her family as foster children. “My mom wanted to know how long they would be staying, but now we’re all glad they came.” Isaiah tells us that religion is the biggest part of his family’s life. Marie writes about her two moms, and Rory explains that he doesn’t have a dad or siblings, but his uncles and pets fill in, and he and his mom have an extra special relationship because it’s just the two of them. Andrew, after a few fretful conferences with a couple of trusted peers and me, decides to include his adoption in his narrative. 

Hi, I am Andrew. I am 8 years old. I have one sister and no brothers. I live in Oregon. I was adopted because my birth mom could not take care of me. My dad was at work when the phone rang. Somebody said into the phone, “Jon, do you want to be a dad?” “Yes!” After one day my mom and my dad came to the place where I was. My new mom and dad took me home. Once the narratives are crafted, the kids bring in photos to use as illustrations, or direct me to photograph them doing things they love at school. They paste their narratives and photos on oversized construction paper to create their own page in our classroom edition of Families. To draw the project to a close, I host a writing celebration in the classroom. The children lay their pages out carefully on the tables and we spend the hour rotating from desk to desk, reading stories and leaving notes of praise and connection. “My family goes hiking on Easter, too!” “You have two moms?! You are sooo lucky!”

Once the narratives are crafted, the kids bring in photos to use as illustrations, or direct me to photograph them doing things they love at school. They paste their narratives and photos on oversized construction paper to create their own page in our classroom edition of Families.

To draw the project to a close, I host a writing celebration in the classroom. The children lay their pages out carefully on the tables and we spend the hour rotating from desk to desk, reading stories and leaving notes of praise and connection. “My family goes hiking on Easter, too!” “You have two moms?! You are sooo lucky!”