A little over a year ago, Chick-fil-a opened here in the suburbs of Syracuse where I live and in the school district where my oldest kid attends public school. I had heard about Chick-fil-a few years ago and, like a handful of other companies and businesses, read about how a large portion of their profits funnel into anti-LGBT groups. Some shrug it off, continue to patronize and dine there, and exclaim “But, they’ve got such good food!” I will not do that. And I find it so sad that public school districts fall prey to Chick-fil-a’s “Giving Philosophy” and promote patronage of places like Chick-fil-a. It’s about more than just a chicken sandwich.
I was going through my email recently when I saw a fundraiser flyer that announced that there was to be a fundraiser at Chick-fil-a for a local public school athletic team. I couldn’t help but notice it because a few weeks prior, I had seen that Syracuse University advertised a lacrosse game and had dubbed it Youth and Team Day, “presented by Chick-fil-a,” which left me shaking my head in disapproval. If you’re wondering what the big deal is, I encourage you to read on.
Public schools, especially in New York State, are mandated by the education commissioner to support and affirm students who identify as LGBT or those who may identify as “questioning.” Since 2015, NYSED has encouraged public schools and its teachers to “foster an educational environment safe and free from discrimination for transgender and gender nonconforming (GNC) students….[and] provide all students with a safe and inclusive environment.” A webinar has been posted to further help facilitate this welcoming process. And this is where Chick-fil-a’s presence matters most.
Findings were just published showing the following: in 2017, recently released tax filings showed Chick-fil-A Foundation gave more than $1.8 million to three groups who have a history of anti-LGBTQ discrimination. And Chick-fil-A’s charitable arm donated over $1.6 million to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a religious organization whose expectations include employees refraining from “homosexual acts.” And $6,000 to a Christian residential home that teaches young boys that same-sex marriage is a “rage against Jesus Christ and His values.”
So, how does this impact public school students who identify as LGBTQ? Or, let’s say a gay, lesbian, transgender, or non-binary student who happens to be an athlete on the team that is fundraising at Chick-fil-a? As a parent who identifies as an ally of the LGBT community and a former public school teacher, I can say it directly impacts their well-being. Especially since I had a conversation with my own teenager a few weeks ago and was saddened when I was told that lots of students criticize other students for being openly gay and that schools aren’t exactly the most open-minded place. This is why school’s establishing chapters of Gay-Straight Alliance organizations are important although not common enough. Students, as they grow and mature, should be headed in a direction where acceptance is encouraged and anti-LGBT positions held by Chick-fil-a, for example, should be acknowledged for what they are–bigoted–and condemned rather than supported. And with all of the local businesses and restaurants around here that allows schools to fundraise, opting out of Chick-fil-a is reasonable. When visiting our own public school district’s athletics website, I saw sponsors scrolling across the bottom of the webpage and there, again, was Chick-fil-a. And, again, I shook my head in disapproval.
I can’t be the only parent who feels this way, right? Does your public school support fundraising at Chick-fil-a or another company that has a record proving actions that support bigotry, racism, or other forms of discrimination? And if so, how do you or your children feel about that? I asked a student who identifies as someone who falls under the “LGBT umbrella” (and asked to remain anonymous) what her thoughts were after sharing this information with her and she said that she feels angry learning about this and that her school district should be ashamed for promoting Chick-fil-a because many kids at school are gay, bi, trans, pan and gender fluid. In conclusion, she said “I thought my school was better than this.”
Some of you reading this may be humanists, or familiar with what humanism it. But, this post is for those who really haven’t grasped the concept of humanism (or possibly haven’t even heard the word), but desire to raise their families with one thing in mind: raising compassionate, empathetic children who do good. I am going to go out on a limb and reference our nation’s First Lady’s initiative Be Best and give two thumbs up to the first block of text you’ll find on the page: It remains our generation’s moral imperative to take responsibility and help our children manage the many issues they are facing today, including encouraging positive social, emotional, and physical habits. I completely concur, however I strongly feel that humanism is the best path to take in doing just that. And I would like to see and be part of that action. Shifting now from Melania Trump to Roy Speckhardt (feel free to simultaneously sigh relief, laugh, or applaud)…
I believe the first step a parent can take–right after reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting (just kidding, never read THAT book, but read these books instead if you’re a parent-to-be)–is reading Speckhardt’s book Creating Change Through Humanism.
I know, I know…I just said “parent-to-be” and suggested you get a book and actually read it in the same sentence. Surely you’ve all the time in the world as you paint a nursery, attend birthing classes, and speculate on the rationality of how YOU can possibly shift your world to somehow suddenly be a “parent.” So, for the sake of time–and sanity–I’ll sum up the first part of the book, entitled Foundations, while strongly advising you to grab a copy and indulge. Speckhardt cites three pillars to humanism, which I sum up as: 1- support for and implementation of the scientific method, in hopes and expectations of creating a better world; 2- the need for empathy; 3- the importance of an egalitarian-based sense of fairness, as Speckhardt puts it (meaning, in my own words, acknowledging that each and every one of us (a) can contribute to bettering society and (b) have worth regardless of educational or professional milestones). Now, on to relating these pillars to parenting, developing one’s household, and enhancing community…
Science. Basically what I took away from Speckhardt’s book is that, as parents, we can take certain steps to ensure that our children are raised with strong support for the scientific method.
Now, for our household, the first step we took in this regard was get an affordable, easy-to-use microscope for our preschool-aged child. Yes, I said preschooler. Our middle child was just four years old when we began talking about anatomy of flowers and bees and, yes, got out the microscope so that he could examine his specimens (see our cicada lesson). I admit that even I, who is far from Madame Scientist, was amazed at what I saw when playing around with this remarkable tool. And when other children are over, why not get out our microscope and share the experience that this tool of discovery offers. In addition to this, my husband and I agreed to tell our children about the make-believe stories of Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy, but were sure to explain what make-believe meant. We choose to abstain from indoctrinating them with beliefs in things that are not real. December is still an enjoyable, festive month for all of us that includes too many cookies, an overabundance of eggnog, and the tearing open of presents while donning pajamas. Lots of parents, including myself, take great pride in raising children with a high regard for science (even though we may be far from Einstein or Carl Sagan) and that can only better the free world. Speckhardt references the correlation between valuing science and promoting democracy, as do I. While I admire the creative imaginations of children and believe that childhood is indeed a “magical” time, like Speckhardt, I subscribe to the notion that children’s real questions deserve honest answers. And, again, I am no Bill Nye The Science Guy, so when asked questions about the universe or humpback whales, I tell my kids “I don’t know…but, I will look it up and get back to you.” For us, that usually means drop everything for our impatient, inquisitive four-year-old’s question and seek the answer immediately, then explain it with a preschool-approach (until he can read and access the internet, where he will find all kinds of answers…some valid and others hogwash).
Empathy. There is nothing to lose from raising children who act with compassion and are empathetic, but so much to gain. After reading Creating Change Through Humanism and really letting Speckhardt’s words stew, I remembered one teachable moment that I was a victim of (ha) back in grad school and that was when a professor said, again and again, EQ is more important than IQ. IQ, I knew, means intelligence quotient, but EQ…I was stumped. Emotional Quotient. Ah. And then I slowly started to wrap my mind around it. And once I became a public school teacher of middle and high school students, I saw the importance of EQ at work. The students who demonstrated their high IQs were easily recognizable by spoken dialogue, written words, and great test marks, whereas the students who exhibited high EQs added something different to the conversations in my history classes. Statistics and politics are important when analyzing events such as Armenian Genocide or the role Harvey Milk played in the history of LGBTQ rights, but viewing historical events and understanding how these events impacted human beings and why history need not be repeated requires empathy. To put oneself in the shoes of victims and truly understand the tragedies that shaped and erased lives is the only way to guarantee that cycles won’t be repeated, whether in our households, one’s personal life, or society. When my kids helped me prepare a box of balls that we mailed to Uganda in Africa, I really felt like there were so many benefits of that action we took.
Egalitarianism. A term and philosophy that I must admit I was not familiar with and had to look up in an online dictionary, which basically means the belief that all people are equal regardless of political, social, or economic status. After looking it up, I said to myself, “Heck yes! I so believe in that…and want to raise my children believing in that, as well.” As parents raising children, whether unschooled, homeschooled, or attending public school, we know our kids will eventually be interacting with people outside of our typical, routine, day-in-day out social circles. Unless you are one to friendgineer. So, it’s important to our households, our children’s futures, and society that we raise children who appreciate one another regardless of race, sexual orientation, education-level, etc. Teaching our children to participate in activities and community service projects that benefit others is a great way to do this.
I have several conversations with friends and my own children pertaining to the importance of each of our roles to our neighborhoods, great communities, and society. For example, I am a former teacher and may end up unschooling or homeschooling our youngest two children when they become school-aged. A good friend of mine who happens to be my neighbor told me when we first met that she desired to consider homeschooling her child and seemed as if she was slightly doubtful that she could do it, having no college degree of her own. I looked right at her and said “Of course you can educate your own child. If even just for the first few years and then consider public or private schooling, or a homeschool co-op. And if I am doing the same, you and I can support one another as we do this together.” People right in our neighborhoods can teach us or help so much. I suck at gardening. But, one of my elderly neighbors is experienced and I can’t help but desire to pick her brain. I may just go over there this spring and ask her if I can help her start and tend to her gardens so that I can learn and give a try next year on my own land. Once we open our minds to the idea of cooperative communities and value every person for what they contribute–on whatever level it may be–we are creating change.
Part two of Speckhardt’s book, which I won’t spoil for you, is entitled “Application,” and really sparks thought about how to create change. It has two chapters that left me contemplating much more and that was chapter 9 “Living humanism” and chapter 10 “Becoming an activist.” While I have spent a few years now thinking hard about how I can become a better humanist and what I can actively do to promote humanism in my community and around this nation, I now also focus on how I can incorporate my children in this quest. There are quite a few good picture books for kids, such as this list on the patheos blog Natural Wonderers or these suggested reads on the Humanist Learning Systems site.
And I hope I don’t have to do this alone, but instead have others around me for support and companionship.
They’re out there, I know they are. Other families, like ours, who want to see things shift in a humanist direction. Some already taking steps to do what I aspire to do. Unity is key and can only result in strength in numbers, then democracy can flourish and the next generation will indeed have created–and be able to enjoy–a better place for all. What ideas or practices do you have pending or in motion?
Is the Statue of Liberty an image of a man or a woman? This question actually appears on our nation’s National Park Service F.A.Q. website. And I am glad it does. How the hell do we do we know what’s under Lady Liberty’s toga? And why is it any of our business? Does allowing this revered symbol to exist in an androgynous manner have an impact on our nation’s democracy? With the direction in which the current administration and many of our state and local governments are headed, I bet ol’ Liberty’s “patina” green panties are in a bunch and rightfully so.
As one who both got a degree in and taught history to adolescent public school students, I may have a tad bit more of an understanding than some when it comes to the documents that were penned in our nation’s early history; documents that became the framework that laid the foundation for America. I’m no law expert, but men in tights and wigs who likely greeted one another with double smooches on each others’ cheeks, I’d say that their written words mattered then and still do now. I side with Alexander Hamilton who favored a loose interpretation of our Constitution, which is why seeing discrimination thrive in American institutions and communities burns my britches. Why anyone would deem it unreasonable or unnecessary to work towards a complete end to discrimination and bigotry in our workplaces, college campuses, correctional facilities, military branches, churches, and public schools?
As a former teacher and parent, as well as a strong ally and supporter of the LGBTQ community, I gotta say that the 21st century is not moving at fast enough a rate as I could have hoped for when it comes to extending rights and privileges to those who stand outside of the heteronormative sphere. Of course I support equality, liberty, and justice for women, people of color, and others groups who have a history of being ignored, but the recent push against extending basic rights to transgender individuals has left me miffed. While I hate admitting that many of our communities still have a ways to go when it comes to racially integrating proms, for example, I am delighted to hear news stories about transgender students voted in as prom kings and queens. Alan Belmont (no. 9 on Queerty‘s list), a transgender senior who I reached out to and publicly supported, went public with his quest to graduate public high school using his preferred rather than legal birth name. He and others challenged the school’s tradition (not sure if practice or policy–and yes, there is a difference) and demanded that transgender graduates not be deadnamed. Seems logical, but for many students, being respected with preferred names and pronouns is met with great animosity. As if transgender, agender, non-binary, and gender queer human beings don’t deserve basic respects.
I can’t deny that our youth and students hold a special place in my heart and remain constant on my radar. Perhaps because I was a teacher or maybe because I possess great senses of care and compassion for children and adolescents. Their futures so bright and possibilities so endless, I want to see children grow up surrounded by love, support, and healthy guidance. I see amazing individuals, some quite young like Rebekah Bruesehof, and can’t help but want to applaud them (and jump up and down). Whether cisgender, transgender, heterosexual or homosexual, all children deserve to grow up in a fair, equal world. This short film here is so moving and surely makes sense to others. Andraya Yearwood is a transgender student who, while attending Cromwell High in Connecticut and running for her school’s track team, has faced controversy. Just interviewed by Mirin Fader, Yearwood shares her in-depth story and provides us plenty of evidence supporting the need for an end to discrimination based on gender identity.
For Yearwood, her school district allows her to compete beside and against other female athletes as per the regulations of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference. The CIAC, which oversees high school sports’ rules in the state, allows athletes to compete in sports that align with the gender by which they identify. Lori Riley reported this past summer for the Courant, noting that the continued success of trans athletes had prompted petitions from critics who fear an unfair advantage.
While Yearwood is allowed to participate in sports with athletes of the same gender up north, down south Mack Beggs unfortunately faced opposition. Beggs, a transgender student who sought to wrestle on the boys’ team was allowed to wrestle, but only against female athletes. Beggs, who identifies as male, was pretty much given two options– compete against females or don’t compete at all. Beggs wanted to wrestle and won two girls’ state championships in a row, despite his wishes to compete against his fellow male wrestlers. And controversy still existed, as some female wrestlers (and their parents) thought it extremely unfair that they had to compete against a male athlete, trans or not. Now, in college in Georgia–still south of the Mason-Dixon–Beggs now wrestles men, and when interviewed by Outsports and asked about being on the college team, says he is “excited to be a part of their storm.” While I am happy for Beggs to be welcomed onto a campus and team for who he is, I find it very sad that as a young student–a teen–he faced such discrimination. He may be able to put the past behind him, but events like that can have a tremendous impact on youths’ personalities and self-esteem as they grow and their minds develop. Why is that Team USA can welcome trans athletes like Chris Mosier to participate with and compete against athletes of the gender that matches the one which they identify as, but high schools, such as Euless Trinity where Beggs was a student, forbid it?
Strides made by adults who are transitioning matter, too–just take a look at Charlie Martin. Martin transitioned in her early 30s and recently opened up about her life in the UK as a race car driver. With her eyes on the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a race that has been around since 1923 in a small french town, she said that when people respond with outrage to others’ bigoted remarks, it shows that “public understanding of outdated gender stereotypes is perhaps more progressive than we might think.” Regarding coming out, she shared that she “tried to plan everything quite methodically, give people around me time to adjust” and she remembers “writing ‘I’m trans. I’m sorry, this is going to come as a shock, but this is what I have to do.” The visibility that transgender individuals provide the world with may fuel some with anger, but for the most part, I think it helps allow others to understand, connect, and works in favor of empathy.
Times are a’changin’ though. And I have faith that open, progressive mindsets will squash bigoted, conservative ones. In this past midterm election, 26 states ushered in 36 new LGBTQ democrats. Experts recommend that parents listen when their children come to them with talk regarding gender identity and sexual orientation, rather than worry that something is wrong with them or that it is just a phase. Progress and strides are being made, proven by the events on this timeline, however I just wish the fight for LGBTQ rights wasn’t so arduous and challenging. You’d think that love and respect for our fellow Americans would be unconditional givens. But, I argue that heteronormative privilege is part of the problem. Parents raising kids with ethnotheories they’ve never really thought about or passing on sayings like “Boys will be boys” or “If a boy is mean to a girl, it just means that he likes her” don’t help eradicate gender stereotyping, and neither does sayings like “Boys never hit girls” and “Don’t cry like a girl.” Just because you are a cisgender individual, doesn’t mean that you have any more right to liberty, justice, and equal access than a person who is other-than-cis. When standing in front a crowd of people, who am I–a cisgender heterosexual person–to have the right to question another’s femininity or masculinity?
Or when meeting a transgender person, why do heteronormative folks think it’s okay to question whether or not surgery is planned? We all need to get to a place where we can support one another and help guide each other in our society so that every single person is respected and safe.
How to do it? Implement programs in schools and on campuses, reform measures in correctional facilities, and participate in government in ways that promote acceptance and protect LGBTQ people. Even simple gestures, such as prompting your public library to carry books written by trans authors and display picture books on shelves in the kids’ section that carry messages that educate children on topics such as gender identity and seuxal orientation. Communicate clearly, whether by email or letter, with leaders of churches where LGBTQ causes are ignored or rallied against (you can do this anonymously). Write letters to editors of small town or big city newspapers when you hear of issues or events occurring that work against LGBTQ acceptance. Read books that help answer questions you may have and join groups on Facebook that are for allies of the LGBTQ community. Check and see if your local schools have any kind of support group that promotes both acknowledgement of diversity in all of its forms and acceptance. Be sure LBGTQ kids, teens, and adults in your realm–family, friends, coworkers–know that you support them and are there in times of need. Do something. Just don’t move forward with intent and no action. Life is too short–sadly so for too many transgender victims of homicide (especially people of color) and suicide victims, may they rest in peace and their families and friends somehow find solace.
Ever hear the term “UUer” and think Huh? Then THIS is the post for you. And probably one you may want to share with others. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist…I met people from all walks of faith when I discovered Unitarian Universalism about ten years ago and remember wishing I would have found it sooner.
Let me preface this by stating that I do not intend to proselytize here. I am a (1) former Catholic, (2) big fan of social justice initiatives, and (3) progressive atheist/secular humanist. Oh, and I am also a humanist chaplain. And while I speak of Unitarian Universalism as a church, it is important to note that the official organization is known as an association. This source here clarifies it best, in my opinion:
“….Unlike most religions in North America, it does not require its adherents to adhere to a specific set of beliefs. Its membership includes individuals who identify themselves as Agnostics, Atheists….Humanists…. Many inter-faith couples find it to be a comfortable religious home in which both spouses can gain spiritual nourishment without bending their personal beliefs out of shape. UUs view the main function of the congregation as facilitating the spiritual quest of its members. The main function of a UU minister is not to tell the members of the congregation what to believe. Rather, it is to help them develop their own religious belief, and ethical systems. Major concerns of the UU religion include social justice and service to humanity. Most UUs readily modify their beliefs to match the findings of science. Thus they were very active in the abolition of slavery. More recently, they have actively working towards achieving equal rights for women, and the attainment of equal rights….”
Their Seven Principles Take a look at these principles outlined above. Each one is so valuable and important. And these are the pillars on which you are building a foundation for your kiddos. Each one matters so much:
1- raising kiddos who are cognizant of their dignity and recognize their worth
2- valuing justice, equality, and practicing compassion
3- recognizing differences among us and accepting people for who they are (notice how it reads “encourage spiritual growth” rather than encourage religiosity)
4- children are encouraged to seek out the truth and interpret for themselves, which supports critical thinking practices
5- to understand exactly why democracy is important (one can easily look around the world and see societies that have and still do crush the people’s right to contribute to and build up democratic institutions)
6- work to better the world (not just ourselves, neighborhoods, and local communities, but others that lack resources and justice)
7- respect everyone
UU & LGBTQ
Their stance, support, and efforts, in my opinion, are visible and proactive, whereas many others either hold a neutral or negative position. Learn more about their involvement here.
A Place for Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics
Some wonder Where does an atheist fit in at church? Well, I can’t speak for all, but for some who identify as progressive like myself, the idea of a group of people who possess like-minded beliefs and want to gather in a group-setting, enjoy hearing or singing songs (some of which are religious in context), or raise their kiddos as part of a congregation is appealing. And for those who, like me, consider themselves humanist, the UU church is a great place to grow and exist. They even have an association for Humanists who are UUers. Pantheists often find the UU church a nice fit, too.
The Our Whole Lives Program
My memories of religious education, which took place in a Catholic church-setting, aren’t the most fond. And what I learned in public school in the 90s wasn’t exactly the greatest. However, this helped propel me in finding, what I believe, is the best program for my children. The UU OWL program is amazing, described here by a former attendee who is now an adult. My first-born had a lapse in attendance, but returned when entering seventh grade and I found their curriculum for sexual education the most progressive ever. This description here sums up the progressive lessons for various ages.
In conclusion, I have spoken to many parents who have told me that they desire to leave the churches that they have been going to (and one family said they have yet to find a church they wish to regularly attend, but are searching) because they are looking for more. These discussions have gone in many different directions. Some are looking for a church that is more diverse racially and socioeconomically. Some are looking for a church that isn’t afraid to speak out in support of Black Lives Matters or in opposition to certain current events conducted by the current political administration. Perhaps they are seeking a church that not only welcomes LGBTQ people, but also supports them in various ways. For me, I’ve had my first-born attending the religious education program at our local UU church since Kindergarten because of the framework by which the instructors teach. And often, I enjoy sitting through one of their Sunday lectures as I wait. Their lessons are progressive, promote the understanding of all belief systems without indoctrinating my child, and allows for networking with a group of children and adults who tend to hold similar beliefs as I do. Equality for all. Importance placed on social justice. Respect for all human beings and everything in nature. Can it get any better?
This past month was an emotional one at the house next door to ours. Our neighbor is 102 years old and she has lived in the home next to ours since she married about 80 or so years ago. She raised her children in the house, was a member of our neighborhood since it was established and all of the houses around hers were first built. And she soon may be leaving and it makes me sad.
Fairly healthy and involved in more social outings than I (since I became a stay-at-home parent of two little ones), we now see her about to take what appears to be a final transition. Unable to attend her weekly card games with friends and struggling to maintain her routine of attending Sunday service at her church, she has become a victim of chronic pain. I admire her adult-children, now in their 60s and 70s, for caring for her–mowing her lawn every two weeks and visiting two to three times a day for meals and other assistance. But, now they have decided it is time she leave her home. They feel her needs now require constant care and her activities would be best supervised at most times. So, they are left with some pretty arduous, emotional tasks like having her home assessed and placed on the market and finding the right kind of facility where she can live for the rest of her days. They are unsure of how much longer they will be able to hold her hand and enjoy conversation with her. The thought of this pretty much has me quite torn even now as I type this.
Becoming elderly happens. For those of us who will be so lucky. There will come a day when plantar fasciitis and arthritis plague some of us (I am turning 42 this week and have, for six months, had the luck of experiencing plantar fasciitis and despise it for being so remedy-less). Our skin will age, grey hair will no longer be a fear but a reality, and we will unfortunately experience loss on many fronts. Last year I saw my husband lose his father and my best friend said a final, dreaded good-bye to her mother. Our children grow and life changes, yet as we get pulled into our 40s, our taste in music and clothes seems to stay the same. Thoughts like “I will NEVER stop listening to Top 40 pop music” shift to “What is this garbage?! THIS is NOT music…” I can’t help but think about painter Thomas Cole’s series of paintings entitled The Voyage of Life, which were painted in the mid-1800s and illustrate the stages of life from birth to death. Aging happens and none of us are immortal.
Last month I saw an ambulance at my neighbor’s home a couple of times and last week realtors with their clipboards and pens in-hand could be seen walking around her yard. While I prepare myself for my final goodbye to her, I can’t help but wonder who our new neighbors will be and how they will settle into a house that has been hers for over half a century. Her pictures will come off the wall and her children will have some rough tasks ahead of them. I hope I can be there to comfort and assist them…that’s what good neighbors are for. And as for my neighbor’s next and final chapter of her life, I wish her well–as well as could be expected. Leaving one’s home and lifestyle cannot be easy and I imagine that many facilities where elderly go to be cared for and finish out their lives aren’t filled with much joy and happy days, which is why volunteering there is so important. Let them know they are not forgotten or any less valuable to our society as they once were.
A bit of wisdom that my neighbor shared with me a couple of years ago when I interviewed her upon turning 100 years old will forever be in my memory: Enjoy these years home with your babies. Looking back, it was those years for me that was the best time of my life. So, whenever I start to lose my cool or get cabin fever from being stuck inside with a 3-year-old and 4-year-old, I remember those words she spoke to me. A piece of my neighbor that will will be forever with me.
A household does not need a ton of toys to be a fun, learning environment. This list would make a great gift guide. Just a few of these toys, which are typically well-made and long-lasting so passing them on is possible, provide lil’ ones with lots of fun at various stages of infancy and toddlerhood:
In New York state, where I live, there are established benchmarks that stipulate what children should be doing at preschool level. Take a look. We all need our minds blown every now and then. As New Yorkers, many of us have the option to take advantage of universal pre-k, whereas some do not and have to pay hundreds a month to send their child(ren) to catholic pre-k or look into other options. I did this the first time around. I sent my first-born to “the best” preschool in my area, paid a monthly tuition, and although a catholic school, as an atheist mom, I didn’t hesitate after hearing “they’re not really THAT religious when it comes to lessons and activities.” Kindergarten is not required in New York state and children must be registered for school by their sixth birthday.
Some parents don’t think twice about sending their child(ren) to school. I know I didn’t ten years ago. Some register them at age four for public school in the district in which they reside. Some relocate so that they reside in a district that is deemed better and safer with greater scholastic and athletic opportunities. Some are lured in by the prestige and possibilities that private school has to offer. Some decide to redshirt. And then there are those who for various reasons decide to opt-out of school and learn at home. It could be religious parents who feel that public school isn’t religious enough, or atheist parents who feel that their public school is too religious (yes, this happens) or it could be a variety of other reasons, one of which may be that they have a child with autism or who is neurodiverse somehow someway.
I present three views here—as public school teacher, as wife of someone with CAPD who went through public education, and as a parent of a child with autism who may likely homeschool unschool. With my first born, I worked 40 hours a work during daytime and had full time grad school during nighttime…I saw my child for an hour every weekday morning and then not again until bedtime. Weekends were all I had, wherein I balanced time for my child, time for school work and studying. Then, I landed my first teaching gig when that kiddo was 1.5 years old. Daycare, preschool, and then public school were the only path that was possible for me as I transitioned to single parent. There was nothing wrong with that. I am glad I can say that I was once a single mom, parent of an only child, who worked full-time and depended on daycare. But, now I have changed and my situation is different. I am now a stay-at-home parent of two kiddos under age five.
AS A TEACHER, I taught grades 8, 9, and advanced placement for eight years in a small school that was the hub of a pretty conservative, “traditional” rural-suburban, 96% white (according to state data record at that time) community. I had many students classified as 504 and with IEPs. I did not learn a great deal about how to accommodate students with exceptional needs (the preferred term we were taught to use) in grad school, so every time I came across something I had no clue about, I would do my own research on it and do my best to differentiate lessons to suit the individual student. I vividly remember having two students with autism and one student with Aspergers. And I occasionally saw a student with autism who was not mainstreamed who I never had experience teaching, but saw when speaking with his one-on-one aide every now and then. All students who turned assignments in on time and did well on tests. Two of the three grew up side-by-side with their peers, both ran track, mainstreamed, except for a period or two a day (this school ran 8-230 daily with 9 periods a day of 40 min or so) where they spent time in the “resource room” with 5 students total and 2 exceptional needs teachers. This is where one-on-one time occurred, individualized attention and teaching, etc. The student with Aspergers was new (moved) and not well-liked. The students, then high-schoolers, seemed to want to abstain from collaborative classwork and projects with him because he didn’t express enjoyment, or make or get jokes, and I remember he, too, disliked these team efforts where learning was self-directed. Despite my mission to educate, I always paid close attention to how all my students were treated and respected. As a kid, I was severely bullied, so I always stay tuned in to be sure all of my students were respecting each other and being respected. The student with autism who was not mainstreamed, I recall seeing him in a quiet, empty room with his aide, always on a computer using some graphic design program to design Disney cartoons. I remember his aide saying she struggled to get him to focus on assignments or whatever work was expected of him. He was never in a classroom with other students, but would visit the library and sometimes walk through the cafeteria. I assume he participated in gym. I remember noticing how his peers seemed to view him as not part of their class due to his being non-verbal and the little side-by-side time despite growing up with him. I remember how proud his family was at graduation. I sat through many IEP meetings and saw teachers be encouraged to be creative and willing to be flexible in planning lessons and teaching material. Some teachers were frustrated by this, usually stressed out because they had limited time to teach topics and state tests to prepare students for. I remember a few of the special ed teachers who came in my room as aides tell me they appreciated my willingness to ease up on demands or expectations…my genuine response was: whatever is best for the student and makes your job a little less stressful. I honestly cared more about students’ socioemotional well-being and allowing them to practice skills that reinforced time management and cooperation than academic achievement. But, other teachers argued that I could take more time and put forth more effort to individualize and “tweek” lessons, as I had no state test to worry about given my content area. So, as a teacher, I felt I personally did as much as I could to learn about each child and wanted to figure out how they learned best and adapt my lessons to how they learned best. At times, definitely challenging. I recall one year I had five exceptional needs students (none of whom were classified as students with autism) in a class of 18 students and one aide present to work with those five students every day for my class. Those particular five struggled to enjoy school on a daily basis. They enjoyed my class most given the content area according to the aide (“They love learning about world war” she said) and they loved being back in their resource room with her for five-on-one time. She would make them cocoa once a week and really worked hard to assist them in their learning journey.
AS A WIFE OF AN ADULT WITH CAPD (central auditory processing disorder) who went through public school mainstreamed with extra time allotted for tests, excused from foreign language requirement, and with some time in resource room with aides, my husband feels as though he succeeded. He enjoyed being on the school bowling team and I guess was pretty great at high scores He was bullied a bit, he said, and remembers the stigma of “going to resource room,” how it felt standing up to leave with tests for extra time and help. He graduated high school, went on to college, having tutors and taking half the course-load as most. He graduated with an AAS and then a BS, now holding a full-time career, owning a home, having a family, etc.
AS PARENT OF A CHILD WITH AUTISM, we may likely homeschool or unschool. I have been home with my about-to-turn-3-year old and just-turned-4-year-old since their births. Neither child expresses much interest in socializing with other kids…when at a playground, neither gravitates towards the herd of kids playing tag, but instead run and climb and play solo. I have a 13-year-old thriving in public school. Before the diagnosis, I just knew I had a super chatty toddler who loved to constantly play and run, explore, and ask 500 questions a day and a younger toddler whose only word was (and still is) “Mom.” I told my husband that I felt like these two would just not thrive in a classroom setting, sitting in chairs and having just 20 minutes of recess a day (which is often taken away as consequence for bad class behavior or falling behind on lessons).
Running and playing. I told my husband that our kids deserve nothing but play until age 7 or 8 and learn along the way whatever it is that interests them. He asked me about returning to my career so we could once again have disposable income rather barely get by on our income now (less than half of what it was before our two sons were born) and I responded that I just don’t know. Having a non-verbal child means, in my mind, that he is more vulnerable (one example being cases of sexual abuse in schools) and I feel since I am home with them, I know what their needs are. Already having been classified by our district and having an IEP, we chose not to enroll him in preschool despite the urgency of the committee who reviewed his assessment and constructed said IEP. I feel like I know how they learn best, each in their own particular way. Our 4-year-old enjoys intense, quick learning. He finds a cicada exoskeleton in the backyard, picks it up, runs at me asking for the microscope. We then observe, then he dismembers it, they we watch videos about it and go to a website where we can hear the various songs of cicadas. I doubt that come Kindergarten, he will want to sit in a chair and color a sheet about the different seasons or practice his ABCs. We almost had him assessed like his younger brother, but decided not to despite his mild sensory issues and what we suspect is possibly a gifted state of mind. Suddenly, having him assessed and possibly diagnosed went from a priority to something I know longer was interested in.
I cannot say that our child with autism will learn to read or write. I cannot say that he will learn to dress himself. I cannot predict if and when he will potty train. Our approach as parents, which may not be exactly how others do it, is to let them be, accept them as they are, and allow them opportunity to direct themselves through play and learning while facilitating as much as we can so they enjoy life. Camping, fishing, hiking, hunting, swimming, painting, making music, playing soccer and hockey. Learning to do all of the things that they enjoy.