Care and Feeding

How Will Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill Play Out in Classrooms?

Safe space stickers are put on a school counselor's door.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Motortion/iStock/Getty Images Plus and mrdoomits/iStock/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.

I’m looking for advice about how the stupid “Don’t Say Gay” bill will play out in classrooms. I live in this dumb state, and I’m a gay parent. My daughter is 3 and in daycare, so we’re not in public school yet, but it’s honestly killed all the excitement I might have had for her to start kindergarten. I’m afraid my wife and I won’t be allowed to volunteer, be a part of her classroom, or attend school events. I’m afraid she’ll be bullied and teachers’ hands will be tied. I’m afraid of her self-worth and self-esteem dropping if she never, ever sees or hears about a family like hers. What about family trees and gendered units like Mother’s and Father’s Day—will she be forced to either lie or sit them out?

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What would you do if it were your classroom? The teachers I had growing up went on long tangents about how being gay was “wrong” or “dirty,” or the teacher my wife had who stopped trying to help her graduate the minute she found out she was gay, telling her “We don’t want people like you here, anyway.”

Part of me wants to be petty as hell and sue the minute my daughter is read a book featuring a Mommy or a Daddy (what if I didn’t want to tell her straight people exist and have a tough conversation about Daddies until she’s older…?) Moving is not an option for us, work-wise, financially, and with relatives we care for in the state. Private schools and homeschooling groups are unaffordable and mostly religious anyway, and I’m not thrilled with (or guaranteed to have a spot in) local charters. I strongly suspect this bill won’t be the last of its kind, either.

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I want to support our local public schools, but it’s clear that in this state, they don’t want to support us. Do you have any advice for how I should handle all of this?

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—Proud Mom

Dear Proud Mom,

I’m sorry that you’re going through this. As a white, straight man, I can’t imagine dealing with this kind of persecution and alienation. As a Floridan and an educator, I have been following this bill closely and am disturbed and outraged by it, but I know my anger can’t begin to touch what you must be feeling.

This bill (which Gov. DeSantis just signed into law) is intentionally vague and trickily worded, so it’s hard to say what, exactly, it will do in individual schools and classrooms. (Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern has a thorough analysis of the actual text here.) The intention, as you worry, is that it will inhibit the discussion of or even acknowledgment of LGBTQ people, families, and history in schools, driven mainly by a mechanism that allows vigilante and right-wing activist parents to sue school districts. So while this is an attack on the LGBTQ community, it’s also an attack on teachers. Just as they are moving to ban books around the country, Republicans are working to censor teachers. DeSantis wants to weaken our teacher unions by tying them up in costly legal battles, drive us teachers from the classroom so he can privatize a failing public school system, stand on a presidential debate stage and tout that he supported “parents’ rights.”

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It breaks my heart to hear you say that you feel the schools have turned against you. For my part, I have only seen an outpouring of support from the educators around me. I work in a fairly conservative suburb, and at my school there are still safe space stickers on every guidance counselor’s door, teachers displaying pride flags and an enormous outpouring of student support as the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) organized a week of visibility and protest activities, including an administration approved walk-out. You asked about my classroom. I’m not going to change a damn thing. I will continue to include LGBTQ voices in my curriculum and work to make my classroom not only a safe space but an inclusive one. For me, this isn’t just a matter of being an authentic teacher, it’s being a moral one, even if that means facing down an unjust law.

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And I’m not alone. Every educator I’ve spoken with has no intention of changing what they teach or how they treat their students. Despite the hate coming down from Tallahassee, I trust my colleagues, my own children’s teachers, and most public school employees to do what is right: to make LGBTQ kids and families feel safe and supported.

—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)

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My almost 4-year-old daughter has been adamant since the end of winter break that she doesn’t want to go to preschool. Her teachers say that she is fine once she arrives, and she seems to come home perfectly happy every day. I know she has friends and takes part in the activities. But in the mornings she is really dragging her feet. She refuses to get dressed, refuses to get in the car, etc. I usually have to bribe her with a snack to get her out the door.

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We have been holding our line that she has to go (but always offer an early pick up around 3 p.m., which means I’m the first parent at the gates). But this morning I just couldn’t get her to shift out the door, and things were rapidly descending into an argument… so I made a decision in the moment to give up the power struggle, keep her home and find a time to talk with her about it. I’m not sure if this was a huge mistake? But I feel like ignoring and minimizing her feelings, and pressing on isn’t working for us right now.

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It’s not an option for her to stay home every day, as I work part-time. Right now, her nine-month-old baby brother is in daycare three days a week. I could also reduce her hours so that she only goes for the three days, but that would mean that there would be absolutely no time during the week where my son has all my attention. My daughter has a very strong personality, and honestly I feel like when she is home her needs and preferences will dominate (which tends to happen on the weekend). I really enjoy the 1:1 time with my baby. I’d love any advice you have.

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—Kicking and Screaming

Dear Kicking and Screaming,

There are several reasons why a child might suddenly stop wanting to go to school. My guess is, in your daughter’s case, it’s because her brother gets so much 1:1 time. The fact is that when you have a second child, your first child has to learn to share your attention. Sharing isn’t any 4-year-old’s greatest strength! Maybe at first the novelty of having a sibling out-competed her frustration over this, but it seems like the honeymoon period is over.  Now, she wants a way to get back some of that parent-and-me time she used to have such easy access to.

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There are a few ways to address this. First, I’d talk to her about it when it’s not during the morning routine. Maybe after school, when she’s come home from a good day, ask her why she has a hard time leaving in the morning. See if she can pinpoint a specific reason. It may be hard for her to verbalize, but there might be some issue she points to that you can work together to resolve.

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Next, I’d talk to the school to see how you can facilitate the morning. Maybe she gets a small reward at school (rather than the treat in the car) if you can make it there with an easy morning. Or maybe, if the school has transportation (my preschool did), you can simply switch to the bus, which often makes transitions easier for kids. The school may also be able to point to something in their morning routine that she doesn’t like, and you can find a solution there.

Lastly, I’d try to address the probably-underlying cause: alone time with your daughter. How often do you spend time with her without the baby? I know making time is super hard, but even if you and your partner can have some arrangement where once a week, they watch the baby so you and your daughter can have a special outing (or you take turns—you watch the baby and they have the outing!) that alone time can help ease the frustration kids get over having to share adult attention. Especially when you’re working and have a newborn, it’s hard to create that space for your other child, but that bonding will help build up your relationship with her to make those hard mornings easier to weather.

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—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

My child recently started a Pre-K program for 3-year-olds at a language immersion school we worked hard to get him into (and to be able to afford). As if the challenges of starting school for the first time and the fear of COVID infection weren’t enough, the biggest stressor for us right now is actually my mother-in-law, who previously watched my son and is vehemently against pre-K. She is committed to proving that the stress is too much for him to bear (it’s been three weeks, he says he loves school and the only hint of stress was a potty-training regression that we have mostly worked out).

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We discovered that her long-held views (my husband had an at-home babysitter until kindergarten) are supported by a 1988 edition of the book The Hurried Child, by David Elkind. We know this because she gave us her newly highlighted copy to draw our attention to passages about over-stressed latchkey kids (she picks him up every day at 3:00 and watches him until we get home, so he isn’t even in after care). I know this is a dependency issue because she has previously gone so far as to try to talk us into letting her homeschool him for his entire primary school years. Although I have really gotten a kick out of reading about how MTV would destroy the Millennial childhood as I look through this book, I’m hoping instead of me finishing it, one of you might be familiar with this book and the way that views have changed toward early childhood learning from the 1980s? Any advice?

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—Not Raising the MTV Generation

Dear NRtMG,

Full disclosure, I have not read the book. I was passingly familiar before I received this question, and have done some research on it since then to make sure I have my facts right. As far as I can tell, the gist of the text is this: modern life (which is to say, life in the late 1980’s) is causing children to grow up too fast. The author cites different ways that the home, school, extracurricular activities, and media contribute to a child’s stress, and the ways that that stress forces them to grow up. The book ranges from pretty reasonable ideas (kids need to engage in unstructured play; the media doesn’t project healthy ideas of childhood onto children) to pretty outdated (divorce and women in the workplace are both ruining childhoods).

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More than anything else, what I noticed in my research is that it’s an old book. It was published in 1988. That’s so old; the average American born in 1988 has a school-age child. Our understanding of early childhood learning has changed, as has our approach to school. One thing I particularly want to highlight is our increased emphasis and focus on social-emotional learning (SEL). The book cites fights between parents as the source of stress, as well as parental stress that is bottled up at work and brought home. Watching your parents have screaming matches isn’t good for kids; no arguments there. However, I think as gender norms have shifted and as our SEL has improved, millennials are more able to negotiate difficult conversations. And the children of millennials are even better at discussing their emotions. We explicitly teach kids how to understand their emotions and meet their own emotional needs in a way that the parents Elkind was writing about could never have conceived. That explicit instruction may seem cheesy, but it has really worked wonders. Kids are able to process better than they used to be.

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School has also changed. In the 80’s, there was less group work. Less project-based learning. Lots of lecture-style lessons. Schools are shifting more and more toward a hands-on approach. The testing aspect has gotten worse (although I believe that that is a structural issue that neither one parent nor one book can address appropriately), but overall, schools are working very hard to be safe, positive environments for children, particularly since we know not all children have a safe, positive environment outside of school. In the 80’s, schools did not think of themselves this way. All of which is to say that, yes, we’ve changed a lot. Of course there is still work—a lot of work—to do. But we’ve come a long way.

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In your particular case, I want you to keep two things in mind. The first, and most important one, is that he’s your son. Your child, not hers. You get to make decisions on how to raise him, where to send him to school, etc. She can have opinions, but at the end of the day, she is part of the team that you and your partner are the heads of. You and your partner—or just your partner, depending on your relationship with your MIL—can set boundaries with her about what kind of input you want. You won’t be the first parents to do that, nor the last. Our parents always think that parenting was done “right” in their day, and that younger people don’t know what they’re doing. She may have good experience and advice, I’m sure, but at the end of the day, you can draw the line about certain things. School is allowed to be one of those things. And if she continues to butt in? Well, you and your husband need to decide whether the “free” childcare is worth it. (It would most certainly not be for me.)

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If what’s bothering you is a little voice in the back of your head wondering if he is stressed, or that you should be doing more for your child? There are always ways to support his social-emotional health. Some of those might suit her—going out of your way to set up playdates with his classmates, or being careful not to press too hard about competitive sports—and that might make her happy. Some—like sending him to school—might not. But the key here isn’t doing what makes your MIL happy. It’s doing what ensures that your child knows he’s cared for. Your MIL might shows that she cares in a different way, and you can have frank discussions with him about how different adults believe different things. At the end of the day, though, the key is to make sure he knows that you are making the best decisions you can to support him. Her approval of those decisions isn’t necessary for that.

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—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

My third grader’s school has a snowboarding club, which consists of about 30 kids ranging in age from grades 3-8. They go on field trips to a local ski resort and take lessons and spend the day skiing or snowboarding. At the beginning of the first day, the kids sat down for a couple hours to hear instruction and rules. One of the rules they were told is that you can’t go on the ski lift until you have had at least three lessons.

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Fast forward to me picking up my son from school yesterday. I was pulled aside and told my son and two other third graders got on the lift alone, made it all the way to the top of the mountain (they were scared to death at the height) and then were rescued by a snowmobile. The teachers who were there yelled at the kids and made them sit out the rest of the day. The teacher has told me my son cannot attend again. My son isn’t one to break rules, in fact he’s the one who tells on other kids who do break the rules. He and the other two kids all said they don’t remember being told they couldn’t get on the lift, saw other kids on it, and so they thought it was ok. My son is devastated. Not to mention, I don’t understand how the school lost their three youngest kids on the biggest ski lift in the park. The school is taking no responsibility. What should I do about this situation?

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—Skied Off

Dear Skied Off,

I would schedule a meeting with the principal. Perhaps there is more to this situation than is obvious, but it strikes me as an excessive punishment for an 8-year-old child. I have taken students on overnight stays at YMCA camps for more than two decades, and in that time, I have only brought students home from the experience if they were deliberately and repeatedly harming or bullying another student. If this was an honest mistake—absent any malice—a consequence may be order, but not removal from the program altogether.

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I would be sure to ascertain all of the facts first, and if they are as you present them to be, propose that a temporary suspension from the program might be more appropriate given your son’s age, his history of compliance thus far, and our basic understanding as adults that children are going to make mistakes, and some of those mistakes will unfortunately require rescue via snowmobile.

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Student safety is a teacher’s paramount concern, so I understand that your son’s teachers might have been exceedingly frightened and stressed over the situation, and they may have reacted out of fear. But my hope is that cooler heads will prevail and this can be a learning opportunity rather than a long-term regret for your son.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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My 5-year-old daughter does dance lessons with a teacher she adores, Miss Emma. Her Christmas concert was this week, and Emma asked each parent to pay $50 for the concert costume. I’ve just picked up the costume, and it has a price tag for $25 still attached. Emma is a very kind teacher, and my daughter very much wants to continue classes with her, but I feel a bit annoyed. I was led to believe she wasn’t making a profit on costumes, and if I’d known she was going to charge us twice the price, I would have gone to the store and purchased it myself. Should I say something to her?

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