Different families same love


Film aims to help kids see all families as normal By Ashley Ernst

Eleven--year--old Amalia McCallister lives in two houses, typical of a child living with divorced parents. Her parents share child--rearing responsibilities and make sure Amalia's schoolwork is the main focus during the week while leaving time to participate in various sports activities. Laura McAlpine, Amalia's mother and a licensed clinical social worker, says since Amalia is a fifth grader, having time available to hang out with her friends is important.

Amalia's situation is not that different from other children living with divorced parents. She rotates between her parents' houses each week. "It is a very typical divorced family," McAlpine says. "Only with three moms."

The stereotypical American family--Dad at work, Mom at home--is more the exception rather than the rule in U.S. society today.

Just look at the numbers. In 2001, according to the Census 2001 Supplementary Survey of families and households, families with married couples accounted for just 22 percent of all households in Illinois.

Still, despite the numbers, most people hang on to the old idea, the 1950s norm, and do not accept nontraditional families.

That's the reason Women's Educational Media, a California--based organization that promotes issues of economic and social justice through documentary films and videos, is creating a three--part series of videos aimed to curb prejudice and promote anti--gay curricula.

The first film, "That's a Family," premiered in San Francisco in June 2000. Taking the viewer on a tour of different kinds of families through the eyes of a child living in each situation, the film profiles six different types of families--mixed, adoptive, grandparent/guardian, gay and lesbian, separated or divorced and single--parent.

Virtually every neighborhood includes nontraditional families--divorced, single--parent, grandparent or guardian, adopted, mixed race, mixed ethnicity or same sex. Regardless of their make--up, most families want the same things: healthy and happy children who grow up safe, well--educated and well--loved.

But the desire for their children's future is not the only thing families have in common, especially households such as the McAlpine's.

The Human Rights Campaign, an organization dedicated to equality for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people analyzed U.S. Census data comparing same sex couples to heterosexual couples and found they share many traits, including average income, employment rates, family size, military service and citizenship.

According to U.S. Census data on the Human Rights Campaign's FamilyNet, almost 34 percent of same--sex couples in Illinois have children, vs. almost 50 percent of other couples. The average family size for a same--sex couple is just over two children while other families average just under two children. Median income is the same for both same--sex and married couples--$62,000--but since same--sex couples are not allowed to wed, they don't receive the benefits marriage provides.

In Chicago, Amalia's school, the Newberry Math and Science Academy, is using the curriculum on a trial basis because McAlpine, a parent and member of the Local School Council, suggested there was a need for the sensitivity training, says Principal Reanaud Beaudoin.

Debra Chasnoff, the film's director and senior producer for Women's Educational Media, says the film is important because, "[t]he nature of what families are in America has changed so dramatically. By talking about differences and giving vocabulary, all kids can feel like they belong."

A typical split family Amalia spends one week with McAlpine and the next with McCallister. Even during the weeks she lives with Anne McCallister, she goes to the home McAlpine shares with Geanne Kracher, her partner and Amalia's stepmother, each day after school. McAlpine says their family situation is very similar to what heterosexual couples go through when there is a remarriage after divorce.

McCallister is Amalia's birth mother. McAlpine and McCallister decided to have Amalia after they had been together for about 10 years. A male friend donated sperm for McAllister to use in artificial insemination. McAlpine says Amalia knows the donor as her dad. McAlpine used second--parent adoption to gain rights equal to those of other adoptive parents. McAlpine and McCallister decided to separate when Amalia was 5. "We decided we were better parents together than partners together," McAlpine says. She says they chose to focus on developing their co--parenting relationship.

When Amalia was 7, McAlpine started dating Kracher. Amalia's reaction was typical: she wanted her parents--in this case, her two moms--to be together. The transition to having her moms living apart was hard enough without someone else moving in. Now, Amalia says, she is more comfortable with having two houses.

McAlpine says she and McCallister wanted to make sure Newberry would be a safe place to send Amalia, so they told the school from the beginning about their nontraditional family. "We were really the first family that said, ‘this is who we are and [we] want to make sure Amalia is safe,'" McAlpine says.

Piloting the Women's Education Media curriculum at Newberry provides that opportunity. Working as both a window and a mirror, "That's a Family" helps children learn there is no specific formula for creating a family.

Children make judgments about the world based on what they see in their family. The curriculum acts as a mirror in which children might see their type of family in their social setting.

"Suddenly, there's not a silence about their particular kind of family," Chasnoff says, something she says is crucial to kids' development.

Throughout the video and its accompanying activities, teachers ask children to explore how each family mirrors their own.

Conversely, the film also works as a window, offering children the opportunity to see that other families are different from theirs. In the grandparents/guardians section, children learn there are times when some kids cannot live with their birth parents. For Brittany, her sister Ebony and her brother Gerald, living with their mother's drug addiction was both unsafe and unstable. Their grandmother saw this and brought them in to live with her. Brittany says, "It makes me mad that I can't be with my mom and I miss her sometimes. But it's better for me to live with my grandmother instead of my mom."

The gay and lesbian section profiles three families. Josh and Mara live with their two moms, Joan and Stacey. Joan is Josh's birth mother, and Stacey is Josh's adoptive mother. The second family, moms Lee and Angie, shared child--bearing duties. Lee gave birth to Dominique and Angie had Taquisha and Alma. Breauna tells viewers about her two dads, David and Gregg, "I wish more people understood about being gay and weren't afraid of gay people, then they wouldn't say mean things about them."

The video comes with a discussion guide, written for kindergarten through sixth grade. Before discussing the parts of the film in detail, the guide reviews key terms, vocabulary and concepts for families in general, such as foster parent, stepparent, gay and lesbian. The overview concludes by suggesting projects, readings or writing assignments that would reinforce the ideas presented in "That's a Family."

McAlpine, a member of Newberry's school council since Amalia was in first grade, suggested the program to Newberry. She learned of the program through Mary Morten, outreach and public education coordinator for the Chicago office of Women's Educational Media.

McAlpine had attended a training session at another school and says she thought the program would help bridge the differences at Newberry. McAlpine says the school had a problem with teasing earlier in the year.

Different is just different The program was introduced to the teachers in November 2002. In early December, parents met with the school. Morten scheduled a family night and trained the teachers on how to use the curriculum in their classrooms. "It's important that children see themselves in the curriculum," says Morten. "Different is not bad, just different."

McAlpine says she and McCallister talked to the group about Amalia and special education parents talked about their children and the ridicule they face. "It just made people feel so much better and they supported each other," she says. They also discussed what uniqueness is and how it affects each child. "It was one thing to sit there as a trainer, but another to sit there as a parent," McAlpine says. "I never would have guessed how great that would feel."

This spring, teachers began using the program in their classrooms on a volunteer basis. Beaudoin says teachers have responded positively. Some teachers stepped out of their comfort zone and admitted to previously being uncomfortable talking about family situations in the classroom. "Some were uncomfortable with interracial couples. Some were uncomfortable with single--sex couples. Others were uncomfortable by kids having to be raised by grandparents," Beaudoin says. "We think we have honest communication in terms of the teachers."

And Amalia has been safe. Each year, McAlpine and McCallister meet with Amalia's teacher and explain their family situation. They want to provide what information they can so the teacher is prepared to handle any situation. "[Amalia] has heard anti--gay remarks made ever since she was in second grade," McAlpine says. "She's definitely aware of homophobia."

Amalia says the best thing for a parent to do is to educate their children about different types of families. That way, she says, parents can explain how making fun of a person's family can be hurtful.


Ashley Ernst is a recent graduate of Roosevelt University, a former Chicago Parent intern and currently searching for a full--time job. She can be reached at [email protected]



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