Dear teachers, please don't ask kids to create their family tree

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK 

Asking kids to share their family tree at school is an exercise fraught with emotion.

For many kids the idea of having to explain to their classmates that their family is not the same as others is daunting and embarrassing. 

In my experience, it was something I feared.

I don't know my dad.

It's not something I talk freely about as the statement is always followed by many questions that I can't answer. It's not a case of my dad abandoning me; I actually have no idea who he is and never will.

Growing up in a predominantly middle class neighbourhood I was often asked to explain why I didn't have a father in my life. School projects involving my family history or family tree put me in the spotlight and it was excruciating.

Thirty years down the track and I thought my children wouldn't be subjected to the same pressure, but I was wrong.

Last week, two-out-of-three of my kids came home saying they had to do class presentations about their family history. They were expected to interview family members about their experiences growing up, including where they came from and their ancestry. 

Both of them felt anxious about it. And for our youngest, it raised a lot of questions that I was not ready to explain, but was forced to because she needed answers.

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But our family history is not only different because of my dad it's also impacted by it being highly fractured. 

Due to a number of reasons, my husband has no contact with his parents. 

And on my mum's side, both of her parents (my grandparents) died when she was young. 

We do not have a straightforward family history.

Luckily, we have my mum, who is highly involved in our life and a gorgeous extended family, we see regularly. We also have a strong network of friends who step-in and provide 'family' support when we need it. We are very lucky - so many others have no-one to love them.

The roots of our little nuclear family unit of five, six if you count the dog, is very strong, it's just our branches that are bent out of shape or cut-off altogether.

As you can imagine, our situation makes it tricky for our kids to explain and they feel embarrassed having to do so, especially with their peers. They also worry that it somehow impacts on us and don't want us to feel sad – something we've reassured them not to worry about.

There are so many children who live in 'untraditional' families. I'd even go as far to say that there is no such thing as a traditional family anyway. 

I just wish schools would be more sensitive about the issue and ditch the obsession with family trees. 

Instead, talk to kids about how all families are different and find ways to rejoice in the differences and not reaffirm what should be 'normal'. 

Kids struggle enough trying to 'fit-in' and putting their personal lives in the spotlight can be confronting and damaging.

Imagine you're the only child with half your tree left blank. If you're adopted or in foster care your branches may be non-existent. Or perhaps your family has split apart and discussing it is still raw. 

There must be another way to talk about the essence of family or examine history. 

It's hard enough dealing with a family that's unknown, uninterested or broken, let alone having to put it on display for everyone else to discuss.