The Power of Words, Making Ideas Evident

I shared a story with some teachers last week to illustrate why human growth and development research and theory is so important (it’s like math, you will use it everyday). Here is the story…a group of young children gathered for lunch. I had one ear trained on the conversation, because I could tell that this social group was “in process.” They had met for the first time the day before and were trying to make sense out of the schedule, each other, and this new activity—eating lunch together! It did not take long before Something came up.

One girl cozying up to the little girl next to her, yet looking directly across the table at another, said, “Mosquitoes don’t like brown skin.”

Who said teachers have time off during summer?

I asked the group of teachers what they would have said.  We weeded through reactions first, “Why would she say such a thing?” “Did her parents teach her that?” That faded quickly once they established the ages of the children involved. The children were 4 and 5 and had just come inside from play and it is mosquito season. The little girl who made that incorrect assumption about mosquitoes was trying to find her place in what she perceived as a pecking order. The girl she most definitely directed it to did indeed have brown skin (with mosquito bites, no less). In addition, to her lovely skin, she had a confident and completely self-assured manner. Though she was new to the group, she had instantly become a presence, a leader.

It’s not like our 4-year old could say, “I feel really inadequate in your presence and no longer know who I am or what I have to offer.” All she could think about was the immediate, the physical—they all had mosquito bites, and the differences—and she could only grapple with the 4-year old perception of the obvious.

The teachers then got right to the business at hand…they went to what they know, their training, their experience, research. They applied this to conversation starters and conflict resolution tips. There was a wealth of ideas and the teachers were comfortable in offering solutions, lesson plans, and resources.

They all knew that the comment presented an opportunity for learning for ALL the children. Sure, young children make statements like this and they may have indeed heard/seen such ideas modeled by parents or others. The teachers knew it’s what happens after kids make these comments that may make the difference.

Adults may establish or create negative patterns, but this from The Miller Early Childhood Initiative of a World of Difference Institute, shows we can also stop it. “Based on social learning theory, it follows that adults surrounding young children can help prevent the development of prejudice.” We model it out. We talk it out.

No worries, by the way and back to the story, we did not let the comment pass. Although this little one will need lots of help, we hope that she has learned that there is a better way to say, “I want to understand what makes you, you and me, me” rather than making assumptions and in the end, alienating herself from others.

We also hope she has taken another step on her journey to understand the power of words. Words can be used to gain understanding and to keep doors to human relationships and ideas open. And words can also hurt. They hurt the speaker and the spoken to.

It seems that words about skin were easily addressed. Lots of lessons and books and resources are available. Things get complicated when the words are about gender and family. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of resources and research about family and gender. It seems the comfort and ease in resolving these may be harder for some teachers.

A few years ago, I asked a different group of teachers what they would say to a little boy who arrived at school dressed in a tutu. A few teachers responded with how they would of course welcome him in and would celebrate his choice, i.e. model the language that would prevent prejudice. I could see that others were struggling with finding responses. What would they say? One asked me if I would “let a boy come into the classroom dressed in a tutu?”

Oh, yes. Yes, I would. Just as I would also “let” a little girl dress in a “business” suit. Framed that way, there were not any arguments. Teachers were comfortable with the idea of a girl wearing stereotypical “boy clothes” but not the other way around.

Another question from this group of teachers was, “Why do kids at your school say things like that and dress that way? They don’t at my school” My answer: these very real feelings and questions are made EVIDENT. I open the exploration up on a daily basis. Vivian Gussin Paley teaches us that we start the conversations, we shape the words that ask the questions, we show acceptance and welcome our differences. If questions remain unasked and ideas unspoken, misconceptions multiply and bias is allowed to fester.

Here is another real-life story from my classroom about family and gender. A little girl knew that one of her classmates had two mothers, but she “understood” it by designating one as a “dad” and the other as a “mom.” These seemingly harmless descriptors were hurtful—the mom she was referring to did not want to lose her gender, she was proud of her momhood and her womanhood. Thankfully, both voiced these thoughts out loud so that we could resolve it—we needed to revisit the topic: FAMILY and also: GENDER. And we did revisit, revisit, revisit.

This is an excerpt from an email informing the class parents about our discussion.

What a great week! This week in emerging curriculum ˜family and gender”

The coolest thing about this discussion at our school is that so many of the children are SUPER informed about gender and family, these are topics A/B in many of our family households and it makes the discussions SOOO much livelier, no research required, parents have already done the legwork. These fab kids are the ringers in any conversation about family and gender, always bringing something great to the table. So here we go…

On Wednesday we NEEDED to talk about gender. This was another opportunity for formally introducing the subject to the whole class and it was a pretty high level discussion, ˜hair, clothes, basic info (hair does not reveal gender, clothes do not reveal gender, etc.). S. and C. were right there with "I have short hair" and "My mama has short hair". We also talked about how in a two mommy family, both parents are women and in a two daddy family, both parents are men and in a mommy/daddy family one parent is a man and one is a woman. The book we are reading has a mare in it, so another connection in the gender discussion, mare/stallion, rooster/hen, etc.

On Thursday I wanted to have another formal group discussion, but the kids weren’t having it, not intentionally, we just couldn’t make the topic gel. K. walked into circle with his swim goggles on as part of his phone booth transformation into Batman and, really, how do you top that for an entrance? We had to talk about super heroes. It was that important.

So on Friday, we started again and this one was a keeper. Here are the highlights. I started by telling the kids that we have no daddy/daddy families at the school right now. I was inspired to tell the following story because of a conversation I had with C. about daddy/daddy families--the kid certainly knows his biology. I told them that S. (my 9th grader) and I were talking about the lack o'daddy/daddy situation at our school.

My son told me not to worry, that his friend’s older brother is gay and when he marries his boyfriend and they have kids, they would bring their kids to our school. After all, S. told me, all the players in his story went to the Cooperative School, so of course they would come back (as an aside, I don’t want to wait that long, that kid is only a senior, it could be YEARS before he gets married and has kids). I ended by reviewing the discussion from Wednesday.

After I finished, A.G. said, “oi, you will need a book about that” Spoken like a true school librarian’s daughter.

I posed the question, "what makes a family?" The kids know, know, KNOW this one, yet it never hurts to revisit it. The only thing I had to add was that you could also have a family without kids. We took a show of hands for how many sitting in circle had two mothers, a mother/father, and maybe no parents. We moved to sibling combinations and no sibling combinations. Becky, our music teacher, came in and told us that the kids would be studying families of instruments! Hooray for Becky!

Then we switched gears to gender and we certainly moved past hair!

This is a topic we will revisit often and I encourage you to do this at home. By revisiting it, we keep the conversation open and lively. That will give us the ability to address misconceptions along the way.

In early childhood we open our classroom for conversation and idea-sharing and welcome and acknowledge the power of words. This is the one way to move towards positive change.