A Conversation About Single Parenting: Advice on How Teachers and Others Can Help Make a Difference

Co-authored with Donna Y Ford, Ph.D. Vanderbilt University, author of Recruiting and Retaining Culturally Different Students in Gifted Education, Mother, Grandmother and Advocate for Racial Justice

We recently came together as two mothers to discuss the stereotypes faced by single parents, single mothers in particular, and the additional stereotypes faced by Black single mothers. We used our own experiences as well as those we have spoken directly with to expose and challenge the cultural bias against single parents; an assumption that these households are less than, incomplete, and children suffer as a consequence. We suggested that it is possible to be a successful professional and single parent. Based on the response to our initial article, we have come together again as educators to offer advice on how teachers and others can help support single parents and their children.

Dr. Patricia Leavy: Thanks for joining forces again to continue our conversation. Based on the outpouring of support for our last article, I am encouraged that there are many people who would like to be more informed about and supportive of single parents and their children. Some people who are willing to recognize the biases and don't want to contribute to them. But they may not know how they can help, or even how, without intending it, they may be contributing to negative stereotypes. In this spirit, one area I wanted to pick up on is the issue of microaggressions. The cultural biases that single parents and our children are forced to deal with daily, occur through microaggressions. For people unfamiliar with the term, microaggressions refer to daily verbal or nonverbal insults that may be intentional or unintentional but communicate derogatory messages to people based on some status characteristic (race, gender, class, single-parent status). Because microaggressions may be unintentional, but nevertheless harmful to the recipient, I want to point out some microaggressions single parents and their children may experience regularly and alternatives people can use instead. By sensitizing people to these ways in which single parents and their children experience chronic bias, I hope to encourage people to think about how simple changes in their language and other responses can make a positive difference.

Here are two simple things that can make a big difference. First, don't make assumptions about people not present. In other words, if you come across a child with a mother, make no assumptions about whether there is another parent (or parents) in the picture. Act on what you know, not on what you assume. For example, when my daughter was young, I had numerous instances of salespeople, service workers, daycare workers, other parents and many others you encounter in daily life asking me about "my husband" or my daughter about "her dad" in the context of daily conversations. We were constantly forced to correct their false assumptions and it is very awkward knowing that children hear the exchange. It felt like we had to routinely explain and justify our family. This shouldn't be the case. Don't make assumptions about people's families. To show you how much single parents deal with this kind of thing, when I befriended a co-worker who was also a single mom she suggested a theme park to take my daughter to. She went out of her way to tell me that we would love it because they would treat us like a family. We would be welcome as we were. When one single mom has to say this to another, it illustrates what daily life is usually like.

Second, be careful of the language you use. This isn't about being "politically correct" and walking on eggshells, as some might suggest. It's simply about being respectful and inclusive. For example, teachers should be mindful about statements like "your parents" in classes. During my entire career as a college professor, I used the phrase "your parent, parents or guardians." It covered the range of family types my students might have (for example, some are raised by two parents, some by three or four parents, some by one parent, some by grandparents, some by an aunt or uncle, some by foster parents and so forth.) People worry it's hard to find phrases that 'cover it all' but with a little care, we can be far more inclusive so that no child or young adult feels excluded.

I know you have advice based on a a range of personal and professional experiences as well.

Dr. Donna Y Ford: The opportunity to speak to others on this most important topic, especially educators, is so appealing and necessary. The data are clear - most educators do not come from the backgrounds of their students in terms of family structure. Many teachers come from two-parent homes, which can and does create a disconnect with students. The same is true for administrators. I recall being in an urban school school and the principal (White male) was so proud to hold "Donuts with Dads" day. I learned from this same principal that over 80 percent of the children lived with their mothers and many of the fathers were in prison. I could not believe the principal knew this but kept the theme. I asked him why. He responded that he loved having his dad come to school. He treasured those days and recalled them fondly. I asked him how many dads came to previous "Donuts with Dads" day. The lightbulb went off. In a building of some 400 students, maybe 10 dads attended.

The principal was applying programs in a decontextualized way. He imposed his family structure and values on children whose family structure was not the same. This is a type of micro-aggression communicates, intended or not, that only two-parent families are healthy, normal and should be celebrated.

The principal agreed with my recommendation to change the day to "Muffins with Males". It was a great success as fathers, grandfathers, uncles, male cousins and male neighbors showed up. Almost every child had a male figure present, and when they did not, other males in attendance stepped in, stood in the gap and took the children under their wing for those two hours, those two precious hours. I recall the principal crying, literally, and thanking me for being at the right place at the right time. I cried too. It was simply priceless to see all children being supported and having someone there to represent them at this event that had previously gone wrong. How did those children feel not being able to attend the event? I can only imagine the shame and embarrassment, as well as anger some felt.

We never know why children are growing up with one parent. And as you stated, it is counterproductive to make assumptions. Microaggressions are ripe with assumptions and prejudgments. Yes, many of these students' fathers were incarcerated. Some fathers were deceased. Some fathers were living in another city or state due to employment. I choose to believe that most fathers want to be in their children's lives, but can't be for some reason or another. Like you, I ask rather than assume. And I applaud those parents who find a way to make the best of their situation.

Dr. Patricia Leavy: I love the example of changing "Donuts with Dads" to "Muffins with Males" because it clearly illustrates how we can easily and quickly transform even pre-existing programing to make it more inclusive. I also appreciate your example because it shows the trap many people fall into. Like the principal in your example, many use their own personal experiences as a benchmark by which to make assumptions about the experiences of others, and by which to determine what is 'normal.' Often we are completely unaware that we are doing this. Educators can make a difference not only by the language they employ, but also the kinds of content they make available to students. For example, for young children, books that positively represent many family structures can make a difference in normalizing and validating the many kinds of families kids come from. It's also important that teachers and administrators consider scheduling issues when planning school events, parent-teacher conference times and so forth. Often these events are planned at times when working parents, particularly if there is only one parent, cannot attend. This isn't a choice or a statement about how much a parent wants to support their child. Of course there will always be some school events scheduled at inconvenient times. However, parent-teacher conferences, for example, should never just be offered mid-afternoon, a time when working parents are unlikely to attend.

It is vital that other parents and caregivers are cognizant that all families are structured differently. I have shared with friends who are working parents that many school-related events are "clearly created by nonworking parents." I applaud parents who are able to make the choice to stay at home full-time with their children. But respect has to be mutual. It's important that those in two-parent families and those who don't work full-time are considerate of the different realities and demands on working parents and single parents in particular. These families should not automatically be excluded from book clubs, bake sales, fundraisers and other school events. Without considering the needs of different kinds of families, often people who want to participate are excluded by default. I believe with a little bit of consideration and collaborative planning, this needn't be the case.

Dr. Donna Y Ford: I learned a long time ago to start with what I have and then work to make changes so that students have positive school experiences. My professional background in counseling, my personal experiences in poverty and having lived as a single parent inform how I work with students, families and professionals. My empathy runs deep. Educators do not have the option and 'pleasure' of handpicking their students. To use a card analogy, we work with the hand we are dealt and make the best of it to win. In this case, winning means that our students experience school success and our families of all structures feel valued and welcome. Our personal views must not overshadow our professional obligations. Educators are given students from all walks of life and we are obligated to teach and reach each one. When children have a great deal of family support, they need us. When children have more challenging family situations, they need us even more. Single-parent families are here to stay. And we must be there to support children, who must live with the cards, they too are dealt. Let's help them to win. And in the process, we all win.