The Dreaded Family Tree Assignment stirs anxiety in the hearts of many adoptive and foster families. We worry that our kids will feel different, or that they will feel pressured to overshare. And our hearts really break if our beautiful child does not have some of the information that these assignments require.
While many schools are catching on quickly to the perils of assigning a project that defines “family” or digs into a child’s history, many families still face difficulty when their child is asked to bring in a baby picture or write family names and relationships on a hand-drawn oak tree. Any non-traditional family is subject to the triggers, but certainly, our kids who have come to us through adoption or foster care can really struggle with these assignments.
Variations of The Dreaded Family Tree Assignment
You’ve no doubt already seen some variations of the assignments that focus on who is family. With six kids in the public schools continuously since 1999, I sure have seen my share! In pre-school and the early elementary years, we saw a few different “All About Me” posters and “Me in a Bag,” in which kids are asked to put 5 things in a bag as conversation starters for class introductions.
To teach concepts of time, we’ve also had many variations of timelines like, “My Ten Point Timeline” or “Past Me, Present Me, Future Me.” Some schools use these projects as an opportunity to also practice speaking in front of peers, which can add many extra triggers for kids who dislike being in the spotlight or who feel unready to share their stories.
Certainly, these earliest versions of the project can be pretty benign and are much easier for a student (with Mom or Dad’s help?) to tweak for his own developing understanding of his story and his family’s comfort levels regarding privacy. But we all know that it doesn’t stay this easy (not much about parenting does, does it?), hence the dread that so many adoptive and foster parents feel at the start of a new school year.
The Social Media Effect
You don’t have to scroll far in an adoption or foster online community this time of year to find posts exclaiming over the very fact that such projects still exist. Or rants about the inflexibility or insensitivity of teachers who won’t modify such an assignment. Or worse, parents share their child’s anguish at not only having to share it in front of the classroom but also of the pain that “not knowing” some of this information that the child (and thus the parent) feels. These sorts of triggers are hard for our kids and therefore hard for us. Grief and loss are hard topics for anyone. To think about our child addressing those feelings in front of a whole classroom of peers is absolutely untenable for many of us.
In recent years, and maybe thanks to social media’s influence, there does seem to be a progressive movement by educators to avoid the dread in The Dreaded Family Tree Assignment. More teachers are pre-emptively researching or embracing educational options and more personalized parameters for the project. Educators do recognize that the definition of “family” is changing rapidly in our culture and that families built by adoption or by foster care often need an expanded ability to choose while still learning curriculum objectives.
You Are Not Alone
Whether you are part of a school that is already offering plenty of flexibility in these types of assignments or you are pioneering the way by advocating with and for your kid to change the face of these projects, we want you to know that you are not alone in your dread. We want to share the resources we’ve found to creatively modify assignments, talk with your kids to help them feel most supported, and even learn what is out there to help you educate the educators.
This website is full of templates for “non-traditional families” and they include a wide array of step-family dynamics, adoptive family trees, and trees for families with two mommies or two daddies. There are even templates for families built by egg donors and surrogacy. Given the many different shapes that families can take, you are sure to find something that you and your child can work with and maybe even that a teacher can agree upon.
When Laura contacted her son’s middle school teacher, she took the time to communicate that individual modification of the assignment was not actually the goal:
The answer is to design assignments like this in flexible ways FROM THE BEGINNING so every child feels included and capable of completing the work without feeling embarrassed or afraid of being different.
Ask Your Child About The Dreaded Family Tree Assignment
If you take some time to sit down with your student and get a read on how this project makes her feel, you can then work with her to find one or more modifications that will suit her. Each child is unique and the conversation can be a really informative peek into your child’s mind as she processes the options that feel most comfortable to her.
Karen handled The Dreaded Family Tree Assignment in a calm and non-reactive manner, letting her son lead the way in how to approach the conversation.
I think the best thing to do is not make a big deal about it. I ask my son how he would like to modify the project (if needed) and I email the teacher and let him/her know. I have never had any issue. This approach seems to give my son more confidence that his unique background is something to celebrate and not dread these assignments but take them as an opportunity to be creative.
Valarie uses the conversations to teach a bigger life lesson. They decided together what the project must look like, informed the teacher, and completed the assignment as they had agreed to do between them. This certainly puts the adoptee in the driver’s seat and prioritizes control over their own story.
What my kids learned it that everybody has a story. My daughter says that’s the most important lesson I’ve taught her. They never need feel ashamed of their story nor compelled to share it but knowing that everyone has a story they are great compassionate listeners.
Don’t Ask Permission.
Some parents don’t contact the teacher for permission or even inform the teacher of changes being made. They focus on how to meet the parameters of the assignment without calling down any unwanted attention over the issues.
If this is how your family chooses to handle The Dreaded Family Tree Assignment, be on the lookout for other opportunities to teach your child the skills of self-advocacy and exercising their voice. This skill is an important one for kids to practice, even if it’s in the safety of home to start.
There are also families who outright choose not to participate in the project, even with modifications because their family culture prioritizes the child’s right to privacy. Holly said it like this:
We don’t participate (daughter’s choice) – it’s her journey and story to share with who she feels comfortable. Adoptee voice is first for us – her voice says no, so I honor it.”
Find Your Path, But Be Flexible
As one mom said, “My 15-year-old daughter has done these projects for years, but only lately have they hit her hard.” It’s important to recognize that as our children grow in their understanding of their story and of the world in which they live, their feelings about what to share, how to share it, and IF EVEN to share it will also grow and change.
What works now for my little 1st grader will have to be modified as she gets a few more of these projects under her belt. She’s a raging extrovert and a very physical, relational learner. Teaching her how to judiciously choose what she can “hold back” to protect and hold sacred will very likely be my task.
I have to take a very different approach with my older daughter. She needs to know the requirements of the project and what she is “allowed” or “not allowed” to share. Coaching her is more about assuring her that it’s okay to treat the requirements of the project as guidelines rather than hard and fast rules. That sharing more won’t earn her more favor or a better grade. And that the grade is not the goal.
Increasing Complexity Can Mean Increasing Triggers
Of course, as the lesson objectives get more complicated and more biology-focused, such as the study of genetic traits, Punnett Squares, or hereditary diseases, so do the triggers. Delving deeply into the study of blood typing, congenital birth defects, and eye color can trigger anger, anxiety, feelings of abandonment, and more.
At this level of education, it’s even more important that our kids recognize their feelings and talk through them. If you can have a conversation with your student, you can often coach them on how to talk with the teachers. A saving grace of technology and social media is that they may be better tools for our kids to have this conversation with their teachers if talking one-on-one with the teacher feels intimidating.
Again, as the complexity of the projects increases, you and your child will have to talk about how they prefer to handle it and what their options for self-advocacy could be. There are many options with these more complex assignments as well. One mom advocated for her child to be able to study the genetic lineage of a person of the student’s choosing in deference to her child’s discomfort with sharing limited personal details. Other moms have done something similar by studying one famous person in the context of complex historical timelines.
You Don’t Have to Dread The Family Tree Assignment
There is a myriad of ways to handle the hard conversations surrounding family-history-focused assignments. It doesn’t have to be rife with such dread and anxiety for us parents. With a little preparation, a little advice from parents who have been through it already, and some creative problem-solving skills between you and your student, you can help your child claim ownership and voice in whatever way feels comfortable to her.
Image credits: Anderson Ferreira de Deus; blog author; Joe Hall