Teaching Kindergarten Kids About 'Human Differences' and Homosexuality Isn't 'Easy' in Newton
It hasn't been easy teaching children about homosexuality in the Newton schools because many parents are not happy with the plan, a social worker told the attendees at one of the Fistgate sessions held this year at Tufts University.
"I work in the Newton public schools, and a lot of times it can be a very reactionary group, and it has not been easy at all," said Laura Perkins, who is a social worker in the schools.
Her session at Fistgate 2003 was about introducing six-year-olds to homosexual concepts. She shared books and sample lesson plans. The session was titled, "Developing Lessons that Help Young Students Understand Human Differences."
"What I do is to go into classrooms and teach kids about respect for human differences and to teach social skills lessons," she said, adding, "I have been asked to train new teachers in how to do some of these lessons. The new teachers are being trained to do this."
Several participants were from Brookline's public schools, including two first-grade co-teachers from the Devotion School and a 3rd-through-5th grade learning center teacher.
"It seems like the climate at the [Devotion] School is much more open than a lot of schools," commented Perkins, who then lamented the obstacles she faces in Newton.
She asked group members what teaching methods they currently use in their classrooms. One of the Devotion School teachers replied that she already does "a lot of stuff about similarities and differences . . . sort of getting [the children] to broaden their definition of what's smart or what's good or what's acceptable. And we talk a lot about teasing, and a lot about rules that people think there are, but that really aren't there. Like, people think there's a rule that boys can't like pink or wear pink or like to do certain things. That rule really doesn't exist, but people behave as if they do. So in this class, there isn't a rule, and we're not going to pretend that there's a rule."
Perkins said that children, who have language-based learning disabilities or who are mentally retarded, tend to think in such literal terms that they "really sometimes do have trouble grasping these ideas" that "a family can have two moms or two dads. So, sometimes it takes working with the parents as well to help them to talk to their children about it, so that they're hearing it in different places."
Get In Front of Parents Early On
Perkins recommended educators take a pro-active lead in setting ground rules with parents during the first open house of the school year:
"It's good just to state it right at open house. Talk about the kind of climate that you're trying to create in the classroom. Let parents know that you're going to be intervening if there's any teasing or name-calling, and that occasionally kids do use terms like 'retarded' or 'gay' as insults, and you will intervene and have a discussion about that if that happens."
Should parents want to know what a teacher is going to say in that situation, Perkins advised, "I would at that point tell them that I would define those words for the kids, and they're going to want to know how you define it.
"So the definition that I give to parents of an elementary school person, and this is what I use for the kids, is I say to kids that someone who is gay is someone, is a man who would be in a loving or romantic relationship with another man rather than a woman, and a lesbian is a woman who would be in a loving or a romantic relationship [with another woman], which she isn't necessarily in a relationship, but that is who she'd be in a relationship with."
Perkins conceded that she does not use the term "sexual orientation" with kids because, "It's too charged for the parents. I think if it's charged for the kids, it's really charged for the parents."
She actually does explain the difference between friendship and romance to children: "And parents will say to me, 'They're little kids, how do they know about romantic? What does that mean?' And I'll say, 'Well, I actually do explain that to kids.' You know, I say, 'Does that mean that if you're friends with a boy who's friends with a boy, does that mean he's gay?' And they'll say 'No.' And I'll say, 'That's right, it's different, that's a friendship. I'm not talking about friendship. I'm talking about moms and dads who've fallen in love, and then they want to live together and raise a family.'"
One method Perkins uses to explain the difference between friendship and romance to small children is fairy tales: "Again, with learning disabilities, you're dealing with sometimes kids who think very literally, so I'll say things like, 'In Cinderella, the story of Cinderella, the relationship between the Prince and Cinderella. . . that's a romantic relationship, or Sleeping Beauty and the prince.' And they get [that]. That seems to help them grasp that idea that it's not a friendship; it's a different concept."
When asked by one participant if she has ever had negative reactions from parents, Perkins agreed she has, and illustrated the ostracism some children face when their parents refuse to let them be indoctrinated: "I've had parents who've been kind about it and great about it, and I've had parents who've asked that their child be removed from any lesson in which we're going to deal with that.
"In fact, there's one parent who's asked that his child not have anything to do with me, so that child has had to be removed. I do social skills lessons in grades one and three, and that child had to be removed every time I came to do that in the classroom. We found something else for her to do, like go to the library and water the plants. I felt so bad. She was one of the kids who loved the lessons the most."
Perkins added, "There are always parents whose religion actually says that it [homosexuality] is a sin. I don't want to disrespect anyone's religion, and I'll tell parents that, but we do want every child to feel safe and comfortable in the school.
"If kids are getting teased and harassed, they're not going to be able to work. They're not going to be able to concentrate on their learning. So this is actually for the protection of people's learning so that they're able to learn best. So it really does go along with the goals of education, that every child has the right to be comfortable."
Perkins passed out several children's books for class participants to examine. She called Families are Different a "wonderful book" for kindergarten and first graders. However, "It does not show gay and lesbian families, so what I'll do is, I'll read the kids the book, then ask them if there are any kinds of families that are not represented. I actually have kids who have lesbian parents who do not say that their family wasn't represented, which is troubling to me. I question, are they getting the idea that I'm asking, or are they ashamed or are they uncomfortable? So then I'll sit and talk about families with two moms and two dads."
Good books for introducing the concept of "allies" include Oliver Button is a Sissy for first graders and Teammates, a story about African American baseball player Jackie Robinson, for third graders.
"When a child is being laughed at," said Perkins, "it's important to stop the class and say, 'Is there anybody who's going to be this child's ally? Something is going on; someone needs help. Who is going to show their support by being an ally?'
"I've had a whole class practically dissolve in laughter in front of me because I used the word 'gay'. And when that happens you have a choice: Should you stop or should you just go on and ignore the issues or stop and discuss it? And I stop and discuss it and ask them why they're laughing. And they'll really try to avoid the subject, but then usually someone will spill the beans, and then I'll go into the definition, and why it's hurtful to laugh about it."
Another resource Perkins recommends for first graders is Zinnia and Dot, a "conflict resolution" story about two mother hens who fight over a single egg after a weasel steals the others in their nests. When the chick hatches, the hens realize that it does not matter who originally laid the egg. The story reads, "Never before was a baby chick so loved, growing up with not one, but two mother hens." When Perkins finishes reading the story, she asks children, "Does this look like a happy family?" When the kids answer "Yes," Perkins explains, "This story is about a hen family, but in some human families there are two moms or two dads."
Perkins admitted that My Two Uncles, the story of a girl who does not understand the conflict her grandfather has with his gay son (the girl's uncle) and his male sex partner, may be too sophisticated for first and second graders because of its explicit definitions of "gay" and "lesbian," but "I have great discussions in third grade with kids about it." She noted that one of her former principals asked her not to use the book because of parents' negative reactions.
Chicken Sunday, for grades 3 through 5, talks about the Holocaust and shows a drawing of a man with a concentration camp tattoo on his arm. Perkins said she uses the story to talk to children about groups of people who were persecuted in Germany during World War II, "and that one of the groups was gays and lesbians, and I'll define it for them, and [talk] about how it seems like all that persecution was about fear of differences and about not understanding people who are different, and that is one of the reasons we are emphasizing understanding differences."
Perkins, who identified herself as "straight" during the session, concluded, "I think it's more the parents who should go to a psychiatrist to become comfortable with who their child is."
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