Read Off Script
A hefty stack of books appeared on the changing table a month before our child was born. They were gifts from friends and family, new and used. Some of them were LGBT themed such as Mommy, Mama, and Me but most of them were just regular old kids books which meant our family wasn’t represented in any of the books. If the characters in the books had parents, the parents were presented as one mom and one dad living in the same house (one classic example of heteronormativity). I am a Masculine of Center Butch parenting two young children with my femme cisgender wife. My kids call me “baba” and my wife “mama.” It’s important to us that our children grow up feeling proud of their family. It’s also important to us that they learn to interact respectfully with their peers. Because of this, we’ve been changing up the parental characters and pronouns in children’s books from the beginning. Many of our LGBTQ friends and community have too. But, it doesn’t seem that their friends with mom and dad pairings have done the same.
By the time my child was two, she was regularly correcting teachers, other parents, and her classmates, reminding them that I was her Baba, not her Mama. After about six months of these corrections, most of her daycare class understood that I was her Baba and would come running, yelling “Baba!” when I arrived. One young kid could not assimilate the information; every day for six months he would look me right in the face and say “you her mama or her daddy?” “I’m her Baba” I would respond. Eventually, my generally cautious daughter snapped — she leaned over and screamed into his face “BABA! SHE MY BABA!!” The kid, bless his heart, was not set up for success. Clearly, the “everybody has different kinds of families and call their parents’ different kinds of names” conversation was not happening in his house. The corrections my daughter gave teachers who had a hard time making the linguistic change was especially worrisome; she was two and shouldn’t have to spend so much energy correcting adults in order to have her world understood.
Incorporating diverse parental names and family structures into your kid’s early development doesn’t require you buy all the books in the “LGBT Children’s Books” section of Amazon. Reading off script and incorporating a wide range of parental names into storytime with your young child is one easy way to prepare your child to be in a community with children of genderqueer and transgender people and other families whose caregivers don’t consist of one dad and one mom.
What is Reading Off Script?
Ellie Winicour in Boulder, Colorado reads off script to her daughter on a regular basis. She is an Ima (the Hebrew word for mom) and her partner’s parental name is Mama. “I change the ‘Dad’ character to ‘Mama’ so that the families featured in the books reflect our family. It feels bad to only read stories to our daughter that feature straight couples.” As my own child grew older and interacted with other families we added to the mix a wide range of parental names — Daddy and Papa, Mom and Dad, Mimi and Tati, Apu and Mama, Maddy and Mommy, solo parent Mama and Uncle David who was helping her. Note that these parental name choices occasionally include mom and dad pairings. When she’s read to in school and daycare centers they are usually NOT changing these pairings, so prioritizing less common language during our book reading at home merely counters the overwhelming amount of Mom/Dad pairings they are presented with. We’re not pretending Mom Dad families don’t exist, we’re attempting to counter-weight the scales so she sees herself and her friends’ worlds reflected in the stories she takes into her brain.
Why Read Off Script?
These changes were pretty intuitive to us. But, based on conversations over the years with the legion of fellow parents at the playground, I have come to gather that it’s not as intuitive for other parents; this is especially true for heterosexual parents who realize, perhaps too late, that they haven’t prepared their child to interact with family structures and gender presentations different than their own. To us, these updates were necessary not only to have her own family structure represented but to give her skills in relating to her friends about their families. If she has heard that a baby bunny’s parent is an “Apu” she is not confused when her preschool friend screams out “Apu” as his parent picks him up from school.
The need to incorporate diverse parental names into books isn’t limited to gender-non-conforming and same-gender parents. It’s also a valuable practice to respect kids whose parents use names from the majority of cultures and religions from around the world. Michelle Sench, who is partnered with a woman, chose the parental name “Umma” when her child was born. “Umma” is the word for mom in Korean. She says “Umma makes me feel connected to my Korean culture and to my parents’ generation, who are witnessing their American children move further and further away from their culture, language, and homeland.” My own children have friends with heterosexual parents from cultures that use Ima and Aba (Hebrew), and Baba and Mami (Arabic).
Overwhelmed? Try this:
Changing our language use can be difficult, I know. You can start by making a list of all the parental names used by the parents of kids you know. If you have assumed a person’s parental name but don’t know — ASK! “I’ve been calling you both Jacob’s Mamas, but then I realized you might use different names — are those the names you use?” If your list is short because people in your community use a smaller range of parental names, you can incorporate some of the names used in this article. Maybe make a stack of post-it-notes with a different combination of names written on each note. Then, bring your post-it-note to bedtime reading and try to incorporate one new arrangement of parental names a night.
After a couple of weeks of changing up names and talking about them with your kid, the words don’t feel as clunky; it might begin to feel second nature. Once parental name changes are a regular part of storytime you can ask your child, “do you want this book to be about a Momma and a Mommy, a Mom and a Dad, or a Dad and an Aba?” No buying new books and no sharpie-attacks on your books are needed. Just some linguistic bravery to go off the script and the desire to give your kid the skills to relate to people in the world they’re living in.