Each year, I ask my American Government students to engage in a little personal history research. The assignment is to talk with members of their family about their political memories. Individuals often receive their first political cues from their families and so the project serves the purpose of personalizing my students' understanding of the political socialization process.
It's also a nice way to urge my students, all of them seniors about to head off to college, to talk with the grown-ups in their life. In my class, I treat them as citizens; as full-fledged members of the polity. I want them to see themselves this way and I want them to engage the adults they love and respect as fellow citizens. I know from experience that these conversations can be enlightening. Students learn that their loved ones lived through real political events. In a school like mine, with an incredibly diverse population, those political events can represent a variety of experiences in a range of other countries. My students have talked with family members who fled oppression, who lost loved ones in wars, who came to the United States in search of opportunity. Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America all turn up in these projects. The project also encourages the students to understand their family's history. And since we read one another's projects, we are also learning from one another.
Even before my own family imploded, I was careful to take account of the many different ways families could be constructed. I never assign the students to talk with Mom and Dad. Instead, I asked them to talk with "the folks"; "aunts and uncles in name"; "your parents"; and sometimes I'd say "the people who give you lunch money and the car keys." I word it this way for lots and lots of reasons. When I first began to make the assignment I was careful of language because my own child had a non-traditional family; one composed of two moms. I knew that other children came from similarly different families. And whether a child has two moms (or none), lives with adoptive parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, single parents or step-parents, I want to recognize and value the many ways our families can be organized.
When I became a single parent, I was more aware then ever of the ways in which talk about family could be loaded for children from non-traditional homes. I experienced first-hand the pain it causes a child when he has to discuss his family and he's unsure just how to explain the fact that he only lives with his Mama now, because his Mommy left.
I've gotten so used to being inclusive in my language about families, that I am taken aback when others are not so careful. This year, my son's class is involved in a project about family history. JT has been at this school since he was three and he has never experienced an untoward comment about his non-traditional family. I am proud of that fact. But when he was assigned to fill-in a family tree, it caused problems. First, there was the place to list his father. He doesn't have one. So we carefully crossed-out father and wrote "Mommy" instead. That same assignment asked for a family picture, no small request for a child whose parents are no longer friends with one another. Should he use a picture from the time when his family was intact? Should he leave the space blank? Both notions are painful for a 9 year old. JT chose a sensible solution: he simply drew a very small picture of the three of us, with me on one side and my ex on the other and a tiny little boy bridging that gap. JT has classmates with parents who have died. It couldn't have been easy for any of those children (or the adults who care for them) to include a family picture. It seems to me that a more more inclusive family tree would be less gendered in its language and would include a space for family pictures, in plural, thus letting each child (and the adults who love them) determine who should be included.
Later this week, the students will reveal their projects and share them with one another and their families. It's a day designed to understand and celebrate their heritage and their families. I'll be there, of course. I can't speak for everyone, but I know that I will be careful to recognize that for some families, this day of celebration is also bittersweet.