We Need To Stop Asking Kids To Do Family Tree School Projects

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
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I was waiting for my son’s bus to arrive after school, occupying myself by scrolling through social media. I saw my friend had just posted, “Why are teachers assigning family tree projects to kids?” My heart dropped.

My friend has seven children, five of whom were adopted. Her high-school aged daughter, adopted as a preschooler from foster care, was assigned by her biology teacher to create an intricate family tree.

Projects like these have dated back to at least the ’80s and ’90s when I was in school. Remember mapping out eye color in biology class in order to illustrate how dominant and recessive genes work? What about asking family members to demonstrate if they could or couldn’t roll their tongues?

I remember enjoying these projects as a high schooler, mostly because they gave my brain a break from the complicated math and science vocabulary I could never master. It was fun to discover how genes worked as I figured out why my siblings and I all had a peculiar shade of hazel eyes.

But there were times such projects were also painful reminders of whom I didn’t have in my life. My father’s parents were dead. I lost my grandpa in the fifth grade, and my grandma passed away from cancer long before I was born. My mother’s parental figures were not her biological relatives. Though I was fortunate to have been unofficially adopted by the people I call “Grandpa” and “Ma,” they were unable to render the necessary information I needed to complete certain projects.

And now, as a mom of four children, all of whom were adopted at birth, I cringed when my first child brought home her first family assignment: a timeline of her life that had to include seven significant events.

I wasn’t alone in my dread, and I’m still not.

Another friend posted last week that her grade school age son was assigned to research his family ancestry, illustrate the flag of the home country, and explain it to the class. Other kiddos are asked to bring in baby pictures of themselves, often for upcoming graduation celebration slideshows.

Not only do families-by-adoption see the numerous problems with such assignments, but so do foster families, families where children do not know who their biological fathers are, and children with many parents, some biological and some not. There are also the children of single parents or children being raised by another relative, such as a grandparent, older sibling, or aunt. There are kids with two moms or two dads and kids with several step-parents.

Such projects are dependent upon the child having access to information about their biological family members. Or in the case of a timeline assignment, teachers assume that the child has seven things in his or her life that are positive and significant enough to share with peers.

Many children who are in foster care, for example, have a childhood wrought with trauma, often including abuse and neglect. They do not have seven happy events to share with peers. Some of the children my friends are parenting arrived at their foster parents’ home with nothing but a trash bag with a few items in it. This may have been their third, or thirteenth, or thirtieth move in their short lifetime.

What it comes down to is this: assignments that assume all children have access to biological family information or assume all children have had an idyllic childhood are ostracizing.

My family isn’t the exception anymore. We are the norm. We are part of the many families across the country who aren’t one mom, one dad, and two or three children, all of whom are biologically related. We are a beautiful puzzle, put together by decisions to be different, but nevertheless, a very real family.

I understand that teachers have good intentions and are not trying to be exclusionary here, but it’s time to put aside the biological family assignments. Instead, let’s create new assignments that urge children to be proud of who they are and share what they can, rather than be forced to disclose what’s missing.

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