Humble Horizons Montessori

anti-bias education part 2: “Person-first” relationships for gender and family inclusivity in early childhood education and Montessori settings

Pride month might be over (…not to mention that it co-occurred during the BLM movement and a worldwide pandemic). But being a parent or student who falls into a marginalized group based on your gender identification or sexual orientation unfortunately might not be “over” for many parents or students out there.

This post has tips for encouraging school directors and educators in early childhood and Montessori communities to make shifts to an increasingly inclusive person-first mentality.

Accepting and supporting parents who identify as anything other than sysgendered heterosexuals isn’t as instinctual for everyone as we’d like to hope, even in 2020. Yes, it feels absurd and sad that I even have to be addressing this. Because there is no greater expression of love than choosing to raise a child; and that has nothing to do with one’s gender or sexual preferences. However, even still in 2020, not everyone is fully with the times.

Just like with racial inclusivity, people love to think that they’re on top of it, but there is a lot of change to keep up with in the arena of social change. People’s attitudes and habits aren’t always keeping up with the social pace. There are staff in schools, particularly in the Montessori world, who have been in the field for multiple decades. There are schools in this country that have been open for decades and still need to do “diversity drive” fundraisers (and no. No they aren’t even referring to “LGBTQI+” under their definition of “diversity”, let’s keep it real).

So here are some things your school, or you as a teacher, or you as a parent can do that helps us all try to be a little more woke around gender and family inclusivity. We can’t exactly be like “we would love to have some trans parents enroll their child at our school so we can be more diverse!”. You may only get one or two LGBTQ families per year in your school community in some places, if that. But the inclusivity and attitude shift is still necessary for all schools.

**If there are even better resources to learn about supporting parents and children from the LBGTQI+ community, someone please reach out, and help resource us/me! I am not an expert in this, whatsoever. I’m just sharing my personal thoughts and experiences from the classroom thus far.

~ Ask the parents how their child refers to them, so that you can follow the child’s lead or the families’ preferences. Avoid jumping to conclusions and asking something insensitive like “who is mama, and who is mommy?”, or “So which one of you is the biological parent?”. Especially with the younger children, those kids may not even be fully verbal yet; and some of the parents I’ve served in classrooms past chose to wait on their child to see what their child naturally decided to call them.

~Slow down with the labels, will ya? Did you catch how I did that up there? “Some of the parents…”? Notice how I did not say “some of the gay parents”, or even “some of the unconventional/ atypical/ whatever… parents”. You can just call them “parents”. And that, my friends, is how person-first language actually works. You don’t even need to throw any sur-descriptions on it, like “the parent with the…” or “the parent who…”. “Parents”, or that person’s name is all you need to refer to them as. If you suck at remembering names like I do, use the child’s name. “Jane’s parents– what are their names again?”. Keep a name list with you at pick up, drop off, and all meetings. Sing lots of name songs with the kids– which is really more for me than it is for them, LOL.

~At some point, we need to let go of “mother’s day/ father’s day” as a default school tradition, and transition it to “Caregivers Day”. If our country wants to keep mother’s day/ father’s day on the calendar, let that be each families’ personal choice to celebrate from home. I love mother’s day tea and donuts with dad just as much as the next person. But these days get awkward for the child who does not have a mother or father, and it excludes other ‘types’ of caregivers. Mother’s/Father’s day can also exclude a lot of your faculty, some of whom may not be parents. It also excludes any child who may have lost a parent, it puts single parents whose partners have walked out on them or were never in the picture under the microscope, and it may confuse children who are adopted. It makes things real awkward for children whose parents are under a restraining order; and it also makes things very complex for children with divorced parents who have since remarried, and who now have like, a million sets of parents to celebrate. It’s high time schools just get over this outdated tradition.

Feel free to disagree. But Dr. Montessori was also a professor of anthropology, after all. And I believe she would be responsive to the changing tides in human societies if she was still alive. So as Montessori schools, we should really be on top of the game.

~ Leave your discomfort, biases, and awkward thoughts outside the classroom door. There are subgroups within the LBGTQI+ community who are still a minority, in the grand scheme of our social fabric; and let’s face it– when you first meet someone different, your mind may be filled with a lot of questions or assumptions. How loving and competent anyone is at parenting has zero to do with who you’re sexually attracted to and how you express love. And yes. Just accept the unspoken truth– all kinds of couples express affection under the same roof as their baby and in front of their baby, as I hope all parents do. Because if you’re a parent who is still gettin’ it on regularly, and who loves to hug, kiss, and hold hands with your partner publicly, that’s a sign of a thriving and healthy relationship.

What people do to express love and affection as adults is none of your business. And it bears zero weight on whether or not they’re killing it as parents. Would you appreciate anyone walking into your school or classroom, looking at you, and imaging what your romantic life might be like? Uh, no. So just drop all your ideas, stereotypes, assumptions, and hangups; and focus on what matters: how well loved, cared for, and educated their kid is. Acknowledge and release any and all stereotypes that might be swirling in your mind, any any temptation to analyze and compare anything you think you know about any couple that isn’t you and your boo.

~ Get on the gender-neutral bathroom train. Or as I like to call it, “the bathroom”. I have a deep, dark secret to tell everyone. Ready? Here it is: the toilet doesn’t know what gender you are, and it doesn’t care. The kids for darn sure don’t care– they all share the same bathrooms in the 0-3 Montessori world; and they all undress in front of each other, and no one is trippin in babylandia. As the children get older, everyone starts to care more whether the children are in mixed bathrooms or whatnot. But let me assure you: brothers and sisters and cousins all share bathrooms, and sometimes continue to bathe together in the years of early childhood.

Most families know what its like having people of whatever gender use the same bathroom as them. The “family friendly” bathroom has had a leg up over the “gender inclusive” bathroom for quite some time now. If you cannot trust the children to make safe and appropriate choices in the bathroom, they must have an adult’s supervision at all times regardless of that child’s gender or age. If the child prefers to have some visual privacy after age three, there ought to be some toilets with stalls for one person at a time; and it ought to be the child’s choice of whether they are OK changing clothes ‘communally’ or in private.

TBH, it is the presence of exposed urinals that determine the gender neutrality of a bathroom. Have you ever accidentally found yourself walking into the wrong bathroom? I have. I needed to pee SO badly one time during dance class so I ran out of the studio, into the door that was pink, headed straight into the nearest stall to relieve myself in the frenzy of needing to pee so badly, and walked out to a man peeing in a urinal. Oops. It’s not just a “change the sign on the bathroom door” issue.

If society really wanted “gender inclusive” public restrooms, every bathroom would have stalls with doors on them; and a urinal, plus a toilet in each stall. Has anyone besides me ever wondered why the urinals aren’t in stalls?

Urinals exist for a male’s convenience. So… chew on that, America. Because let me assure you, 0-3 preschool bathrooms in Montessori programs are still in “garden of Eden” mode– “Naked, and they felt no shame”. (Genesis 2:25). Ok so there’s my rant on the gender neutral bathroom concept. Let’s get back to inclusivity. LOL.

~ You need to decide as a school community, or on a client-by-client basis how you are going to make the shift towards including the vast array of non-binary gender possibilities. And I will say that is really difficult as a 0-3 educator. Are you gonna drop the gender-specific pronouns, or what? When children are in the phase of trying to digest the natural differences of people in the world, they’re going to start asking questions trying to figure out who has penises, who has vulvas, and what makes males male and what makes females female.

My Montessori teacher training as of 2015 was still using pronouns, and making distinctions between the roles of the mother vs roles of the father. So there’s that. LGBTQI+ didn’t exist 100 years ago when the Montessori method was developed, not that it leaves our pedagogy and our trainers off the hook for modernizing with society.

0-3 is the prime age where the kids look me straight in the eye and ask me point blank if I have a vulva or a penis. 0-3 is the age where all the little girls try to pee standing up because they see their male peers doing it. Little girls can wear trucks underwear now, but you will never see boy’s underwear sold commercially, with say, ballerinas printed on it. Children learn gender and they see gender, but they don’t judge masculinity and femininity the way we adults do. Judgement and biases are socially learned. Nevertheless, we must adapt and acknowledge that it is our responsibility as parents and educators to raise inclusive, wise, anti-biased children. And a lot of what they think and express is heavily driven by adults.

~Don’t assume that you can run to the only gay person you know, to be the spokesperson of the entire LGTBQIA+ community. It’s really easy to think “I’ll go ask my gay cousin to fill me in and update my knowledge”. Well if your cousin is a lesbian, she can’t speak on behalf of say, the gay male experience. And if she’s not a parent, she definitely can’t help you learn what that’s like. I have to imagine that every person’s perspective and experiences are unique, just like a black male raised in Hawaii is not going to have the same experience as a black male raised in Baltimore, or as, say, Beyonce Knowles.

~ I’d like to hope this is gone now but obviously we have to get rid of old school genderizing. Sometimes it’s really obvious, like “pink is for girls, blue is for boys”, “genderizing toys”, and “role call or lining up by gender” stuff. But sometimes it can be more subtle in the early childhood world, for example through children’s songs or nursery rhymes. Or in how we label community helpers and occupations (firefighter, mail carrier, fisher…person? Fisher? Journey…person?). In the books we choose to read to the children. Things like that.

We just have to be more aware now. Girls and boys may play with whatever they want, wear whatever they want, and become whatever they want. And they can be whatever gender they want to, or don’t want to. And the teacher must now honor that. It’s about making self-expression of all varieties acceptable, and letting people be, so long as no one is getting hurt, disrespected, and nothing is getting damaged.

~ If a child in your classroom is biologically male or female, but prefers to be referred to as another label, you either decide as a school how you will respond on a policy level, or you go straight to that child’s parents or caregivers and you ask what to do by saying, “I observe that Jane prefers… have you seen/heard this before, and if so, how do you respond? If you have not seen this behavior, how would you like us to respond?”.

~ Ponytails are not just for boys in Montessori 0-3 classrooms, and yes we traditionally include hair grooming in our curriculum. I have sent little boys home with ponytails in their long hair the dad refuses to let the mom cut, and certain dads are FURIOUS that their little boy is receiving ponytails b/c they don’t want their little boy to be misjudged for being gay or being a little girl. So then my assistants would tell me whose ponytails we need to take out before the babies go home, so we don’t piss off the macho, hetero dads. This is where we are in 2020, folks.

As the leader of my classroom, I make it very clear in my parent orientation meetings now that if your child, male or female, has very long hair that gets in their faces, it is the parents’ responsibility to provide hair ties, bobby pins, or headbands to keep their child’s hair out of their face. I make it clear that I reserve the right to tie back any child’s hair as needed, because I need all of my students to be able to work without distraction; and we need to reduce the spread of germs from touching the face and hair.

So if your little boy has long hair, he’s getting a ponytail if he needs or wants one in Ms. Roxie’s classroom. And if you don’t like it, you may take it out the minute they get back in your car. It doesn’t mean he’s gay; and I now refuse to hide the ponytails from dads. In Hawaii, lots of men wear their hair long; and wear ponytails. And if you don’t like it, Jason Momoa can come kick your butt.

~ Under all circumstances, every school must have a zero tolerance policy for bullying and teasing around sexual preferences or gender identity of the child, or their family members (…and for any reason). I’m an 80s baby and I will be the first to say I fully remember how cruelly and mercilessly we used to tease peers in school for not fitting into the gender and sexual identification binary. And it was not okay. And what’s even more disturbing is that I don’t ever recall our adult teachers ever stepping in to stop us or to intercede on that child’s behalf.

We were intensely cruel. I remember it vividly. Vividly, verbatim, exactly what we used to say and do to certain peers. And it probably left a permanent scar on our peers’ psyche and self-image if I can still remember it. Parents, you also need to encourage your children to speak to you or someone else if they are ever the recipient of bullying or repetitively unkind behavior.

~Finally, it’s the educator’s job to inform and educate ourselves about any community of people that remains unfamiliar to us; and to include anti-bias teacher training as mandatory and a default part of your school’s culture, every year. Do ask lots of questions about what you don’t know and have the humility to admit what you don’t know.

I’m not even gonna pretend like I’m on top of all the non-binary gender spectrum labels. I fully confess I am not; and it’s my own fault that I have not put forth the effort to educate myself. I just learned what the “I” and “A” stand for two minutes ago; and it can feel overwhelming for the uninitiated. I’ll even go so far as to let myself believe that it can be easy to brush it off as non-applicable to because I have not yet had any parents in my classrooms who for sure identifies with those labels. But those are not excuses to why one ought to remain ignorant.

Just because something may feel non-applicable to us for the time being doesn’t mean it’s not relevant to the communities and families we serve. Also there is no telling which of the children in your school or classroom is going to grow up falling into the aforementioned categories.

How does one begin to inform themselves about some LGBTQ basics? I will be honest– I don’t know; and I don’t even begin to pretend like I know the most legit resource to start learning. But when I find out, I will update this post.

So that’s all I can think of for now, folks! Here are a few resources I’m trying to learn from.

Mahalo for the read (:

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