My kids attend an incredibly diverse public elementary school in Queens. As white, Jewish children, they are in the minority. Many of their peers are first generation Americans and the school notices are put out in no fewer than five languages. My children have only known this heterogeneous setting the school provides, so they're used to being in an inclusive and fair educational oasis. Still, and even in this environment, I notice microaggressions kids are experiencing at school they can’t exactly put into words. I see my children struggling with their feelings about certain practices that their school, and many schools, put into place for reasons of efficiency and safety. The intentions of the school are pure, but the effect of some of these protocols is making me question if there can’t be some better ways.
Incidents of bullying have been rare, thankfully, in my kid’s school. The worst event, so far, was when another kindergartner intentionally pressed a peanut butter sandwich onto my son’s arm, knowing he was deathly allergic to peanuts. The school dealt swiftly with this episode and my son was safe. This was an overtly aggressive act, though. It’s harder to pinpoint microaggressions and, over the last few years and since my now-fourth grade daughter started elementary school, I have witnessed how these tiny, yet powerful dings in my kids’ confidence affect their feelings about school.
As parents, my husband and I are our kids’ biggest advocates. Still, it’s hard to go to the mat for everything that’s bothering them. Not only is that impractical (I mean, they need to be able to weather and deal with life’s many disappointments to train for adulthood), but it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on. Young kids have trouble finding the words to explain why they may be upset or acting out. Plus, as working parents our time is so limited. I can spend my evening lobbing questions at my kids about their day, or I can play a board game, read a book, and snuggle before bed. I try to do all of the above and it is just not enough to get a good handle on how they’re dealing with the events of their day.
But with enough engagement, checking in with their teachers, and closely reading the notices coming home, I have become aware of some microaggressions kids may be experiencing at school, that they don’t quite know how to articulate:
Lining Up By Gender Identity
My kids’ classes have always been pretty evenly split between boys and girls. So I can see the practicality of having two straight lines, with about the same number of kids, when are organized by gender. But what about the kids who don’t identify with their biological sex? Why can’t we make a place for them in the hallways? One solution would be to just divide the class in half randomly, and avoid the whole gender grouping. Is there any reason not to do it that way?
Dress Codes That Perpetuate The Objectification Of Girls
Every May, my kids’ public school sends home the same form letter about “appropriate dress” for the warmer weather. On the “forbidden list” includes tank tops, spaghetti straps, midriff-bearing shirts, tube tops, and shorts that fall shorter than fingertip length when the kid’s arms are down.
In other words, all the summer clothes you might pick up for your 8-year-old daughter at Target.
My kids’ school doesn’t have a dress code, and we like that, since it allows my children some autonomy with how they present to the outside world (like in my son’s case, where backwards and inside-out shirts let him express his individuality). But sending home notices warning that if the kids — little kids — are showing too much skin, the parents will be called to pick them up is a sexist policy. Have you been in a New York City public school classroom or school bus in late spring or early April? It’s crazy hot. My kids only had air conditioned classrooms when they were in kindergarten and they get off the bus in June, drenched in sweat. So I will allow my kid to wear whatever he, or she, wants to stay as cool as possible. It’s not on my daughter to show less of her thigh in school when it’s over 80 degrees; it’s on the other students, and the faculty, to refrain from making judgment on her appearance. I would never let my child show up in clothes that had lewd or offensive designs, but trying not to melt in class by wearing summer clothes is not an invitation to objectify a young girl’s body.
Receiving Gendered Reading Material
While I'm seeing more female characters in typically male situations in children’s books, there is still a noticeable divide in what I see my kids reading. In the lower grades, I’m happy that my son is choosing books that feature girls playing sports and boys enjoying ballet class. However, I’m not happy that all of the books my fourth grade daughter’s class read together so far have had male protagonists. Not one book featured a predominantly female point of view. I understand that books are chosen on the basis of many more educational factors and I am definitely not an expert in that arena, but educators needs to consider, among reading level and vocabulary and plot, elements that will have a significant impact on our young readers.
My daughter is dismayed to find yet another male-centric story. Our kids’ curriculum needs to be more inclusive and better represent the diversity of the student body in our Queens school.
Being Assigned Projects By Gender
It saddens me to see that not much has progressed from my generation to my kids’ when it comes to how boys and girls learn about men and women. I don’t ever remember a boy in my elementary school doing a biography project on a female historical figure, yet I wrote about men all the time (women were, and are, still scarce in history books).
When my fourth grade daughter was working on her historical figure project — creating a brochure and a life-size poster of Betsy Ross — I asked if she had a choice in picking her person. They all drew names out of a hat, she said, which seemed fair, but then I learned that there was a male hat and a female hat. Sure enough, on presentation day when parents and caregivers circulated the room, we found all the girls presenting women and all the boys presenting men. I can’t help but think that if we had taken down the gendered gates of their choice, we could have opened their minds up that much more. While my daughter would have most likely still chosen a women to research and write about, there might have been a few boys who were interested in learning more about the women of the Revolutionary era. Because how original can you be if you are the 13 millionth person to do a report on George Washington?
Getting Shamed For Not Having A Religious Affiliation
My first grade son was so upset this year when he told me how his friend was going to “tell the teacher on him” because my son claimed not to believe in God. I tried to explain that his friend was just worried for my son, since the friend clearly thought that believing in God was keeping him safe, and he wanted my son to be safe. I don’t think my son totally grasped this explanation, but I felt horribly that he was not only judged, but vilified, for having a different belief. I wish parents were more mindful when teaching their kids about the role religion plays in the lives of other people.
Assuming The Kids Go Home After School & Not To After-Care
My husband and I have stitched together a complicated patchwork of childcare that morphs with the ever-evolving needs and schedules of our kids. We both work full-time, so my kids have rarely gone straight home after school. They have gone to after-school or their grandparents’ or a sitter’s house.
But in first grade, the teacher sent the gigantic math workbook home so the kids would have it there to do their nightly homework and not have to shelp it back and forth. Except, the kids who didn’t go home after school had to carry that massive textbook around. My little 6-year-old’s backpack was practically heavier than she was. I had to ask the teacher to photocopy the homework sheet to send home with my daughter each day. I imagine kids of separated parents have the same issues, with them not being at the same house every day. Schools need to consider that it truly takes a village to raise kids, and that the village is often spread out.
Charging Money For Class Trips
We are fortunate in that way we can pay a couple of bucks for the occasional class trip that has a fee. A lot of trips my kids go on are free, but many cost between two and six dollars. Recently, a trip my first grade son was going on cost nine dollars per child and he told me there was at least one kid who wasn’t going because of the cost. This upset me. No child should be left behind because they can’t afford a ticket to a community theater production of “Frog and Toad are Friends.”
While my kids’ school does an amazing job fundraising, covering the cost of music enrichment, ballroom dancing for the fifth grade, and flowers for the graduation ceremony, it’s not enough to cover all the incremental costs of enrichment activities. Public school is free, but clearly these hidden costs have kids paying an unfair price.
Equating Sitting With Success
Last year, my son’s kindergarten teacher called me because she thought he should be evaluated. It seemed as if, in addition to having terrible handwriting (which I guess wasn’t totally related to the fact that he was five years old), he was constantly falling out of his chair. As a fan of slapstick, I thought this was hilarious, and when asked about it, my son just shrugged it off and said, “Yeah. I fall sometimes. I’m OK.” His teacher thought he fidgeted way too much. They brought him a wiggle cushion to sit on. He hated it. Not only did it fail to keep him in his seat, but he felt like an outcast because he was the only one with this device. He was excelling in math, progressing fine with his sight words, but he wasn’t sitting. That was a problem.
My mom was a teacher and I totally get why a room full of students can’t be in constant motion. It’s easier for the one teacher to address 25 kids if they are all in chairs, with their hands where they can be seen. But my kid, like a lot of other kids, is a mover. He is in constant motion. When he narrates the events of his day for me, he literally paces the room. His brain seems to run on kinetic energy.
I know he’s not alone. When I asked other parents if they had experience with wiggle cushions for their kids, a lot of moms responded. While some schools are experimenting with standing desks or other contraptions that accommodate children’s proclivity towards movement when they are learning, our traditional school is not embracing that. Yet. So my wiggly son has to learn to be still, even if he might process information better when he’s allowed to move.