Just this week it happened for the first time, and I’m still not sure how to respond.

My daughter was asked to take her brothers out of the family tree project at school.

We were walking home from the bus stop. She is in grade 2 and has been working on a family tree project for months. This week were the big presentations, and the teacher would be recording them to send to us. I had not seen hers yet, but knew that her presentation was coming up when she told me: “Mom, the teacher told me I shouldn’t include Nate and Sam on my family tree because they’re dead.”

“Oh…” I struggled with what to ask next. “How does that make you feel?”

“It isn’t fair. Nicholas included his grandpa on his family tree, even though he’s dead.”

“Well, yes, but I wonder if your teacher didn’t want the other kids to ask about your brothers. Maybe she doesn’t feel comfortable answering their questions about death.”

And with that she just shrugged and skipped on ahead to catch up with her little brother, who was already running up the street.

Diagram of a family tree with the baby crossed out.

Lots of family trees are messy, but only one kid has to pretend some of the branches were never there.

So maybe the question is how does it make me feel? And I’m not sure yet. On the one hand, leaving her brothers out of her family tree means my daughter isn’t exposed to additional ridicule. Kids know when someone is different, and anything that can give them cause to poke fun at someone might be seized upon. The teacher might be justified in saying that because Nate and Sam died before she was born, she didn’t really know them, and so only family members that are known to the kids count. After all, the family tree project did not include great grandparents, just the most recent generations. On the other hand, there is a little girl one year behind my daughter at school who lost a sister after she was born. Will the same rule apply next year? You can keep your dead baby sister in, because you knew her and loved her and remember her. Sally’s grandma died before she was born so she needs to be removed, but Bobby’s great-grandma is still alive, so she’s in?

But I’m also a little bit angry. My daughter goes to a French-language school, which we chose intentionally to have her learn the language of her grandparents and great-grandparents. From 1919 to 1969, French was illegal in Maine schools. Children were made to feel ashamed of their heritage. Living here in Canada, we’re blessed with the opportunity to have our children grow up proud to speak French, and the family tree project is also an opportunity to show the wealth of nations where French speakers come from. There are kids in my daughter’s school from Quebec and France, yes, but also Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire and Haiti. Asking my daughter to remove her brothers from her family tree feels the same way. There is something about your past that you should feel ashamed of in the same way kids in Maine were made to feel ashamed that they spoke French. Your family is weird. Acknowledging your brothers makes me feel weird. And it would just be easiest on everyone if you didn’t include them.

I haven’t said anything to her teacher yet, and I’m not sure if I’m going to. I’m still not sure if I’m not overreacting. But even though keeping her brothers off the family tree makes things easier for the teacher, and isn’t really a big deal for my daughter, it makes it harder for the next family who might just lose a baby while school is in session. What do you say to that little child? Death doesn’t always happen in convenient prepackaged curriculum sessions.

See also: Addressing Grief: Tips for Teachers and Administrators


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