Conversations with a second grader
The debate over gender identity and sexual orientation discussions in the classrooms of young children has become a controversial national issue in recent months.
As I was observing what people on all sides of this issue were saying about it, it dawned on me that I once had a conversation with one of my children that is a perfect example of how literal young children think and why conversations on the subject should not be held in a public setting, such as the classroom, until they are a little older.
When my son was in second grade, at around age eight, he and a friend were in the back seat of the car after I picked them up from school one day. As often happened, we would chat about whatever was on their minds. This particular day, I heard, “Mom, [name not recalled] said Michael Jackson is Gay.”
This was one of the many times I was grateful, from my position in the driver’s seat, to have only my eyes visible to them in the rear view mirror, making it possible to conceal my facial expressions.
I responded with, “Well, that might be true,” hoping this would be the end of the discussion, but alas, his inquisitive mind wanted more information.
“What is Gay?” was the next thing I heard from the back seat.
Like many parents, I did lots of reading from the “experts” on how to raise children. One especially helpful tip was to not react immediately when they fell or got hurt. I would hold my breath and wait to see if they would simply get up and walk away, or witness that dreaded cry that begins with complete silence.
I have witnessed children taking cues from freaked out parents in situations such as these, and if the parent had not immediately gone into “Oh my God, are you ok?” mode, everyone would have carried on as if nothing had happened, instead of the child realizing they could create a pattern of garnering attention.
This technique was proven out one day while sitting at the dining room table, when one of my son’s toys rolled under it. In an instant, he rushed under, grabbed the toy, and stood straight up – his head and the table making contact in a loud crash. I held back the impulse to yell, “Oh my God, are you ok?” and waited to see how he would react. He simply removed himself from under the table and went off to play with said toy. But I digress.
I also did my best to practice another technique regarding answering questions from children – that answers to complicated questions be answered directly, without lying or making up extravagant stories, while limiting or tailoring the details to something simple and age appropriate.
I thought I did a magnificent job of balancing these things out when I answered his “what is Gay?” question with the following: “Hmmmm…well, that would be something like, instead of a man and a woman living together, like mom and dad…two men would live together.” I was also cognizant of the fact that I had someone else’s child in the car.
That seemed to satisfy him and the incident was forgotten about…until weeks later when his father and I attended Parent-Teacher Night at his school.
After some of the typical discussions on grades and classroom behavior, while sitting in the tiny chair, which already tends to make you feel a bit awkward, his second grade teacher said, “I have to tell you about something curious that [name withheld to protect the writer] said in class recently.”
This was not a particularly alarming phrase, since our guy was an entertaining entity from a very young age, so I was totally unprepared for it when she shared the following classroom conversation.
It went something like this: In English class, they were going over changing words to plurals and the teacher said she was explaining the change from ‘fe’ to ‘ves,’ as in the case of wife/wives. She said she explained the concept and used the example, “for instance, a man has one wife – he cannot have two wives.”
A simple concept gone bad when she told us that our adorable and innocent son raised his hand, and when called on said, “When I grow up, I’m not going to get married, I’m going to be Gay!”
After I picked my jaw up from the surface of the table, I managed to say, “I have no idea why he would say something like this.” Now, to put things in perspective, this was many years ago, when conversations of the sort were not as commonplace as they are now, and these exchanges might have gone differently today than they did back then.
We left the school that evening befuddled and shaking our heads, but a few days later, after wracking my brain about it, the lightbulb went on. I connected the dots between our conversation in the car and his classroom comment.
It was clear to me that at his level of maturity and ability to understand these concepts, that my simplistic example of being Gay – two guys living together, rather than a man and a woman – sounded fantastic to him. At his age, and at that moment in time, the thought of living with a girl was not at all attractive to him; a roommate situation, if you will.
Without having held the “birds and bees” discussion with him at this point, no other explanation seemed appropriate, and if he was “put off” at the notion of any kind of liaison with a girl, I can only imagine how the explanation of two men being in a romantic partnership would have gone over.
I did call the teacher and related my findings to her.
While children seem worldlier at younger ages than they were in the past, it is still a good example of how these conversations should be left up to parents, at least until a certain age.
I know Gay people that agree with what Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill does. For the most part, I would have to believe that everyone screaming about it is either purposely blowing it out of proportion, or has likely been misinformed that the language in the bill specifies that “classroom instruction” on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in grades K-3, “or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”
In today’s politically charged climate, it is not impossible that a teacher, or even some parents, might actually take a comment like my son’s seriously and start taking steps to encourage it, rather than let it ride and see how things play out over time.
Although most parents are not experts in psychology, we know our children’s maturity level and their ability to handle certain conversations better than any teacher could.
This also speaks to another provision in the bill that requires communication between teachers and parents. That partnership plays an important role in our children’s lives.
There is a balance that needs to be struck. Teaching acceptance of all, while allowing children to be children, without the pressure of potentially awkward and age-inappropriate conversions outside of the home, seems more than sensible.
Should questions about such matters arise in K-3 classrooms, they can be gently and adeptly handled without crossing the boundaries set forth in the bill, along with the suggestion to talk with their families about it.
Originally published on Citizen Stringer, April 25, 2022