Care and Feeding

Bah Humbug

My daughter’s teacher tells the class that if they don’t behave, Santa won’t bring presents.

Santa Clause holds a large sack over his shoulder as he runs through a classroom.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:

Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York

We aren’t big on the Santa tradition at our house. We tell our 4-year-old daughter when she asks that Santa was once a real person, and many families play a fun game pretending he brings the presents at their house. We make a point to not ruin what other families do. My problem, though, is with preschool. Her teacher regularly tells the class that Santa is watching through the cameras or fire alarms, and that if they aren’t good at school, Santa won’t bring them presents. I don’t mind them reading stories or talking about Santa in general (as I know this is part of the holiday fun for a lot of families), but I object to this emphasis on that particular behavior modification strategy as it’s confusing for my kid. Should I say something to her teachers? Her teacher acting this way also makes it more likely my daughter will tell the other kids what we’ve told her.

—Slightly Grinchy

Dear Slightly,

Small disclaimer before I give my answer: I am a bit of a grinch. I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, in a Jewish family. I got in trouble at age 8 for telling my 5-year-old brother that Santa wasn’t real but that he needed to keep pretending Santa was real for the Christian kids. In my current classroom, I’m the reason we don’t have Christmas music blaring on Nov. 1. So for personal reasons, I would never make the same decision that your daughter’s teacher is making.

That being said, I also would not make the same decision that your daughter’s teacher is making for philosophical and practical reasons. It is very unlikely that you are the only family in the class that “isn’t big on the Santa tradition.” We live in an increasingly religiously diverse country, where you are more and more likely to find multiple religions being publicly, proudly celebrated in the average classroom. Furthermore, parents are turning away from traditional Protestant American values in general. According to Pew Research, more millennials than ever say they are “unaffiliated” than “Christian.” Additionally, some students, like one I taught last year, grow up with parents who don’t want their children to be told “lies” about Santa and may opt out of Santa-related activities.

Santa aside, I also don’t like to engage in what behaviorists call “negative punishment”: “Don’t do X or you won’t get Y.” Research tends to show that positive reinforcement (“if you do X, then you will earn Y”) is more effective at creating lasting changes in behavior.

So, yes, I think you should speak up. You can frame it as personal. “We’ve already told our daughter that Santa isn’t real, and we don’t want her to be in a position to say that to other children when their families are not ready for that yet. Can we find a different way of framing behavior for the class?” You can even suggest a positive behavior program, such as a classwide good-deed jar where every time the teacher sees a target behavior, the children get to put a pompom in the jar. But no need to if you don’t feel strongly about that—all you need to do is assert your right to parent your daughter in the way you see fit, and that includes your right not to have someone else’s religious traditions thrust upon her.

—Ms. Sarnell

Enjoy Slate’s Holiday Advice From the Experts series from our beloved advice columnists. Keep your sanity intact this holiday season with Jamilah Lemieux’s self-care tips. Nicole Cliffe presents classic gifts for children of all ages. Teacher Carrie Bauer recommends educational gifts your kids will actually enjoy.

I have a 7-year old, “Gem,” who is in first grade this year. When they were 3 years old, they came out to us as transgender. We quickly supported them by using their preferred name and pronouns, and we met with their preschool to make sure everyone was on the same page. We have made a few errors, but knowing how important it is to be gender affirming, we are very motivated to get it right.

My problem has been, and continues to be, their teachers. The first preschool teacher was great—she made the switch effortlessly. Then they aged into a new class. We assumed the new teacher was also on board, since she was at the same meeting with us, but we found out toward the end of the year that was not the case. She refused to call Gem by their name, use correct pronouns, or let them use the restroom they wished to use. Gem was, at 5, feeling suicidal and depressed because of this. We were a week away from a big move and kindergarten at that point, so we pulled them out early, found a trans children specialist therapist (no easy task), and moved on.

After that, and a particularly nasty incident in which another parent attacked my spouse about my child’s gender in front of the kids, Gem backed off from identifying as trans and has since talked about themselves as being nonbinary (“both and more”). We fully support them. Gender is a journey, and while we very much wish and hope it wasn’t related to the bullying, we are supporting them where they are at.

Unfortunately, their new school is also hit and miss. Their kindergarten teacher was wonderful! Their current first grade teacher is not. At parent-teacher meetings, she kept using the wrong pronouns and when we corrected her, she got defensive and said she is “old” and it is “too hard.” We mentioned that Gem and their older brother have started to wear big pronoun buttons to school to help folks with their pronouns and support each other. The principal liked them so much that he ordered a bunch and now about half the staff wear pronoun buttons daily. Gem is SO proud of these buttons, but even though they have been wearing the button daily for over a month, their teacher hadn’t even noticed! Their class size is only 12 students.

I feel like my child’s teacher should be doing better, but I’m also worried about being too critical when I know that, for the most part, the school is really making an effort to be inclusive. It is also a lot better than what happened at preschool, so maybe I can allow people to progress more slowly? How do I impress upon their teachers that this is really important to Gem’s well-being without making anyone defensive? I want to keep them as allies, but I also need them to know that this isn’t a “nice to have,” it is a “need to have.” I can’t keep listening to my sweet now-7-year-old tell me they hate themselves because they are different and not be filled with unproductive rage. Help!

—Never Too Old to Use Correct Pronouns

Dear Never Too Old,

You are doing an amazing job already. I know that this sort of sensitivity to a child’s identity should be the norm, but right now, it’s not, so the fact that you are fighting for your child’s right to self-identify is so empowering, both for Gem and for kids in their school who may be struggling with their own identities. Thank you for doing this.

To some degree, you cannot change the minds of adults who are not willing to learn. There are always going to be adults that are too set in their ways and unwilling to flex. But whether or not they want to make this change, they are going to have to. Children are increasingly empowered to self-identify in ways previous generations were not. All those stats about youths being “more likely to be gay” or “more likely to be nonbinary” can be reframed as “children are more comfortable identifying outside of the cis-het (cisgender, heterosexual) paradigm.” And, speaking of statistics, they’re on your side here. Research has shown that children are able to accurately self-identify their genders at age 3 and that children whose gender identities are respected are less likely to experience bullying, low self-esteem (which itself negatively impacts mental health, grades, etc.), mental illness, and suicidal ideation. So, as you yourself said, having teachers that respect their identity is non-negotiable.

What you need, then, is an ally within the school system. Someone who can be a “voice on the inside” to advocate in closed-door meetings. I work in a school where the majority of teachers are millennials like I am and consider themselves at least somewhat progressive. When it was announced that we were not allowed to gender children in future evaluations or reports, all the speech pathologists got up in arms with the usual crap about it not being grammatically correct. As the only out LGBTQ teacher at the meeting, I started to speak up, but my program director interrupted. She said simply, “We live in a world now where this is part of our reality. Research shows that 3-year-olds with gender identities aren’t going through a phase. You’ll get used to it.” We then moved on to the specific parts of how this policy would affect certain kinds of assessments and other boring administrative details. I don’t think it’s that these colleagues of mine are transphobic or don’t respect the identities of individual people—but changing how we think about these issues can be hard. It meant so much to have our program director be a voice advocating for nonbinary students within our program. It means that even when the parents aren’t around, someone is speaking for those children.

Is there someone in the school who knows you well and whom you trust? Someone who you really feel “gets it” when it comes to Gem’s identity? It sounds like either the kindergarten teacher or the principal could be a good choice. Ask for a meeting, and tell whomever it is exactly what you’re telling me: that you feel like the teacher doesn’t get it and you’re worried about Gem’s mental health/self-esteem. See if they can help you structure a conversation with the teacher about Gem’s identity. It’s quite likely that the teacher doesn’t know enough to understand why what she’s doing is wrong.

There are other things you can do, in addition to talking to the school. It’s unclear to me whether you are still seeing that therapist, but I’d recommend continuing therapy for some support. Places like California and New York have some amazing advocacy groups for parents, where you can meet other parents who have dealt with similar issues and may be able to help you find additional resources. Perhaps there’s a similar group near you. If not, look online. Your nearest LGBTQ center may be able to point you in the direction of additional resources. Many of these resources will be geared toward supporting Gem, but they may also be helpful in finding ways to better advocate at school.

Unfortunately, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that Gem may have a teacher at some point who refuses to adapt and learn. In such a case, your local LGBTQ center can put you in touch with lawyers. Lawsuits about misgendering students are becoming more common and are yielding important positive results for noncis students (like the policy change I mentioned at my school). Obviously, no one’s first choice is “sue the school,” but if that’s the predicament you’re faced with, an LGBTQ center could point you to lawyers with the necessary experience, or put you in touch with the right people at the ACLU.

Finally, if you’re comfortable doing so, volunteer to talk to the school or Gem’s teachers about gender, or look for a nonbinary speaker and see if you can get them to come to the school and do a training for parents and teachers. Programs like Gender Inclusive Schools or Gender Spectrum offer trainings for schools to educate teachers and school administrators on why they need to support their nonbinary students, and how they can. You are always going to be Gem’s best advocate, but you aren’t the first person who has had to do this, and the more people with experience that you can get to help you and Gem through this journey, the stronger your support for Gem will be.

—Ms. Sarnell

My partner and I are parents of a kindergartner in public school—our first experience at school, and it’s been great overall! Our family is white, in a rural primarily white area, which is relevant to my question.

Before Thanksgiving, we got a flyer with our child’s name on it and two check boxes indicating which costume a child wanted to dress up as for a class feast day the Wednesday before Thanksgiving: a pilgrim or an “American Indian.” There were suggestions on what to use to dress up as a pilgrim (boy/girl specific suggestions on black clothing with white collars), and there were no suggestions of what to use to dress up as a Native. My 5-year-old was very excited to dress up for this event and had indicated she wanted to dress up as a Native American. She rattled off some ideas that she didn’t get at home about what a Native American looks like (stereotypical feathers, war paint, etc.). My partner and I were surprised and concerned about both costumes, so we immediately reminded our daughter about conversations we had leading up to and during Halloween: You can’t dress up as a culture that you don’t have. She was crushed. Crushed! We let our daughter know we were going to ask her teacher about what we could do.

While I’m more upset about the Native costume idea (Natives are still here! In the community!), I find the whole costume idea problematic. Pilgrims represent a Christian culture we don’t hold as a family, and while thankfulness and celebrating bounty in a community are great lessons, I am really struggling to understand why costumes are vital to this lesson. The school did not allow kids to dress up for Halloween. We understand the intent of the day is to learn about the Thanksgiving holiday, but the impact of this is very harmful to Natives—it romanticizes them and turns them into fantasy characters based on harmful stereotypes. It would be just as deeply inappropriate to us to ask kids to dress up as any other race, ethnicity, or religion. I know how much pain similar costume situations have caused my Native colleagues, and thinking of how a Native child might feel if this was their classroom enrages me.

As it turns out the feast was rescheduled due to an unanticipated school closure before the holiday. Over the past two weeks, I’ve contacted my daughter’s teacher several times to try to talk on the phone or in person about my concerns about the costume, and I’ve received no response. I would prefer not to involve the principal until I talk with the teacher, but if the teacher doesn’t respond, I’m not sure what else to do. I feel guilty that my daughter will feel punished for not participating in class the way her classmates are. But is it possible to prevent my daughter from being devastated about this without compromising our values? Do I need to go to the principal? I value this teacher and her expertise. How can we discuss this and share our concerns without shaming the teacher or making her defensive?

—Outraged in Rural America

Dear Outraged,

Oy.

Celebrations like these are vestigial appendages of a bygone era, and while teachers should really know better, traditions are hard to break and change is hard to accept, particularly in areas that are less diverse.

I suspect that you have little chance of bringing an end to this tradition in the limited time you have without creating animosity between teachers, parents, and yourself, so unless this is a hill you’re willing to die on, tread lightly. But I think you should voice your concerns with the teacher and request a differentiated learning experience for your child. Your daughter’s teacher has not responded to your phone calls, which is a problem in itself, so I would suggest sending an email outlining your concerns in detail and requesting an immediate response. If that doesn’t happen within 24 hours, you should contact your principal.

This differentiated learning experience might come in the form of an alternate setting with an activity that is more culturally and religiously sensitive and fact-based. Perhaps this could be opened up to other families who feel similarly. Or perhaps your child could serve as the reporter for the day, interviewing, photographing, videoing, and writing about the celebration through her eyes.

In my school, we have a costume parade on Halloween—one of those vestigial appendages of a bygone time that parents ask that we retain in some form. We’ve removed “Halloween” from the title (out of respect for our families who do not celebrate this holiday), shortened the duration of the parade, and provide a fun, alternate activity for families who do not choose to send their child to school in costume (and for students who don’t want to do it themselves). The whole thing lasts about 20 minutes, and everyone is happy with the optionality provided.

In the long term, this celebration needs to be altered or put to rest. I suggest that once you’ve navigated these tricky waters, it is time to initiate change for the future. You might also want to look ahead at any other celebrations in the coming year that might not be as culturally and religiously inclusive and fact-based as they should be. This could be an issue raised with the principal, an appropriate school committee, or the PTO.

If all else fails, and it’s within your capacity, keep your child home for the day. Take her to a museum. Watch an age-appropriate documentary. Volunteer somewhere. Create a day of learning that is more appropriate than what her school is offering.

—Mr. Dicks

My 11-year-old daughter is very bright, works hard, and is generally adored by her teachers.
Recently, one of her teachers pulled aside a small group of students, her being one of them. He told them that he and his co-teacher were like the “bosses” of a workplace, and this group of students were the “star employees.” The teachers were assigning each of these “star employee” seventh graders a small group of “lower level” employees—aka, other seventh graders who were deemed to be less bright and shiny.

This group of students is to lead their respective small group in the material that they are learning. By default, this involves quite a bit of “managing” the “second-tier” students. This is going quite poorly for my daughter. Her group is particularly squirrelly. She is a year younger than her peers, a fact that most of them know. These 12- and 13- year-olds don’t want to be managed and instructed by an 11-year-old—something that she is empathetic to herself. (“I mean, I wouldn’t want my group leader to be a 9- or 10-year-old.”)

The teacher told the select group, “In the real world, bosses don’t like it if you come right to them with a problem. So if you have issues with certain people in your group, you can trade students with your ‘co-workers’ first.” Big surprise, these other select students are unwilling to trade students with my daughter. My daughter also doesn’t want to “drop out” of this position, since she fears letting down the teacher. Am I wrong to think that what this teacher is doing is absurd and inappropriate? Should I do anything?

—Horrible Bosses

Dear Horrible,

If I take off my glasses and squint, I can kind of see what your daughter’s teacher was going for here; grouping students of varied skills together is a viable instructional strategy when executed correctly, as is offering students the chance to take a leadership role in the classroom. However, you’re also not wrong in your judgment of the situation. Your daughter’s teacher botched this.

Adolescents are incredibly perceptive about the esteem in which adults hold them and will often categorize themselves and their peers, with disarming frankness and little nuance, as smart or dumb, good or bad. In this case, however, no such intuition was even required; their teacher explicitly designated them as such! So, I doubt the kids your daughter has been assigned to manage are responding to her calendar age so much as they’re expressing discomfort and resentment at her positioning as a “star” authority figure in contrast to their “lower-level” status. In middle schoolers, shame, self-doubt, or defeat often present themselves as misbehavior or inattentiveness, and I have no doubt that’s the case here. Your daughter’s been placed in a very awkward position and certainly won’t gain much from this arrangement, but I think her “second-tier” group members have really been set up to lose.

So what should you do? I think you and your daughter can try to come to a decision together. A bright, hardworking, empathetic seventh grader can handle a realistic discussion about the situation, and there’s a lot to unpack: the educational and social dynamics this arrangement has created for her and classmates, the benefits and drawbacks and potential outcomes of speaking up, her instinct to avoid disappointing the teacher, as well as the pragmatic aspects of it all. (Does she generally like and trust this teacher? What role does he take while the small groups are working? How long will the classroom be function in this way?)

After weighing all that, maybe you decide to let it ride for a short period and then reevaluate together. Maybe you encourage your pleasing-others-oriented kid to take this very appropriate opportunity to practice self-advocacy by approaching the teacher, and maybe, rather than “dropping out,” she starts by asking for help and support. Maybe you decide that it feels necessary for you to intervene. (And you should be prepared to revisit the discussion if the teacher’s response is simply to “demote” your daughter—which I think is fairly likely.)

Good luck. This is one of those unfortunate school situations that is indeed a bit of a hot mess, but of the more simmering, low-level variety, where the right call feels unclear and the ideal resolution unlikely. I hope you get an outcome that works for you both, at least.

—Ms. Bauer

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