Some Schools Skipping Family Tree Assignment Because It’s Too ‘Complicated’

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The classic classroom assignment of putting together your family tree as a kid just got more “complicated” according to The New York Times. Not all family portraits look the same anymore what with surrogates, same-sex parents, sperm donors, and of course adoption. Teachers are finding themselves in a position of having conversations with children that they perhaps weren’t prepared for in previous generations. Sadly, this possibility has stopped some schools from continuing with the time treasured assignment altogether.

The Times writes:

Some families now organize their family tree into two separate histories: genetic and emotional. Some schools, where charting family history has traditionally been a classroom project, are now skipping the exercise altogether.

Adriana Murphy, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at the Green Acres School in Rockville, Md., said she asked students to write a story about an aspect of their family history instead. At Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, KC Cohen, a counselor, said the family tree had been mostly relegated to foreign language class, where students can practice saying “brother” or “sister” in French and Spanish.

“You have to be ready to have that conversation about surrogates, sperm donors and same-sex parents if you are going to teach the family tree in the classroom,” Ms. Cohen said.

Most troubling about this decision to skip doing a family tree is that it reaffirms the notion that a “family” is strictly the traditional, nuclear layout. By refraining from the exercise in the wake of queer families, single parents, and surrogacy, the conventional perception of family is preserved instead of being asked to evolve. It may be difficult for adults to parse out who is the “actual” mother, father, or guardian of a child in our contemporary world, but ask any child who their parents are and they’ll tell you without hesitation. They won’t have any issue drawing a line between their two daddies and citing themselves and their siblings as part of said union.

It would seem that the only people who find a modern family tree exercise too “complicated” are the grownups.


  1. skeller

    July 6, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    But every person DOES have a mother and father, and if their current family situation doesn’t reflect that, it IS complicated. And if the teachers are choosing to opt out of family tree assignments, it’s most likely because too many of the students are saying “I can’t do this because…”

  2. Ronni

    July 26, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    Ugh…this is an antiquated assignment! About time it died out! There are so many other ways to express family. I have suggested teachers use a garden and ask children who is in their garden. My children are both from Guatemala, from different birth families and I am a single mother. The “tree” assignment is a nightmare, trust me. I remember my son’s kindergarten teacher told the kids to trace the hands of their family members and paste them like leaves onto the tree. At that time, we were waiting for his sister’s paperwork to clear and my parents and brother and his family were on the other side of the country. We made a leaf for his soon-to-be-sister, one for his “tummy mom” and one for me. The teacher hung his “tree” down at the bottom by the floor in the Open House display. Great message, right? The design of the typical family tree doesn’t allow for birth parents and adoptive parents. It doesn’t really speak for children being raised by grandchildren. I think of a child I know whose mother is a crack addict and whose father killed himself. His paternal grandparents raised him until the grandmother died of Cancer. Now the grandfather is remarried. How do you “tree” that? There is NOTHING disturbing about the loss of this assignment. The world has changed. We need room for more than Beaver Cleaver now. Schools need to keep up with the cultural norms in the community and teach in a way that does not exclude children or make them feel incomplete.

  3. M.A.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:59 pm

    This assignment was a nightmare for my 12 year old stepdaughter. My husband met her mom (now his ex) when my stepdaughter was a toddler, and he raised her as his own, her dad wanted no part in it. Then her mom went to jail when she was in kindergarten. I met my husband a few years later and we recently married. For her, we are “mom and dad” but we’re white and she’s not and it was quite an issue at school with both teacher and classmates. Kids can research family history without this type of assignment.

  4. Mel

    July 28, 2011 at 3:24 am

    I’m glad it died out . Yeah, it was a good assignment & all, but i HATED doing it, just because i didn’t know my grandmother that well nor my grandfather (on my dad’s side). My immediate family is one race, but it was still hard for me. Just because the tree didn’t have enough branches. lol (:

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