Care and Feeding

Our School’s “Holiday” Tradition Feels Wrong to Me on So Many Levels

A child looks wide-eyed at toys.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Peter Togel/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Chiradech/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and MariuszBlach/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.

Dear Ask a Teacher,

What is your experience with school holiday gift shops? Do the kids seem to have a largely positive experience with it? My son is a first grader, and it’s holiday gift shop time at his school. The parent organization puts it on, and the funds go to all the sorts of things the PTO typically does. But this whole thing is making my feet itch, for three reasons:

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1)    Our school is about 2/3 free/reduced-price lunch, and kids are pretty clued in about money and financial (in)security.

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2)    It’s also a pretty religiously diverse school. Is the holiday gift shop centering Christmas even more than it already is in everything this month, or is it more inclusive of other traditions than it feels?

3)    Is it a little exploitative? I mean, kids are spending their allowance (or whatever mom and dad give them I guess) and are encouraged to buy gifts for other people. But, come on, they’re kids! Lots of them just buy stuff for themselves! Not to mention, the stuff is always cheap crap, or else the PTO couldn’t raise money off of it.

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Am I overthinking this? You all have lots of experience with these things. If the answer is yes, that the holiday gift shop is largely a good thing for all involved, then great! Thank you!

But if not… is there anything I can do about it? I’m new to this community and have yet to make it to a PTO meeting. Depending on your thoughts, maybe I could and suggest an alternative for next year? Any ideas?

—Scrooge or Angel?

Dear SoA,

Quite honestly, I’ve never heard of holiday gift shops before, but I certainly have some opinions about them based on what you’ve described.

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I agree with you. I don’t think it’s wise to fill the PTO coffers by opening a Christmas pop-up shop for the student body. Though PTOs are often funded through the support of families, that funding typically (and ideally) comes from events that bring the community together to offer fun and memorable opportunities for kids to play and learn and for parents to connect. Even in these cases, tickets are often offered for free to families in need.

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Our PTO does sell spirit wear to students and families – tee shirts, hoodies, hats, and the like with our school logo – but it also provides a tee shirt to every student who didn’t purchase something, and the spirit wear is sold at cost.

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I also agree that centering your fundraiser on Christmas is not a good idea in terms of religious diversity. It absolutely places one religious holiday above the rest and likely alienates children and families who are not Christian or who do not celebrate Christmas with gift-giving.

And everyone knows what’s happening when we label these things as a “holiday” sale or even a “winter” sale in the weeks before Christmas. While Hannukah often lands near Christmas, it doesn’t always land just right to allow for a “holiday” sale to apply to Jewish families, and a nod to two religions doesn’t make it any better for others in your community.

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Are you overthinking things? I don’t think so.

But since you are new to the community, I’d encourage you to attend some PTO meetings, volunteer at school events, and get involved before proposing any changes. You won’t make any friends by attempting to upend tradition as an outsider, and your efforts will likely be fruitless. Changing a longstanding tradition takes time. Establish a reputation. Find allies. Look into the kinds of fundraising that schools in your area do. Gather information. Play the long game.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Ask a Teacher,

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My son has had a really hard time making friends and playmates since starting kindergarten. It’s not super surprising because he definitely marches to the beat of his own drum. However, he is very friendly and outgoing too. He’s always had little friends in daycare and finds a kid to play with at any playground we visit.

Part of the problem is that he gone from a class of 15 to a class of 25, but he’s also just increasingly out of step with his peers. This is a kid who taught himself to read at age two but can’t pedal a tricycle. He is more interested in biology videos than cartoons.

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My wife and I both know how lonely it is to be the smart but lonely kid (and adult for that matter) but we don’t really want that for him, especially because he’s much more extroverted than we ever were. Is there anything we can do to help him fit in and learn to play the childhood games we never understood ourselves?

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—Loner

Dear Loner,

Friendship is hard. There’s no doubt about it. The good news is that the research generally says that children make friends based on who they’re around. Most kids tend to find peers that they get along with through common childhood activities—school, after-school programs, classes, sports, etc.—and friendships start from there.

Here, the law of large numbers comes into play. If your kid isn’t clicking with the peers around them, a different childhood activity may be a better starting place. If your kid is the “brainy” sort, a robotics group or science club might be the way to go. My younger brother struggled to make friends until he joined a D&D club in middle school. That’s a long time to wait for your kindergartener, but there are increasingly niche groups your child can join at younger ages to find like-minded children. If you can find a Lego club or nature club, those might be good options as well.

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Money is obviously a limiting factor for most families—many of these clubs can be costly. But many community centers, libraries, or local organizations have activities that are free, low cost, or subsidized for low-income kids. It can be tough to find the time, too.

The other way you can help that may seem obvious but I do think would be effective—arrange playdates. As soon as there is a kid that your son seems interested in spending time with, you should absolutely work to create more proximity with that kid. Have that kid over after school, meet at the park Kids need opportunities to practice social skills outside the prescribed rules of school/clubs/etc. Anecdotally, I have noticed fewer of my students having playdates than I used to when I was a kid. I think this trend is just starting to turn around—parents are now asking for other kids’ parents’ contact info more now than they did 5 years ago—but it’s definitely to the detriment of all kids that the practice has fallen out of favor. If kids are given chances to play with their peers, they will make friends.

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

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Dear Ask a Teacher,

I am a middle-aged white woman teaching in a diverse public school. We’re having a fight about whether or not to read To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m trying to stay out of it and keep my “why” private, but it’s because when forced to read this book as a kid, I deeply identified with the character Mayella Ewell, not Scout. Mayella’s visceral anger at the world is something I still feel, even though I was lucky enough to get out of my dangerous situation.

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Everyone has an opinion on this book, and everyone is sharing why they do and don’t want to read this book with their class. I hate the book so much and want the discussion over. Have you ever dealt with anything like this in your curriculum—having to teach a book you don’t want to teach? Do you have any recommendations for how to handle it?

—Just Say No to Mockingbird

Dear Mockingbird,

Having to teach a book you hate is miserable. My first question is, does everyone have to teach the same work? Could your team agree upon a certain set of objectives you will cover but accomplish those with different books? For example, if the plan is to read the text and write an essay analyzing its theme, that is something you could do with virtually any novel–you could even choose one that tackles similar themes. Or, you might leave the decision up to students and have them select a book from a list of options to read in small groups.

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I realize your school may require that everyone teach the same book. There are educators who offer insight into how to update instruction of Harper Lee’s book for the 21st century. However, if you really don’t want to end up teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, you may need to join the discussion. In recent years, a lot of smart people have published persuasive arguments for why there are better works of literature about racial injustice. If you’re uncomfortable sharing your personal reasons, read theirs and bring those to the table (Alice Randall asks some great questions in this piece).

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I will also say–and I realize this is controversial–the current teacher shortage gives those of us still in the trenches more leverage. When I turn around, I don’t see a line of people eager to do my job. This should embolden us to make the instructional decisions we believe are best. If you teach something else and you’re doing a good job, what exactly is going to happen to you? My guess is, next to nothing–especially if you band together with the other like-minded teachers.

I hope you find a solution that works for you. Good luck!

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

More Advice From Slate

My daughter is a freshman in high school, and she recently got an assignment in life sciences that seems inappropriate. The assignment is for the kids to identify someone in their family who died of cancer, and then students are supposed to research that kind of cancer and create a poster presentation to display for the entire school. This seems like a terrible idea, and an invasion of privacy. Should I talk to the teacher?

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