A few years ago, my kids’ elementary school was hosting Donuts with Dad for a Father’s Day event. The idea was sweet and simple: invite Dad to morning snack and celebrate him with a donut and handmade card. The well-intentioned event quickly became exclusionary and shined an unnecessary spotlight on my oldest daughter who was in kindergarten at the time. She and her younger siblings don’t have a father.
My children are used to making Father’s Day gifts for their grandfather or a male friend of the family when the class makes projects to send home for Dad, but an event that singles them out as being “other” or “different” for not having a dad loses its sweetness. My daughter’s best friend noticed too. He was worried that my daughter would be lonely. I did my best to assure him that she would be okay and pointed out a few of their other friends who wouldn’t have fathers present either.
My daughter, her siblings, or any other student should never have to do the emotional labor of explaining why a father isn’t present. And no classmate should feel the stress of worry for their friend who appears to be lacking someone or something. I think it is wonderful to build a relationship between home and school, but there are better and more inclusive ways to celebrate and get to know the caregivers in students’ lives.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education showed examples of this in a photo they posted on their Facebook page. The poster provided alternatives to the assumed nature of families made up of one mom and one dad when it comes to school events.
They added this text: “Do you invite caregivers to school for special events? Sponsoring events can help build strong and supportive school communities, but they can also unintentionally exclude students whose families may not be considered traditional. A word substitution or two in your event’s name can help ensure it’s inclusive of all caregivers – here are a few options to consider.”
Some of the new language choices for schools were: Breakfast with Buddies, Pancakes with Pals, Muffins in the Morning, and Donuts with Grownups. People in the comments mentioned Bagels with Buddies and Muffins with Mentors as great choices too. These updated versions don’t mention parents, moms, dads, or even grandparents. This is not a bad thing. By redefining a student’s loved one, the school offers space for a child to confidently share their home life in the classroom. The school creates community, inclusion, and sends the message that all family dynamics are recognized.
My children have two caregivers: one who is their biological mother and me, their nonbiological, nonbinary parent. I transitioned after my kids were born and they still call me Mama from the time when I identified as a female. They are not wrong to do that and it doesn’t bother me when my kids tell folks they have two moms. For the most part, I am fine with that label when it comes from my kids, but being at an event specifically for mothers feels too gendered. I am not a father either and would never feel comfortable at an event for dads. A binary, “traditionally” labeled event leaves me out. Even if it is made clear my children can invite me to any and all events, there is still a sense that I and they are outliers. Why do that when more inclusive language can be used to indicate everyone is welcome from the start? Why not let the title set the tone? Why must there be an underlying message of exception, as if permission to attend has to be given to someone different than the intended audience.
Lest you think I am only in favor of changing heteronormative events that perpetuate harm against kids with LGBTQIA+ families, I am in favor of changing the nature of these events for the benefit of all kids. Kids are being raised by parents of same-gender parents, trans and nonbinary parents, single parents, grandparents, foster parents, and divorced parents with potential step-parents and contention. Kids may have a parent unable to attend for physical or mental health reasons. Some kids may have a terminally ill parent or a parent who has died. There is too much risk in inducing trauma, anxiety, or shame by hosting school events meant specifically for a child and their mom and/or dad.
These events, even when it’s not the intention, also feed into damaging biases about gender roles and stereotypes. Daddy Daughter Dances are a great example of this. They send the message that “dates” are between a boy and a girl only and that a girl’s first love and protector should be her father. Gross. And again, for the kids who don’t have a dad or for the students who are either closeted trans or nonbinary kids, it only creates a feeling of exclusion. What about the students who identify as boys? Why can’t they go to the dance with their dads? Calling them family dances would eliminate this. Or calling it Party with a Pal or a House Party allows a student to bring anyone without getting stares or questions.
Changing language and being more thoughtful in our choice of words does not take away from maternal or paternal roles. Moving away from Donuts with Dads or Muffins with Moms does not mean valuing dads or moms less; it means valuing all families and the people loving and supporting the kids they are raising no matter their labels.
Doing this also sends a critical message to all students. If we want to create inclusive learning spaces we need to create a space that affirms students and creates allies. The goal is to build students who are accepting of diversity, who celebrate it, expect it, and call for it when it is not visible.
My kids have a strong sense of pride in their queer family. They openly share our story, my pronouns, and the details of their sperm donor and their donor siblings who live in another state. But even they feel on the spot at times when asked about their dad. Sometimes they stumble when asked if I am a boy or a girl. I know they are not alone, and I know there are other students in schools who don’t feel safe or confident to be an outlier.
If you are going to host a school or classroom event, make it a policy to be outwardly and seamlessly inclusive. Or don’t have it at all.