When I started teaching 19 years ago, many people told me, “Kids say the darnedest things.” It’s true. Unlike with adults, young children do not always filter their comments. Nor do they think of issues in the same way that grown ups do. I was reminded of this recently.
This is a post of two stories. The first one happened a couple of weeks ago, when a child came up to me while she was eating and said, “[Name] told me that boys can marry boys, but they can’t. Can they?” Now comes the question of, how do I respond? This can be a great teachable moment, but I also want to consider my audience, and in some ways, let the child lead the conversation. I replied with, “Actually they can. Some do.” She thought about this for a minute and said, “Well, I don’t want to marry a girl, and I certainly can’t marry a blueberry. I’m going to marry [Name].” She then tells me about a friend of hers that she likes to play with at the park. They always go on the swings together. She thinks he would make the perfect husband. So for her, at this moment in her young life, it’s no to marrying a girl, no to marrying fruit, and yes to marrying her childhood friend. Strangely enough, I didn’t need to say much for her to make sense of this information on her own and react to it in a way that worked for her.
Fast forward to almost a week later. A little storytelling did not go where I expected it to when I overheard some children making dolls for our dollhouse space, and they decided that one doll was going to have a baby. When I suggested making clothes for this doll, the child told me, “She needs to have her baby first. She can’t wear clothes to have a baby.” What do I say to that? I decided not to say anything. I watched her design a little wooden doll baby and soon wrap it in the mother’s arms. Then the focus was on clothes for the baby and clothes for the mother. While I know that this child has some understanding about where babies come from, even if she doesn’t necessarily know the full story, by just watching and listening from the sidelines, the play moved past birthing without a need for me to become involved. With a few photograph provocations and some discussion, we’ve managed to go from a maternity ward interest …
… to broken bones/orthopaedics and hospital furniture.
I was recently chatting with my teaching partner, Paula, about this, and I explained my conundrum to her. I don’t want to extend conversations that are beyond the developmental level of our children. It’s not up to me to discuss marriage and birthing with four-, five-, and six-year-olds. That said, I think we also need to remember that children interpret information based on their schema. I could have panicked about the marriage or baby discussions, but both turned into small, almost insignificant, conversation points. Especially in the case of the baby situation, our students did what kids of this age so regularly do: they made sense of what they know through their representational play. I keep thinking about a story I heard back in my early days of teaching. A colleague had a child in her class whose mom just had a baby. The birth was at home. In the dramatic play centre, this little girl was laying down on her back, knees up, people surrounding her, and screaming, “Get it out! Get it out! Get it out!” Then out popped the baby doll. Trust me, our dollhouse play was much more tame than that.
Thinking about all of this though, my other bigger reflection is that I also don’t want to react in a way where children feel embarrassed or in trouble for sharing their stories. I keep thinking about my days of teaching junior grades, especially when students started to learn about Growth and Development. Their bodies scared them, and asking questions, sharing information, and talking to teachers or peers about their growing bodies often caused tears, red cheeks, and running from the room. Sometimes even fainting. If we tell our young students, who are so very open to questioning and sharing with us, that these are taboo subjects not to be discussed at school, what kind of message are we inadvertantly giving them about themselves, their choices, and their bodies? I will always air on the side of sharing less versus more, but I want children to feel comfortable to come to us, express themselves, and ask questions. At this young age, when bathroom words are the ultimate topic of discussion, nothing is of greater interest than the human body. This will change — naturally, developmentally, and surely in time — but for now, I’ll continue to be there to listen. How would you respond in similar situations? These four-, five-, and six-year-olds will grow up, and when they do, I hope that they’re as open to share and wonder as they are now.