December Dilemmas

Our public schools are for everyone. Most important at this time and throughout the year is that parents -- in partnership with schools -- teach children how to respect and celebrate their differences.
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It's the holiday season and there are celebrations everywhere -- at the office, at home and in the schools. However you celebrate at home or in the office, the notion of what is appropriate and inappropriate in public schools continues to evolve as our communities become more diverse.

When I was a child, Christmas was observed in the schools with Christmas pageants, Christmas concerts, Christmas parties, candy canes and Christmas carols. Children who did not celebrate Christmas felt excluded. A generation later, Hanukkah was given a mention with a Hanukkah song in the holiday concert and perhaps Hanukkah food, such as jelly doughnuts. It was better than nothing, but still not much.

Later, Kwanzaa was included. Whether it was called "holiday festivities" or Christmas, everyone understood that it was basically a Christmas celebration with merely a nod to non-Christian holidays.
Nowadays, students observe so many different winter holidays in our multi-cultural society that schools simply can't keep up with them all. Rather than being exclusionary, a number of schools have adopted an educational solution to this winter dilemma by having the students share their family traditions with their classmates. In this way, the school or teacher doesn't put an imprimatur on any one practice.

The children explain their customs and share their foods - and it becomes a learning experience.
Did I say "food?" Anyone who has ever worked in a school knows that you can easily gain seven pounds between Thanksgiving and Christmas with all the ubiquitous goodies. But sharing food among children has become a real problem. Is the food gluten free, peanut free, animal free, kosher or halal? With medical conditions, such as celiac disease, food allergies and dietary restrictions, it's not as easy as it used to be to share holiday fare with your classmates. In the past, people just didn't know any better; now we do!

Add to this the rampant concern about obesity and healthy eating in this country, and we have another dilemma on our hands. Parties bring together students, teachers and parents, and provide a break from the routine. But school parties typically revolve around junk food, such as candy, cookies, cupcakes and chips. As parents across the country lobby for school wellness policies and healthier fare in school cafeterias, the traditional holiday party becomes almost politically incorrect.

With these dilemmas, parents who care have to weigh in. You have to speak up if your child feels uncomfortable or is in danger of having his health or beliefs violated. School officials will listen to your concerns. In one district where I worked, parents rallied against a Christmas pageant in one school. It was replaced by a more ecumenical sharing of traditions.

Recently, one Rockland County teacher went way too far by telling her students that there is no Santa Claus. Parents complained and the teacher called each parent to apologize. Clearly, this teacher had no business imposing her own views and impinging on children's beliefs.

If your child has a food restriction, let the school know ahead of time. If it's a matter of healthy eating, are you willing to make an exception for a special occasion -- or do you think school parties shouldn't revolve around junk food? A study in the Journal of Nutrition, Education, and Behavior indicated that when fruit was served along with candy and cookies, children ate it and their total consumption of calories dropped.

If you are a parent who cares passionately about what is served at class parties, form a committee and come up with healthier food alternatives. Additionally, plan fun activities that are not food-related. How about a community service project instead, around which parents and students can unite?

Whatever your individual concerns or beliefs, our public schools are for everyone. Most important at this time and throughout the year is that parents -- in partnership with schools -- teach children how to respect and celebrate their differences.

Wishing you a happy holiday season and a healthy new year!

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