Stereotyping Families

“When your kid has a new friend, don’t ask ‘What do your friend’s mommy and daddy do?’ Ask what their parents do”
from How not to raise a homophobe: A straight parents guide..

It’s good advice: avoid assuming that every child has a male and female carer. But it falls into exactly the trap it’s trying to avoid: assuming too much about someone else’s family.§

What about children whose parents were never married, separated, divorced, or bereaved?#
What about blended or polyamorous families?
What about children who live with their extended families, or are in foster care?
We just can’t assume that every child (or, for that matter, every person*):

  • has more than one carer,
  • has at most two carers,
  • has exactly one family~,
  • lives in only one household,
  • or lives with a (biological) parent!

And, more broadly, we just can’t assume that every person:

  • is employed,
  • has or wants a relationship, significant other(s), or child(ren).

What about single people?

I’d like to suggest an alternative:
Say, “Tell me about their family…”
This can be backed-up with a variety of age-appropriate questions (if the child needs prompting):

  • Where do they live?**
  • What do they do for recreation, hobbies, or holidays?**
  • What are their values, cultural, and/or faith background?##

In addition to asking about a child’s carer’s work. However, if asking about work is common in the culture around a child, they’ll most likely pick it up anyway.

You could also mix it up by asking about the other child, as well as their family. But my guess is that you’ll have heard a lot about the other child already!



§ The article, and particularly the quote, implicitly assumes that every family has exactly two parents.

# Many arguments against marriage equality rely on the assumption that children benefit from or need carers (well, “parents”) of two different genders. These apply just as much to families which have experienced separation, divorce, or bereavement. But, for some reason, they’re never mentioned. This has always irritated me.

* Adults regularly ask these same questions of each other. We just don’t often notice, because they’re lifelong habits.

~ I grew up with a single mother as my primary carer. I have three parents, in two separate families and households. My families have multiple surnames, and mine is unique – which allowed me to easily filter telemarketers when I was younger, because they’d ask for Mr. W. (who doesn’t exist).

With divorce rates above 50% in some jurisdictions, multi-household and blended families are no longer the the exception to the nuclear family – they’re often the rule.

In some (sub-)cultures, “Ask what their parents do” means “what do their parents do for a job”. This is often used as a proxy for (unconscious) class categorisation. Other (sub-)cultures typically ask about relatives, ancestry, interests, or religious background†† as an introductory exchange.

†† Many Christian sub-cultures inevitably ask “Where do you go to church?” as an opening line. This allows instant categorisation of someone’s likely theological variations, and also subtly excludes those who are not attending (typical) churches.

** These questions are potentially classist. (Also, not everyone plays or watches sport as a hobby.)

## These questions are potentially discriminatory on a racial, cultural, or religious basis. I’m not always confident I can ask these questions without the risk of being racist. But there are some contexts where they can be appropriate.

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