We sat cross legged, gathered around the lap top. Mage asked if anyone had any questions. A voice spoke out into our collective silence.
“How do you weave in Anti-Bias teaching? What does that look like for this age?”
What a profound wondering for Laura to share with us. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. My gut reaction is that everything we do is colored with Anti-Bias learning. How can that be??? To be perfectly frank it is because bias abounds. It flourishes. Its seeds were planted during the founding of our nation and American soil is fertile. Bias is so deeply rooted in each one of us that we often aren’t even aware of it. Because of this we take steps during each and every interaction at Elm House to try to dismantle systemic bias.
This is huge work because our society is incredibly ageist. Ageism is everywhere and comes across in innumerable ways. If you have children and you have tried to eat brunch at a hip place in SE you KNOW this in your core. You must list whether your party has children in it, and if it does, you will not be seated until one of a very few select tables next to their play space becomes available. 20 other parties may be seated before you if those parties don’t have children, because every empty table is available to them. It doesn’t matter that you and your children are hungry and have waited longer than your fair share. People don’t want to see or hear children, so you must wait to eat with other people who also have children and will therefore be less offended by their presence. If you are out and about you might hear parents apologizing to other people for the behavior of their children (running, laughing, crying). Deeply rooted ageism makes parents feel shameful for the very normal behavior and feelings of their children. If an adult at the table next to ours burst into tears, how would we respond? Would we glare? Would we loudly huff our displeasure? Would we raise eyebrows to others at our table? Would we look to their companions to quiet their grief? No! We would feel concerned. We might express worry to the others we are with. We may lower our voices out of respect for that person’s suffering. We might even pick up their tab because we want to help somehow, some way. You do not need to apologize that your children are human beings with ideas, needs, and feelings. You do not need to apologize that your children are human. You do not need to apologize.
Our society is also full of ableism. We actively discriminate against people who are less physically capable than us CHILDREN INCLUDED! Unlike wildebeest we are not born ready to run within an hour. It is contrary to human development, and literally impossible, however adults spend a lot of time communicating to children how incapable/slow/small they are. We don’t do this to be rude or critical, in fact oftentimes we think we are being kind or considerate. That’s how deeply rooted our bias is. “Oh, I’ll just carry you! We are going a long way and you’ll get tired.” We don’t tell other (adult) people what their bodies are capable of. We don’t force them to take accommodations. We don’t say, “My plans are more important than you trying. You can try on your own time.” All of those things would be considered incredibly rude if we said them to adults, but we are perfectly comfortable expressing them to children. At Elm House we try to be conscientious about the entirety of what we are expressing to the children. “You really want to walk. I thought I might carry you since we are traveling a far distance. You do not want to be carried. You have made that very clear. Will you let me know if you don’t feel like walking anymore? I brought the stroller with us just in case. We may not have time to read a book before nap because our walk will take longer than I was anticipating. That’s okay, things change. Thanks for letting me know you wanted to walk!”
If that seems like a mouthful, it’s because it is! Children are constantly learning and wondering, yet we keep an incredible wealth of information from them all the time. I am surprised by how little information people choose to share with children. When questioned people often respond with statements like, “Well, he can’t really understand me.” “It doesn’t matter to her what errands we are running.” “It’s not like he is going to respond.” Let’s take a closer look at these.
“Well, he can’t really understand me.”
Your child has incredible receptive language skills. They DO understand you. They may not be aware of certain vocabulary words, but that is due to lack of exposure, not lack of ability. When speaking with adults who use other languages, we don’t refuse to communicate with them when we are interacting closely with them. We look for any means to get our message across. We share similar words we may both know. We gesture. We use signs. We point to pictures. We ask people nearby to help aid us in communicating with that person. Children deserve the same consideration.
“It doesn’t matter to her what errands we are running.”
Why? Why do we think that? Of course she has opinions about how and where she will spend her day. If we ask an adult to join us for the afternoon, it is polite to check in with them about what activities we will do. “Before we go to lunch do you mind if we run by the post office so I can drop off the mail? On the way home I may need to stop by the store for some almond milk as well.” This gives the other person the option to let us know their limits and their needs. “You know I am actually incredibly hungry. Bordering on hangry over here. Can we grab lunch first? I’m happy to run any errands after that.” Children deserve the same consideration. Clearly we don’t need their permission before taking them places, but that doesn’t change the fact that we should let them know the plan and wait for a response. If your child starts expressing strong feelings they are trying to remind you of a need they have that they are afraid isn’t going to be met. You can assure them you know what they need, and you will make sure they get it. You can honor that they have opinions, while still doing the things that need to get done.
“It’s not like they are going to respond.”
Pre verbal children cannot respond to us the way other people might. People who are mute also fall into this category. We do not treat people who are mute as if they are mentally lacking, because they aren’t. The inability to speak does not negate the right to information. Children respond in many ways, in 100 languages if you will, and verbal speech is only one of those. I wouldn’t dream of making decisions for the body of a mute elder without letting them know what was happening. That would be disrespectful, scary, and awkward. Children deserve the same consideration. WS, our youngest child at Elm House, is pre-verbal. We always check in with him before interacting with his body. “Hey, WS. It is time for your diaper change. I am going to pick you up and lay you on the changing table. Are you ready?” Then, and this is crucial, we wait. We wait for a sign from WS. With very young children this often looks like a tensing of the body. They are literally bracing themselves to be carried and moved. Without that warning, they aren’t able to brace themselves and it’s startling! I would feel very uncomfortable if I was laying down looking at a book, and someone much larger than myself picked me up around the middle and hoisted my body aloft. I might yelp, flail, and kick. We often see these behaviors in children who are touched without warning. Communicating your intentions with another’s body is considerate, respectful, and the key stone of all our consent work here at Elm House.
To try and further dismantle ageism and ableism we encourage the children to look to one another for assistance before asking an adult. This is the opposite of what we hear in everyday conversations. “If you need help you can find a grown up!” Children are capable. Children deserve to have their abilities reflected back at them. FD was struggling with her sweater the other day and needed a hand. She came up to me and asked for my help. “Thank you for letting me know what you need FD, I would be happy to help, but I am helping WS with his jacket, I wonder who else could help you?”
“Who? Who?” FD echoed like a little owl.
OC had been observing from the corner and knew her moment had come. “I can help.” she stated firmly as she walked over. FD nodded her consent, which OC seemed to be waiting for. OC grabbed FD’s wrist and intentionally thrust her arm through the sleeve. She repeated this on the other side and then got started on the zipper. At that moment OC realized she was the only one left without shoes on. FD said, “Here! Your shoe. I will help.” FD had anticipated OC’s need and KNEW she could help. She already had OC’s shoe in her hand! Both of them were people who needed help, but they were also people capable of helping others.
Personally, feeling like my skill set is a perfect match for someone else’s need gives me a HUGE boost of confidence and self worth. I imagine it is similar for the children. If someone falls down in the backyard and asks for help, as teachers we echo their call instead of fulfilling it. “I hear that SM needs help standing up? Who can help!?!” Inevitably multiple children come rushing over. They know they can help, and whats more is that they want to. We dont want to take that sense of purpose and care away from the children. We invite you to consider this when your child is trying to puzzle things out on their own. Wait. Watch. Offer the least amount of help as is required. Communicate through your actions that you know your child is capable of caring for their body and others.
These are just a couple of the ways that we weave anti-bias practices into our work. It is something that is always on our minds and that we are always looking for new ideas on. I share this information with you humbly, as a person who needs to do much work herself. Please leave any questions, ideas, wonderings, or comments in the section below.