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Children from nontraditional families: a lesson in acceptance.

Scene 1: During a unit on families, the teacher instructs a group of 3-year-olds to draw pictures of their families. Kallie busily draws herself and her mother. The teacher walks past and reminds Kallie, "Don't forget to draw your daddy too." Dutifully, Kallie adds another figure to her drawing.

Scene 2: A kindergarten class is preparing to take its first field trip. As the teacher passes out permission slips, she carefully explains that the children need to have them signed by their "mother or father" or they will not be able to go. She adds that "mothers and fathers" are welcome to come along. Five-year-old Samantha listens intently and wonders where she will be and what she will be doing while her classmates are on the field trip.

Scene 3: Open House night is approaching and the Head Start teacher asks her students to invite their parents. She tells the children that she would like both parents to attend. "Your mother and father should both see the wonderful work you do here at school. I know your mommies and daddies will be proud of you." Four-year-old Jamal shifts uncomfortably in his seat as he decides not to remind his parents.

At first glance, all three of these teachers appear to be nurturing and understanding. Each has made a serious mistake, however, that could cause significant harm to the children's self-esteem and sense of identity. Let's look at these scenes a little more closely to identify where these teachers made their mistakes.

Scene 1: Kallie has no memory or knowledge of her father. She has always accepted that "family" meant her mother and herself. When the teacher comments that her picture should have a "daddy," Kallie begins to ask questions about her family although she is not yet able to understand the answers. She realizes that some friends have fathers and stepfathers, but never before questioned the absence of her own father. The teacher's comment makes her feel she is somehow different and her family is "wrong" because there is no father in the home.

Scene 2: The court awarded custody of Samantha to her maternal grandmother and grandfather. Samantha's teen-age mother abandoned her when she was 3 years old. Samantha has a strong memory of her mother and knows that the persons raising her are her grandparents. She interprets the teacher's directions about the permission slip to mean that she cannot go because she will not be able to bring in a slip signed by her mother.

Scene 3: The teacher's emphasis on both mothers and fathers attending the Open House makes Jamal feel uncomfortable. Jamal and his older brother were adopted by two gay men. Although Jamal loves his fathers very much, he wonders how the teacher will react if he doesn't bring a mommy to school for Open House.

Comments such as these can frequently be overheard in early childhood settings. The teachers are well-meaning and do not intend to cause harm, yet their insensitive or careless language can cause a great deal of damage to a child's self-esteem. During the preschool years, children are gaining a sense of identity that will stay with them throughout adulthood (Erikson, 1968). This sense of self is formed, in great part, by the language and actions of significant adults in their lives.

With the exception of parents and immediate family members, early childhood teachers play perhaps the most significant role in children's lives. Therefore, their language and actions can have lasting effects on children's self-identity. Carl Rogers (1980) suggests in his Humanistic Theory that teachers should give children unconditional positive regard. He would most likely agree that children should be accepted and valued by teachers regardless of their family structure.

An example of the significant effect of teacher language and actions on children comes from the 1992 study by the American Association of University Women, The AAUW Report: How Schools Shortchange Girls. This study concluded that teachers behave differently toward male students and female students, beginning in the early childhood years. This difference in behavior results in weakening the self-esteem of females and discouraging them from certain areas of study. If teachers can cause these problems by showing covert favoritism toward boys, what kind of results will the language used in the above scenes produce?

Early childhood teachers are generally considered to be nurturing, loving and sensitive. The emotional needs of their students should be a high priority. Teachers have been educated about the inappropriate use and damaging effects of racist and sexist language. Why then are some so careless or insensitive about recognizing and accepting nontraditional family structures? Three reasons will be examined.

* First, many teachers use the expression "mother and father" out of habit when referring to children's families. Perhaps they started working with young children in a time before different family structures became so prevalent. If they are new to the profession, they may be modeling after older colleagues or teachers they had as young children. The phrase "mother and father" has always seemed to get the message across to children and so they continue to use it without much thought about its appropriateness.

In addition, since many young children hesitate to correct a teacher, incorrect references have not been brought to their attention. They simply have not seen the need to change their language and terminology. Such teachers need to realize that the number of traditional families, comprised of a married couple raising their biological children together, continues to decline (Russell, 1990). Today's families are much more varied, including single parents, grandparents as primary caregivers, stepparents, blended families, same-sex couples with children, foster families and many other combinations. Through education and effort, teachers can learn to use the appropriate term "family" when referring to the child's caregivers.

* A second reason for the use of "mother and father" rather than the nonstereotypical term "family" is lack of knowledge about the family structures of individual children. Early childhood teachers are encouraged to find out all they can about the children in their care, so they can provide them with the best educational environment.

Teachers can usually gain this information through records, family conferences and home visits. Unfortunately, pertinent information is not always available to teachers. Some families may not recognize the importance of sharing some information and may not trust their child's teacher to be discreet. They should be assured that all personal information will be kept confidential and that the children will be better served if teachers have all pertinent information. Teachers may also lack knowledge about students because they have not taken the time or effort to explore individual differences among the children, including their family structure. This may be more common among part-time or temporary caregivers or teachers who have not familiarized themselves with the children.

* The third possible reason for teachers' use of insensitive language is much more alarming and difficult to change. Some teachers may hold personal biases against certain types of family structures and, in addition, may feel it is their duty to teach the "correct" concept of family. Teachers who feel this obligation need to look first at their own prejudices and deal with these in very individualized ways. Teachers desiring to rid themselves of certain prejudices may begin by educating themselves about the people they are "prejudging." Education may occur through reading, attending classes or workshops on anti-bias and multicultural education, or talking directly and openly with a person who understands the roots of prejudice.

If teachers cannot deal with their own personal prejudices effectively, they must at least recognize that the children are not responsible for their families' decisions or actions. Just as children have no control over their race, gender or any other part of their physical make-up, they also have no control over the family in which they live. If teachers attempt to teach children about a "correct" type of family structure, they may force some children to question their self-worth. Regardless of personal beliefs, teachers must never make children feel less valuable. Instead, early childhood teachers must learn to deal with their own biases and make it a professional priority to enhance children's positive self-identity.

Currently, there is a strong movement to rid educational environments of bias. Because early childhood teachers are so influential in the lives of young children, they are at the forefront of this movement. Early childhood teachers, therefore, have the opportunity to reflect upon and evaluate their own views and personal prejudices toward children from various backgrounds and to make changes in their perceptions of others. Through thought, education and action, teachers can avoid discriminatory behavior and, instead, affect children's lives in positive ways. In their daily contact with children, teachers can show them they are loved and accepted for who they are, rather than shaming children because of their background or circumstances beyond their control. Teachers who work with young children should constantly remind themselves of the significant role they play, never under-estimating their influence over young children's lives.


American Association of University Women. (1992). The AAUW report: How schools shortchange girls. Washington, DC: AAUW Education Foundation. Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: W. E. Norton. Rogers, C. R. (1980). A way of being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Russell, C. (1990). Throw out the script. American Demographics, 2(1),2.

Suggested Publications

Byrnes, D. A., & Kiger, G. (Eds.). (1992). Common bonds: Anti-bias teaching in a diverse society. Wheaton, MD: Association for Childhood Education International. Derman-Sparks, L., Gutierrez, M., & Phillips, C. B. (1989). Teaching young children to resist bias: What parents can do. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children. Derman-Sparks, L., & A. B. C. Task Force. (1989). Anti-bias curriculum: Tools for empowering young children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children. Ramsey, P. G. (1986). Teaching and learning in a diverse world: Multicultural education for young children. New York: Teachers College Press. Thomson, B. J. (1993). Words can hurt you: Beginning a program of anti-bias education. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Suggested Videos

We're a family. (1992). Pleasantville, NY: Sunburst Videos. Understanding our biases and assumptions. (1990). Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences.

The purpose of this column is to stimulate debate of timely issues affecting children, youth and families. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of Childhood Education or the Association for Childhood Education International. Readers are urged to respond by submitting manuscripts or letters to: Dr. Joan Moyer, CE Issues Editor, Curriculum and Instruction/Early Childhood, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-1711.

Permission to reproduce this column intact is not required. Copyright [C] 1993, Association for Childhood Education International.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Association for Childhood Education International
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Wellhousen, Karyn
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Infants and toddlers with special needs and their families.
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