“Families Look Alike”

March 25, 2014 12 Comments

My jaw hit the floor when a friend sent me this photo:

"Families Look Alike:"  A 1st grade project

“Families Look Alike:”
A 1st grade project

“Families Look Alike” was the title of a project hanging on the walls of her child’s elementary school.

Passers-by are asked to match a first grader’s photo with that of their parent’s photo from childhood.


This hits close to home on many levels.

As an adoptive mom, and as part of a transracial family, this type of language is hurtful.

But on top of that, this elementary school happens to be mine.

It’s the school I went to growing up.

-The one where my principal, Mr. W.,  gave me a pencil for my half birthday every year.

-The one where my first grade teacher, Mrs. J.,  gave me dozens of extra pages to write my story about the rainforest {I’m convinced she made me love writing from a very young age.}.

-The one where my third grade teacher, Mrs. T., had a “treat drawer” where I was rewarded with chocolate [or other sweet, sugary treats] every time I had a good spelling test or homework assignment.

-It’s the school I later spent a year volunteering as a young adult.

No doubt about it, I loved this school.

And I still do.

So I was crushed when I found out this project was hanging in the hallway.

As a parent, and as the friend of many parents who don’t share physical characteristics of their children, I feel like the value of this project should be re-evaluated.

The statement, “Families Look Alike,” is simply not true.

{Not gonna lie, I kinda wanna take a black Sharpie and write in “NOT ALL” right above the title…}

My transracial family is beautiful. But we don’t look “alike.”

I have acquaintances who are lesbian and used a sperm donor to have a baby of their own. Their family doesn’t look “alike.”

I have friends who have gone through rounds of infertility treatments, including in-vitro fertilization with donor eggs and donor sperm, and their children don’t look like them.

I know foster families with children who don’t look “alike.”

The whole idea of this project makes me sad.


I get it.

It’s impossible to tailor to every single child and his or her family’s every single need or preference.

But as a Mom, I don’t want my daughter learning things that just aren’t true.

Families DON’T look alike.

Even biological families don’t look alike.

I don’t think I’m that far off the deep end on this one.

To be fair, I reached out to the principal about this.

She said the teachers have been discussing the project and that my concerns are valid.

And she confirmed what I thought all along:

There was no ill-intent behind the project to discriminate against any child.

But the bottom line is this:

It does.

It “others” children who aren’t born the “old fashion way.”

It “others” children who don’t end up looking like their parents.

It “others” adopted children who sometimes already have a difficult time identifying who they are and where they came from.

In my opinion, there are better ways to learn about humans and animals and genetics than making a blanket statement about families looking “alike” while comparing photos of parents with their children.

I challenge ALL parents — biological parents, single parents, foster parents, adoptive parents, same-sex parents, step-parents, grandparents who are like parents — to be an advocate for our children.

While these types of projects might be fun for some {who doesn’t like looking at those awkward-but-cute old school photos?}, they can be so hurtful — even damaging — to others.

If your child’s school has a project you feel might not be inclusive in the best ways, let them know.

I am confident that if parents and schools work together as a team, we can protect and nurture ALL of our children – whether they look like us or not.


PS: I offered to sit down with teachers and staff at the school and offer suggestions about projects — even phrases — that are more inclusive for families like my own. I’m happy to report they’re taking me up on it. I meet with them in a few weeks!


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  1. A Follow-Up: “Families Look Alike” : This Familys Journey | May 7, 2014
  1. Mom says:

    We have two daughters who happen to be adopted who happen to go to this school. We’ve worked with both teachers, and you are right, I’m sure there was no ill intent. For this one example, I can provide so many terrific examples of how they have helped our children love learning and helped them succeed. I did ask questions about this project when it was sent home, and wished I would have asked more in hindsight, so I applaud your efforts and am sure your insights and first hand experience will be well received.

  2. NE Iowa Mom says:

    I’m sure the teachers meant no harm but you are so right that the project needs to be changed/deleted. Thank you for offering your suggestions in a positive way to these educators who work tirelessly
    to educate our children.

  3. Kathryn M says:

    Well, well, well-said. This is critical especially for elementary schools when those early relationships are formed. No doubt little Olivia will flourish with you as her mommy. I would like to read a follow up after you meet with the school, and very glad they are taking this seriously. The statement is a stereotypical generalization that families look alike. There are other ways to discuss FAMILY….and in 2014, most families actually do NOT LOOK alike.

  4. Dee says:

    Similar type of experience with our adoptive daughter — she came home with a writing assignment. She was to find out how much she weighed at birth, her length, and funny labor story from their mom. Their first words, how old they were with their first steps. She was crushed that evening. She knew we would only maybe know the birth stuff from her birth cert. But — she is not the only adopted child in her class. I would think that in today’s world, people would think better.

    We tailored it to what she’s done for the first year at our house. :-)

  5. Jessica R says:

    Go Shelley! I’m so glad you’re meeting with the school and I can’t wait to hear about suggestions for other types of projects that are more inclusive.

  6. Susan L. says:

    That is crazy! And what is the point anyway? I get annoyed just thinking about it.

  7. Jen says:

    You could use the same format of the assignment and it could be titled Families don’t look alike. You could still have the family pictures but maybe someone who grows up in a biological family doesn’t know about the other family dynamics out there (especially little kids) so then that opens up a great classroom discussion about how all families should be a loving, safe environment but they don’t all look the same! I think this would help create an environment of inclusion instead of confusion for little kids.

  8. JoAnne says:

    Actually Shelly, I am amazed at how much Olivia looks like your family. Take a really good look at your pictures. Just because she is toasty brown doesn’t take away her smile that looks like yours. I have 7 adopted grandchildren and when people are asked to pick out the biological one in the family, she is never picked. Then there are the three boys in one family, two are blond, one is dark brown, one has grey eyes, two have brown. Doesn’t matter.

  9. Dawn says:

    I have an adopted Olivia too. This school activity along with the genealogy ones really hurt my daughters feelings. It’s hard when her friends all have great things to share. Then outside of class starts the questions. What about your real family? Don’t you want to know? Etc etc. in grade school she didn’t. Frankly as a wise little girl said maybe I might not want to know. We know her situation and it’s typical teen mom stuff. But she knows not all adoption stories are. I look around her classmates at the kids who live with gma and gpa. Mom and dad are addicts and lost custody. Another child was adopted by her moms husband because dad decided not to parent. Another who’s dad came out when she was 9 and now has a significant parter and her mom remarried. These familie structures shouldn’t surprise any of us in today’s world. But these look alike family tree genealogy activities seem to be the school fall back. Love to have some better ideas to provide the schools. Send’em if you got’em!!!!

  10. Dre says:

    With 2 adopted kiddos, our daughter is in 1st grade – I ran into this twice, once last year and once this year. Last year, she lived with us for about 2 weeks when we were supposed to put together a project about vacations we take, what we like to do in our spare time, all of these things. Luckily she is resilient and we turned things like riding on my dad’s shoulders, attending UNI football, bike riding, and painting a bunk bed into the most rock star project ever.

    This year it was a project about being a baby. At the time we had no pictures of her as a baby and I was dreading working on the project and telling her that. In true form she said, Mom, don’t worry – I’ll just draw what I looked like. Did I mention she’s awesome?

  11. Nancy Magnall says:

    Please go to the website of the Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association (IFAPA) at http://www.ifapa.org and check out our newly published booklet “Educators Making A Difference for Students: Adoption, Foster Care, and Kinship Care in the School Setting.” It was written to help educators understand some of the unique issues facing children who are adopted, who live in a foster home, or who are in a kinship placement. It includes a section on Challenging Assignments and Suggested Alternatives which deals with the very topic you wrote about. You can read a copy of the booklet on our website and order hard copies free of charge to share with educators. I hope you’ll take some copies along with you when you have your meeting with school staff.

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