Tag Archives: students

Teaching dating skills to elementary students

Dear elementary school teachers,

My daughter is dating. I know she’s dating because she told me. We talked about it.

I asked her what dating meant to her and what it meant to her dating partner. I asked if they had talked about it before they agreed to date, if they’d discussed what that word, that concept meant to them, what they wanted from their relationship, why they wanted to add this label to it. I asked if they had discussed boundaries and expectations. I asked if they had talked about what this label would change about their relationship with each other – and what it might change about their relationships with other people.

I made sure that my daughter understood that dating someone should not mean that you have to give up other friendships, and that if the person she is dating asked her to stop being friends with others or got jealous of other friendships, it was time to have The Talk – to remind her partner about mutual respect and trust, and boundaries and expectations, and the fact that we don’t own each other, not even when we’re dating.

I know this is unusual, for a parent to have this kind of conversation with their elementary school student about this topic. I wish that wasn’t the case.

Because, you see, this is the exact same conversation I have with my daughter every time she tells me she has a best friend.

Kids in love1

At this age, in this setting, there is very little difference between having a bestie and dating someone. Both need to be grounded firmly in open, honest, respectful communication. Both need to start with conversations about what this label means and why each person entering into it wants to take their relationship to “the next level.” They need to talk about what they want from this next level relationship, what it means for them, what it looks like and how it will affect things like recess activities, lunch time, class activities, etc. Often I even ask if they’ve considered what will happen if/when they “break up” because best friendships rarely last forever. (I always assumed that was the reason all the “best friend” necklaces came with the hearts pre-broken…)

My best friend broke it first.

Today my daughter came home and told me that dating had been banned at school. That the teachers had gotten everyone together and announced that there would be no more dating, that school was for learning and that they were all too young to date anyway. “Maybe when you’re in high school, or college…” As if human beings are ever too young to form and negotiate relationships.

I asked her if “best friending” had also been banned. Her eyes got wide as she made the connection I’m making here. No, they hadn’t. And wasn’t that odd? Why was she being taught that one kind of relationship forming was something she was too young for, too immature to handle? Why was she being taught that romantic love was too complex for her to navigate, while still being allowed, encouraged even to create “best friend” relationships that often devolved into battles for control, bullying and trauma. Why was one form of relationship being legislated away while another with equal potential for harm was being lauded and upheld? Why was she being taught that this one way of identifying with and relating to other students was “bad” or “inappropriate?”

She wanted to know why her teachers seemed so hung up on this word, this concept: dating.

I could only assume that it was because somehow we’ve equated dating to sexual intimacy, and that might scare teachers who are unprepared to see their elementary school students as physical beings who crave physical affection (not sexual attention, just physical touches like hand holding and hugs and heads resting on shoulders – and yes, even kissing because those things feel good…) Or perhaps it was because teachers thought about what dating meant to them as adults, or even high school students when hormones and a lack of real information pushed it toward the sexual and they couldn’t bear to think about their sweet elementary students in that way. That’s fair, but… elementary students by and large aren’t there yet either.

girlfriends

I told her I could only imagine it was because they had forgotten the sweet innocent puppy love of elementary school, the tender hand holding, the doe eyed looks, the silly gifts, the little ways of learning to say I love you, the little ways of learning how to hear I love you, the little ways that felt and what it meant.

I told her I thought maybe her teachers had forgotten this age of exploring, dabbling, trying on new words, new identities… What does it mean to date? What does it mean to be a best friend, to have a best friend? What does it mean to be a girlfriend, a boyfriend? Is it okay to have more than one dating partner? Is it okay to have more than one best friend? What do these words mean? How can be negotiated so that everyone gets what they want from the relationship in a respectful and mutually affirming way?

boyshugging

What does rejection feel like? How can they handle it? What can they do if someone they like doesn’t like them back, or doesn’t like them as much, or not in the same way? What are appropriate responses?

These are all really valid and important questions and skills that students need to practice and learn before they become adults, before they become tweens and teens even, before the hormones kick in and flood their brains and make them forget that before they get sexual, they need to get real. They need to check in and make sure that they are operating under the same set of assumptions, expectations, desires, goals and boundaries as their partner. Whether that partner is purely platonic, romantic or physical is irrelevant IF students have learned to start their relationships from a place of open, honest, respectful conversation and IF they’ve learned how to handle rejection when it comes, because it will come.

I know you all have a lot on your plates already and I’m sure that the idea of having this kind of conversation about dating with your students is terrifying. I imagine you are already hyperventilating over imaginary phone calls from outraged parents.

But what if we simply backed it up. What if we went back to that moment when you heard that students were dating. What if, instead of banning it, you asked the students what it meant to them? What if you led them with questions like the ones I led my daughter with, the same ones we should be asking of students who are forming best friendships, and listened to what they had to say? What if you helped students to think critically about it themselves?

What if you used this moment to remind your students that all relationships – friendships, work partnerships, relationships, marriages, benign acquaintanceships, all of them are founded on the same basic principles, the same foundation of mutual respect, trust and vulnerability. If those are in place, the rest can build from there, but without those it all crumbles.

What if you used this moment to remind students that if they aren’t comfortable having those challenging conversations and being honest with each other about what they want, what they need, what their boundaries are and listening to and being respectful when someone else tells them the same – they aren’t ready to take that next step – whatever it is.

Respect

It’s not their age that limits them, it’s their skills.

So let’s help them practice, now while it’s safe, now while the stakes are low, now while we’re not actually worried about the sexual aspect or the physical aspect. Let’s help them build their emotional relationship skills so that when they start dating “for real” and those hormones have kicked in, communication is a habit, respect is a habit, honesty is a habit, listening is a habit, setting and respecting boundaries is a habit, coping with rejection in healthy ways is a habit…

Why not use this time to make sure that all the elements of forming healthy relationships are there, ready to be utilized before things get messy.

We talk about “teaching to the test” so often, but we forget, life has bigger tests with higher stakes than any politician could dream up. When I look at the statistics on teen dating abuse, on teen sexual abuse, on teen pregnancy and STI rates – what I see is that we are failing our students. I know there is all kinds of weird baggage around the idea of teaching elementary students sexual health education – I get that. (I hate it, but I get it.) But this isn’t that. This isn’t about sex education. It isn’t about sex. It’s about relationships.

How to negotiate them. How to form them. How to maintain them. How to renegotiate them as they grow and change. How to end them if they become toxic. How to spot if they are becoming toxic.

Toxic

This is about the health of our students.

Banning them from interacting with each other in ways that feel natural to them, ways that they see modeled all around them is a failing strategy. But teaching them how to interact in healthy ways, that is something we can all pitch in and do. Helping them slow down and think about the words they are using and the meanings they are creating, that is a life long skill, and its one they desperately need. We all do.

Friendship

Imagine how much pain you would have been spared if someone had only taught you this lesson instead of making you piece it together on your own.

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Filed under Kids, Naive idealism, Of Course I'm a Feminist, Things that work

In defense of teachers

Oops. I totally put my foot in it. Something I’ve always been quite good at, but which I didn’t at all mean to do yesterday when I posted my rant on the state of education as I see it.

While many people applauded my sentiments and while my thoughts seemed to resonate with a lot of folk across a pretty wide swath – including many of my teacher friends, it also managed to piss off an equal number of my teacher friends who felt I was attacking them, and their profession.

So please, let me clarify.

teachers make a difference

Teachers make the world go 'round.

Yesterday’s rant was in no way an attack on teachers. Not even on my daughter’s kindergarten teacher – who quite frankly should be sainted for making it through all 270 days of the school year without killing (or duct taping, or stapling, or swearing at) any of the 24 hyper-active, over-coddled, special fucking snowflakes in her class. (Mine included.)

Teachers in this country are the most over-worked, under-appreciated, over-maligned, under-paid profession I can think of .

They bust their asses, stretch their minds, work against impossible odds to teach children to even more impossible standards. Their classes are filled to bursting. They have to use money out of their own meager salaries to buy supplies for their classrooms. Classrooms which are filled with a tiny handful of the “best and brightest”, and a big chunk of mediocre munchkins, and two heaping handfuls of “special needs” kids. And they are supposed to not only keep all 25-40 of them alive, they are also supposed to teach them something.

To make it worse teachers are judged almost solely on standardized test scores. If their students aren’t reaching the benchmarks set by a bunch of rich white guys in the capital then they, as teachers, have failed. And they lose funding. And their school loses funding. And the students lose – everything.

Teachers are also judged, relentlessly, by parents who either think the work their kids have to do is too difficult, too easy, too tedious (guilty), or too… something.

There is nothing these poor beleaguered souls can do right. They are squeezed between a rock, a hard place, and a cliff. And somewhere in there is the person who took on this remarkable profession, not for the money, because admit it, the pay is a joke, but because they care. Because they actually give a shit – about my kids, and your kids, and about our country.

These are the people standing at the front line of the battle for the future of the human race. And mostly they get paid in back-handed compliments, bitching and griping. They should be put on pedestals, rewarded with riches, praised to the heavens. These people are in charge of the future. And we’ve completely tied their hands.

So – yesterday’s rant was not about them. Good god no. It was about US.

It was about all the people who don’t go to school board meetings (guilty), who don’t pony up and pay their local taxes – you know the ones that fund schools, who don’t write to congress and to the president, and to their local government officials and decry the heinous fuckery that political wanks continue to perpetrate against the educational system, against our teachers, and against our students.

It was a rant against parents who don’t participate in their children’s education. Because as much as I totally fucking hate making my kindergartener circle 14 sets of letters in a poem until she can’t read it for all the pencil marks, and can’t remember what it was about because her head is too full of vs and ts and ds and fs to think straight, I DO still take the time to recite the poem again and I do still take the time to ask her what a tuffet is, and why the itsy bitsy spider went back up that spout again. But most parents don’t.

Most parents drop their kids off at 8am with a sugar-coated granola bar in their hand for breakfast and a lunch of hotpockets and “fruit” snacks and then pick their kids up again at 3pm, drive them home, give them a cookie and plug them into the fucking TV to keep them quiet for a couple more hours until it’s time for a pre-packaged dinner.

Thomas Friedman over at the New York Times had it right – we don’t need better teachers, we need better parents.

So please, don’t think for a minute that I was teacher bashing. I wasn’t. I was society bashing, parent bashing, political wank bashing. The problem isn’t them. It’s us. You want to know what I think about teachers? I’ll let Taylor Mali tell you.

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Does Race Still Matter?

On Monday my husband lost his cool – completely.  I haven’t seen him this worked up in years.  He was so mad he had to call his mother and rant to her because I had stopped listening so I could calm down our overly empathetic oldest daughter who needed to know why daddy was yelling and what he was mad at.

He was mad because of a note in her backpack from her school informing us that the Feds had demanded all parents of every child to re-label their children according to new standards of race and ethnicity.  Further the school was required to guess and report the racial identity of any family that failed to self report.

You might have already guessed this, but racially speaking, my family has the least to worry about when it comes to reporting.  We’ve never been enslaved, we’ve never been forced into work camps, we’ve never been rounded up and killed, forced onto reservations, put on “no-fly” lists because of our names.  No one is upset that we’re going to get health care because we are assumed to be privileged, pay-our-own-way types.  In other words, we’re white.

So, given that, just why was my husband so upset?  What did he have to fear from this information being leaked to the feds, or to anyone else for that matter?

Well, nothing.  BUT, he knew that the same could not be said for all of the children being forced to hand over their racial identities.  It would be all to easy to use this information to keep tabs on Islamic families – the new bullshit, scapegoat, enemy of the state.  (Remember McCarthyism and the Cold War…  Well folks, we’re there again…)  It could be used to identify Hispanic families, legal and otherwise.  And at the moment Obama still hasn’t fixed a broken policy that allows illegal male heads of house to be deported leaving behind their legal children to fend for themselves.  (The fate of the wives/mothers is varied, sometimes they are allowed to stay, sometimes they too are deported.)  This information could be used in all kinds of ugly ways.

On the other hand, it could be used for good – such as identifying the many school districts across the Midwest and South that have gone back to de-fecto segregation along racial lines despite the hard work of the 70’s and 80’s to try to integrate those schools.  As I told my daughter, in some places there are schools with all white students and 20 kids per class, new text books, extra desks, paper, pencils, etc for every student, art class, music class, PE, fois-gras for hot lunch…

Then right down the hill there’s another school where the black kids go.  They have 50 or more students per class, but only 20 desks, they have text-books that are ten years old, and not enough for every student to have one, they run out of toilet paper half way through the year and don’t have the money to buy more, they don’t have a lunch program because the school can’t afford to feed all of the low-income students, so most of the kids don’t eat lunch, or they just have a soda and a bag of chips from the vending machine.  These students have a harder time learning, and a harder time getting into college or getting a job that pays well when they get out of school.  These schools also tend to have all of the “bad” tenured teachers who can’t be fired, but whom no school actually wants.  The teachers have given up, and so have the students.

This information could be used to identify those districts and re-instate a more level playing field either by offering charter school vouchers to the students at the hard luck schools, or by busing kids back and forth again like in the 70’s, OR – and here’s a bright idea – by making it so that no matter what school district you are in, no matter what school you attend, EVERY school in the nation gets EXACTLY the same amount of money for each student.  So the white school on the hill would actually get less money than the over-crowded black school in the valley because it has less students!

My husband believes that this could be fixed without racial profiling.  He says all we have to do is look at what schools are doing well, which ones aren’t and then figure out why.  Fire bad teachers (if only it was that easy!), even out the financial playing field, offer open enrollment in all school districts as well as charter school and private school vouchers where needed, or, again, create a uniform dollar amount that each school gets per student enrolled.

So, it’s true, the problems could be fixed without identifying these students racial identities.  However, I see the value in spotting the places where race is still an issue.

Racism, sadly, is not dead in America.  Many of us strive to be “color blind” and raise “color blind” children.  But the fact is that humans are highly visual animals, and race is a HUGE and easy visual identifier.  So rather than teaching the world to be color blind, which is impossible, let’s try to teach our children to appreciate the rainbow, the differences, and the similarities.

Yes, under our skin we’re all the same, but that doesn’t change the fact that my daughter’s best friend speaks Chinese at home and attends a Buddhist temple on the weekends, and that her other best friend is a religious vegetarian who speaks Hindi at home and worships Ganesha and the other Hindu gods.  She can gain a lot from these friends by learning to appreciate that they are different from her.  If she wasn’t allowed to acknowledge the differences she wouldn’t be able to accept the lessons.  (For the record I feel the same way about her friend who speaks French, her friends who celebrate Hanukkah, her hispanic friends who help her with her Spanish, her Puritan friends who’s great-great-grandparents came over on the Mayflower, etc.)

Not everyone feels this way though, which is why, in the end, my husband checked every single box on the form.  Our daughter is officially a child of the whole Earth.  Don’t let her blond hair, blue eyes and alabaster skin fool you – after all, didn’t we all emerge from the same sample of pond scum a few billion years ago…

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