U.S. Schools Adapt to Changing Families

ByABC News

May 11, 2001 -- When President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday of May Mother's Day more than 80 years ago, he probably had no idea how beloved the national holiday would become.

He probably also never imagined that honoring mothers could become controversial.

Yet, a lot has changed since 1914, and that includes the structure of the American family. So when a Manhattan school "banned" Mother's — and Father's — Day earlier this week, it kicked up a furor, with an article published in the New York Post.

Parents of children at the Rodeph Sholom Day School, the daily reported, were in an uproar over the new policy, which was aimed at protecting the feelings of children raised by same-sex couples.

The "ban" was a case of political correctness running amok, the paper suggested, and opponents of the move, such as Stanley Kurtz, a columnist at the National Review, called it an attack on the very institution of motherhood.

Even some children of gay and lesbian parents thought it was a tad excessive.

"Give me a break," said Meema Spadola, director of the public television documentary, Our House: A Very Real Document About Kids of Gay and Lesbian Parents, and daughter of a lesbian mother. "I think their heart is in the right place, but instead of getting rid of Mother's Day, it would have been a terrific opportunity to use it instead to describe different family structures."

We, a Family

Certainly the American family is not what it used to be. Approximately 30 years ago, a traditional U.S. household invariably meant a dad, mom and the children.

Today, over half of all American children do not live in so-called traditional two-parent nuclear families.

According to Congressional Research Service reports, nearly 500,000 American children live in foster care at any one time and approximately a million children in the United States live with adoptive parents.

Estimates of children of gay, lesbian and bisexual parents in the United States vary from 6 to 10 million according to COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere).

Some experts believe that for these children, doing away with Mother's and Father's Day celebrations at school may be a step in the right direction.

"I'm surprised that there's such a backlash because it's not about political correctness, it's about sensitivity," said Laura Benkov, child psychologist and author of Reinventing the Family (Crown, 1994).

Benkov believes that besides children of same sex parents, the move also benefits children who have lost a parent.

And getting kids who have lost a parent to make cards for other significant adults — like grandparents — is not always a good solution, Benkov believes. "It's not the best thing for a child to have to deal with his/her grief in a school setting," she said.

But Jerald Newberry, executive director of the National Education Association Health Information Network, disagreed. "Assignments that allow children to express their thoughts and emotions can be healing," he said. "I don't think educators traumatize children by giving them an opportunity to write letters to people who care about them."

Assignments, Assignments

The structure of American family today is so diverse that often the bureaucracy fails to keep up with niggling details.

A product of one of the first artificial inseminations in the early 1980s, Ry Russo-Young, 19, grew up in New York City with two lesbian mothers and no dad. As a child, Russo-Young remembers routinely scratching out 'Father's Name' on forms and putting in 'Mother's Name' twice — because she has two mothers.

While most U.S. schools have made bureaucratic progress by replacing 'Mother/Father' with 'Parent/Guardian' in school forms, educators often lag behind in adapting school assignments to changing family structures.

"The number of schools who insist on family tree assignments is just appalling," said Deborah Chasnoff, director of That's a Family!, a documentary about the wide ranges of U.S. family types designed for school-age children. "I'm aware of many Mother's and Father's Day assignments that are hugely problematic for children. But I've also seen schools get more creative about assignments."

Felicia Park-Rogers, executive director of COLAGE, suggests a number of ways teachers can be sensitive about routine assignments. "Teachers can make family trees more inclusive and flexible," she explained. "They can also try to work with kids during 'show and tell' and 'how I spent the summer' assignments so that hurtful situations can be avoided."

'My Father Is Going to Hell'

Often classroom discussions need to be closely monitored. Danna Cook, 16, a sophomore at Dear Valley High School in Arizona whose divorced dad is gay, recalled a particularly traumatic world history class discussion on admitting gays into the Boy Scouts.

"I don't appreciate hearing that my father is going to hell," she said. "It was very hard for me not to stand up and scream. After the class, when some of us stayed back to discuss the issue, I was just crying because some things really hurt."

She was lucky, Cook said, because her history teacher who had been trying to steer the debate towards the legal issues was very concerned with how she was doing.

Her older sister Ember however didn't have it so easy when she was in high school. "She once had a teacher who blatantly spoke out against homosexuality. Once, a kid in class said, 'All homosexuals and their relatives should be shot.' And my sister looked at the teacher for help but the teacher did nothing."

Her parents pulled Ember from the class after talking with the principal, she said, and "that was that." Today, Cook has a survival strategy of not taking abuse from anyone.

A Challenge for Teachers

The problem for educators, said Newberry, is the baggage of value systems and prejudices children bring from home.

The growing numbers of single parents — mostly mothers — many of whom work two jobs, also means parents and guardians have less time to spend with their kids, Newberry says, and impart early but crucial social and communication skills.

Given that it's tougher world in American homes, which makes it a tougher world in American schools, Newberry believes any move towards sensitizing the school environment is a positive one.

"If you see the basis of school violence, it is tied to name calling and bullying, which comes out of ignorance," he said. "I think that this school is trying very hard to be sensitive to the changing population in schools."

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