She spoke to Motherly about why inclusive language matters so much.
Inclusive language matters—not just for adults, but especially for kids. If your teacher is always talking in a way that excludes you it can hurt in a way that is hard for small children to articulate. The adults need to do the heavy lifting to prevent kids from feeling left out, and that's why one mom is making international headlines this week.
In a now-viral Twitter thread, Pennsylvania mom Dr. Sirry Alang called attention to the language teachers use to talk about students' caregivers, and how it can exclude some families because not every kid has a mom and dad at home.
A single, gay mom, Alang wrote that teachers should be aware that during remote learning, their class conversations are "broadcasted in everyone's homes."
"The # of times the teacher has said 'your mom and dad' to my kid's class is infuriating," she wrote of her daughter's second-grade class. She said a "brave kid" spoke up, telling the teacher that they and their sister live with their grandma. Then, Alang's daughter chimed in with, "I don't have a dad & it's okay because my mom said there are different kinds of families. Even though I would want a dad but she's gay. Gay means she only dates women."
"LOL. Now my business is out there," Alang wrote. The teacher apologized and said she will use "parent or the adult helping you at home" in the future.
Alang tells Motherly that she tweeted about the experience because she wanted to raise awareness about the importance of not excluding people in language. "I think most people, including teachers, are well-intentioned but might be unaware that their own lived experiences are not universally shared, and that their assumptions are not true for a large segment of the population," she said.
Alang is a parent and also teaches as an associate professor of sociology and health, medicine and society at Lehigh University. "Over the years, I have learned a lot from my students about the harm caused by using exclusive language," she said. She used to use "men and women" when talking about utilization of health services, but five years ago, in her first class as a college professor, a student said: "Professor Alang, are there other examples we can use that don't reinforce the gender binary?"
"And I got it. I am more intentional about my language," Alang said. "I still make this mistake sometimes, but you can be sure that examples in my lecture also include non-binary and trans persons."
She said that when teachers use the phrase "mom and dad" as a generic reference to parents and other grownups, it also reinforces "the archaic idea that families should consist of a mom and dad and kids." The phrase fails to acknowledge the realities of kids who live in homes that don't look like that and doesn't recognize their caregivers.
Research from GLSEN, a nonprofit that works to make schools safer for LGBTQ+ kids, found that LGBTQ+ parents were more likely to be involved in their school compared to national samples of parents, but 15% "felt that school personnel failed to acknowledge their type of family," and 16% felt that they could not fully participate in their child's school community because they were an LGBT parent.
Sophia Arredondo, GLSEN Director of Education & Youth Programs, says that she never felt seen as a queer Latinx parent raising two kids. She said for six years she had a partner who identified as nonbinary, and they felt alienated by school functions like "Donuts With Dads," "Muffins With Moms," and "Father/Daughter Dances."
Instead of terms like mother and father, she suggests that people use parent, caregiver or guardian. "Using these forms of language in classrooms not only acknowledges a fuller possibility of LGBTQ+ families, but also includes communities of color where aunties, uncles, siblings, grandparents, and elders have for centuries been responsible for raising children," she says. "This would of course include LGBTQ+ families of color."
Exclusive language can have a heavy emotional impact, Arredondo explains. "The unfair burden is on us to tell educators about our family when their words don't acknowledge that we exist, and too often the burden falls on our children when the practices and values of a school system and school culture reflect the erasure of queer parenting/caregiving/guardianship/etc.," she says.
Language that leaves people out can also have health effects. Part of Alang's work as a health researcher involves understanding the impact of exclusion on people's health, including their mental health. "Exclusive language is a mechanism of exclusion," she says. "It is associated with many mental health outcomes such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation."
Language indicates what and who we value, Alang explains. "Value, visibility and recognition shape health by providing access to spaces and resources (including social capital) that matter for health," she says.
Though changing what words we use every day won't solve all of the inequities LGBTQ+ families and families of color face, Arredondo says it's "one small, but critical, step to creating fully inclusive and affirming schools."
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