Not all parents are mothers: A reminder to programs for kids

Sometimes camps, schools, and other programs for kids think “mother” when they should be thinking “parent or guardian”. In addition to being sexist, this kind of bias can cause a number of other problems.

When programs for kids think of “mother” and “parent” as synonyms, they often end up forgetting that other parents and guardians exist. When they think of “mother” and “primary caregiver” as synonyms, they often fail to contact the appropriate adult. 

For instance: 

  • Susan, an eight year old, just fell off the jungle gym and needs to be taken to the hospital.
  • Susan’s teacher, Ruby, calls 911. 
  • Ruby thinks “I need to call Susan’s mother to let her know that Ruby was just taken to Hypothetical Hospital”.
  • Susan’s mother, Melissa isn’t reachable during the day because she works in a secure building without access to a phone.
  • Susan’s father, Christopher, *is* reachable. He works from home, and always has his phone with him.
  • Although Susan’s emergency contact form has a note saying to call Christopher first, it doesn’t occur to Ruby to do so, because she’s thinking “I need to call Susan’s mother”, and looking at the “mother” line of the form.
  • Ruby keeps trying to reach Melissa. 
  • It takes an hour before it occurs to anyone to call Susan’s *father*.

Or:

David is a twelve year old who has food allergies. He also has a mother, Miriam, and a father, Fred.

  • Katie, who runs the kitchen at Camp Hypothetical, has some questions about what he can and can’t eat, and whether the plan for an upcoming camp out will work for him.
  • Katie tries calling Miriam, David’s mother. She doesn’t reply. Katie tries again and again, over the course of several days.
  • It doesn’t occur to her to try calling David’s *father*, even though she knows he has one — because she thinks of mothers as the parents who keep track of that kind of information.

When you’re working with kids, it’s really important not to treat “mother” and “primary caregiver” as synonyms, and to remember that:

  • Not all children have mothers.
  • Not all mothers are primary caregivers.
  • Not all children who have mothers live with their mothers.
  • Not all mothers should be given information about their children.
  • Fathers are parents.
  • Nonbinary parents are parents.
  • When a kid has more than one parent, it’s often best to contact both/all parents (especially if contacting the first parent doesn’t work.)
  • Some kids are raised by people other than their parents (eg: grandparents, a sibling, foster parents).

Tl;dr If you’re working with kids and you need to contact their parent or guardian, don’t assume that their mother is the right person to contact. Look at the instructions on their emergency/parent contact form, and follow those instructions. And if you try calling a kid’s mother and don’t get a response, check to see whether they have another parent you should try calling.

 Image description: "Not all parents are mothers" written on a chalkboard

Image description: "Not all parents are mothers" written on a chalkboard