WAY OUT PARENTING: “You’re doing family trees in school? Isn’t that nice…” (Uh-oh, whose family tree?)

At some point during most children’s elementary years (usually it’s the third grade), they study the many peoples who poured into “this great country of ours” via ports like Ellis and Angel Island to escape poverty, famine, and that “p” word gay people know so much about—persecution.

Most teachers consider this unit of instruction an excellent opportunity for children to delve deep into their own family’s immigration experience. When did their ancestors enter the country? Where did they come from? And why did they make the great migration? So each child becomes a historian and investigates his or her roots. Children bring home blank family trees on which to record parents’, grand parents’, and great grandparents’ dates and places of birth. At school, they will transfer this precious information onto cut-out leaves (which reflect a considerable range of small motor skills) and glue them onto brown construction paper branches of trees which will be displayed on bulletin boards for the whole school community to see.

Once upon a time family roots projects like this posed few complications (except for adopted children). Virtually everyone who participated in these exercises came from a traditional family of European ancestry, and children proudly came to school with “can you top this” tidbits like:

• My great grandpa was the first white person born in his town and the Indians tried to scalp him.
• My grandmother had to escape the pogroms.
• My great grandma Domenica from Sicily met my great grandpa from Salerno on the boat to Ellis Island and eight months later they had a baby. Mom says there’s something wrong with the math. What’s wrong with the math, teacher?
• Our ancestors were indentured servants. I guess they all had bad teeth.
• My mom’s ancestors owned slaves. Oops! I’m not supposed to tell anyone that.

Some subversive gay parents delight in the idea of their child creating the first two mommy or two daddy family tree their elementary school has ever seen. But other gay parents agonize. Their imposter syndromes kick in, and they find themselves thinking:

• But I’m not the biological parent. Can I still be on a family tree?
• Is it time to really have a serious discussion about donors? She hasn’t been receptive to the idea, but maybe we should force it.
• Should we contact the international adoption agency and see if we can get some history? We should have thought of this sooner.
• If only we’d used an open donor. Then we could call him up and get the whole scoop.
• I guess we have to contact the birth mother and get some details, but they aren’t going to be pretty.

Stop right there!
Your child was not asked to map his or her genome back to the cradle of civilization. This is social studies. Your child was asked to document the dates and places of birth of their parents, grandparents, and beyond. You are the parents. Your parents are the grandparents. And that’s how your children sees it—whether or not you are having a sudden crisis of confidence.

Have your child place a call their grandparents—unless those grandparents are still completing the 12 Steps of Parental Atonement and Rehabilitation and therefore have not yet earned the right to tell the family folklore to your child. These phone calls may even enhance the bonding between your child and your parents, which may result in unanticipated side benefits that could include: college fund donations, tuition assistance, invitations to family vacations in Caribbean locations—or just the first Christmas gift your parents have ever bothered to give your child.

There’s really only one things gay parents need to be concerned about with the family tree project. Their dates of birth are going to hang on the walls of their child’s elementary school for weeks. Children won’t be talking about the two mom or two dad thing. They’ll be comparing birth dates and saying to each other things like “One of your dad’s is so much older than the other one,” or “Wow, your mom is almost as old as my grandma.” And other parents will have the opportunity to make those same observations on parents’ night. If you’ve been hiding the age secret, you’ll be outted in a whole new way—but so will the straight parents.

© 2009 by Carrie Smith. All rights reserved.

One thought on “WAY OUT PARENTING: “You’re doing family trees in school? Isn’t that nice…” (Uh-oh, whose family tree?)

  • February 1, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    Being an open-minded adoptee, I really think the whole “family tree” business needs to be redefined. What is your child’s Heritage? Not yours, not your partner’s. Your child’s. I’m not advocating omitting the “non-biological” or adoptive parents. Sometimes these are the only parents the child has ever known.

    But what is the point of this “family tree” exercise anyway? If it’s to easily gather a bunch of personal immigration stories (personal to the immigrant, anyway) then any and all family members can and should be included. But how should a 3rd Grader, born in China, abandoned for unknown reasons and adopted by a non-Chinese family in the US – tell her story?

    Is the child old enough and mature enough to “explain” how she became part of her current family? Questions will be asked. Is a child adopted from foster care ready to share his story? What about a donor-conceived child – too much information?

    I’m all in favor of getting secrets out of the closet – that way the child knows they are not the only one in the universe.

    I’m open to new ways of rethinking this assignment so it will be fair to all. Especially the children.

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