Last night I saw a film that should be required viewing for everyone, everywhere.
It chronicles the lives of families whose children differ from their parents in some fundamental and immutable way, including those with Down syndrome, autism, and dwarfism. These families find love and joy in the aftermath of struggle and heartache. The film shows viewers the “normalcy” of those who live with differences; as all human beings do, they experience hopes, desires, disappointments, and triumphs.
What do tantrums have to do with helping children develop into advocates for social justice?
As parents and teachers, we want our kids to grow up strong and self-assured, but not entitled. We hope they feel powerful, with a sense of agency enabling them to solve problems and make change, yet not self-absorbed.
We don’t want them to feel so powerful that instead of helpful team members in the family and the classroom, they veer out of control, disrupt others, and make life uncomfortable for those around them.
March is here - soon it will be time to get your seeds started for this year’s garden!
Many studies have shown a correlation between gardening with children and their awareness of and love for nature - key foundations for later environmental activism.
Looking for picture books that feature LGBTQ children and families?
I found a fantastic resource that I’m thrilled to share with you.
As discussed in my last post, teaching your children to love the ocean - and eventually to protect it - requires exposure. If you live near the coast, many trips to the beach over time can spark this love. If you live too far inland for frequent visits, you can still engage your children in thinking about our oceans and the great variety of creatures that live there.
Research shows a strong correlation between a person’s feelings of connectedness with nature and their ecological behavior. It makes sense: we want to protect what we love, but we’re unlikely to develop a deep love of nature without exposure to it over time.
As adults, we know that our oceans are in bad shape, with temperatures rising, plastic everywhere, fish populations depleting, and coral reefs dying. Yet we can’t raise a generation dedicated to restoring and protecting the health of oceans without sparking their love for the wonder and magic of the undersea world.
Raising my Asian kids in a diverse community did not protect them from feelings of difference and “otherness,” or from landing on the receiving end of racial slurs - often, but not always, from kids who themselves belong to minority groups.
Classmates pulled the end of their eyes and yelled, “Ching-chong!” at them. A group of kids ran around the playground shouting “kon'nichiwa” every time they passed my daughter. As early as kindergarten, she came home angry and hurt because a little boy said, “You can’t sit here because you’re Chinese.”
As parents and teachers, we likely (hopefully) initiate many conversations with our young children about race and choose books with race in mind, making sure they include strong, positive African American or Hispanic characters.
But what about Asian or Asian American characters?
As a parent or teacher, you know the power of music. It can shift moods, help with transitions, encourage positive interactions, and teach lessons.
It can also change the world.
Mark your calendar - the Great Backyard Bird Count will happen this year between Friday, February 16, and Monday, February 19.
Your child can make a difference in protecting birds by helping scientists get a snapshot of bird populations.
I really struggle with how and what to teach my preschool kids around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
First, I don’t want this to be a one-and-done. Learning about inclusion of all, using non-violence to fight for what is right, having the courage to stand up for your beliefs even when it’s hard, using words to get people to join you in doing the right thing - these are all things I want to be teaching every day, all year round.
The foundation of justice is empathy. Only when we can feel and understand the suffering of others will we work to change their circumstances.
Helping young children move into empathy requires a long-term commitment. It won’t happen with one conversation or activity, but with many, many, many repetitions. We can start right now with the way we handle our children’s upsets and disputes with peers.
Every child has the right to feel safe and accepted. Many kids who joined their families through adoption, however, face questions and comments from schoolmates, teachers, and even strangers that lead to feelings of difference and inadequacy.
While we watch in horror as asylum seekers face tear gas and family separation at the border, our children sometimes display the in-group/out-group behavior and fear of strangers that leads to xenophobia. Preschoolers delight us with their ability to quickly strike up new friendships at the playground, but they can also exclude or feel apprehensive about those from outside of their culture.
Scientists believe that evolution has encoded this fear of the stranger into our genes, yet our “small group thinking” clashes with the global realities of today’s world. We need to train ourselves (and our children) to see all people as members of the human family, in order to welcome rather than revile the newcomers in our communities.
One way to begin this process toward empathy and familiarity with people from other countries is to play the Where in the World? game.
Picture books, at their best, validate children who feel different from the norm. For more typical kids, they provide a way to open conversations about others who may appear unusual or “weird.”.
While the majority of children’s books lack characters with a diversity of abilities, race, and gender identity, more and more wonderful (and wonderfully illustrated) stories include all kinds of diverse characters.
Teacher extraordinaire Ellie Rudolph, who used to work in my preschool, recently brought three of these books to my attention. Illustrating the struggles and triumphs of gender nonconforming children, they belong in the collection of every family that includes a child with a fluid gender identity or one that differs from their gender at birth. Equally as important, they belong on the shelves of families and schools with gender-typical children, where empathy and inclusion are valued.
A recent thread on a list serve I follow for educators of young children focused on regulations around bringing them outside in cold weather. In Virginia, I learned, teachers can’t bring children outdoors when temperatures fall below 40 degrees! Here in New England, we consider 40 to be downright balmy.
Children need outside play in all kinds of weather. We know that many environmentalists developed their love of nature by spending lots of time outdoors in natural settings as children. Still, access to the outdoors for extended periods of time can be limited during the winter.
To engage children with nature even during the coldest months, bring the outdoors inside.
I’m trying to tread lightly on the earth.
It’s not easy. We live in a throw-away culture that craves excess. Why have one (fill in the blank) when we can have five, or ten? Advertisements for the latest and greatest bauble bombard us moment by moment. When we tire of those baubles or they break, we dump them in landfills.
Intentionally choosing to live with less does not mean deprivation. Instead, it means fostering clarity and focus, deciding to buy only what we really need - or really love - and valuing quality over quantity.
At my preschool, we often take children down the street to a local university where the campus provides large expanses of green space where they can run and play. We have to cross a busy street to get there.
A few years ago, one of the children asked why the cars didn’t stop for us to cross. We started talking about busy streets and safety and the rules for when drivers have to stop for pedestrians. This led to a discussion about crosswalks, and my preschoolers wanted to know why there was no crosswalk where we crossed. We noticed that many other people crossed at the same place.
Human beings categorize. We place people into groups - those familiar to us and those who differ - and often feel uncomfortable when we encounter someone who is different.
My work with young children includes helping them to expand their zone of comfort with others, so that they empathize with and include people who seem different. (This work doesn’t end with children, though. It’s the work of a lifetime, and I continue to face my own reactions to “otherness” as I strive to accept and respect all human beings. It’s not always easy).
To typically developing children, people with intellectual disabilities can seem different. When they meet someone with Down Syndrome, for example, they may feel curious or uncomfortable or scared, and may exclude them or speak and act in unkind ways.
Sometimes you have to pull back the lens and take a wider view.
We can do many quick, easy activities that help our children develop an orientation towards social justice and enable them to see themselves as change agents. By putting some longer-term practices into place as well, like having regular family dinners, we can make an even bigger impact.