At the start of the 2018 school year, my niece Dakotta invited me to the Donuts with Dads gathering at her southeast Los Angeles elementary school. The 25-minute social event is intended to encourage fathers to participate in school activities, but Dakotta doesn’t have a relationship with her father.
In the days leading up to the event, Dakotta and I had conversations about whether she truly wanted me, her aunt, to attend. She did, and I had no reservations about going. I suppose we took the “dad” part as more of a suggestion.
Initially, Dakotta was excited. When I arrived at the school, a stand-in for my brother, she ran toward me and jumped into my arms. But as we stood in line for our donuts, her demeanor changed dramatically. Usually silly and talkative, she was sullen and quiet. I watched her look around at her friends eating donuts with their dads, and she appeared pained. I was the only woman who attended with a child, and I began to think it was a mistake.
I decided to talk to her about it once we sat down to eat, but after we quietly worked our way through the refreshments line, Dakotta threw her donuts in the trash and dashed off. A few hours later I received a call from her mother. She was stuck at work and wanted to know whether I could pick up Dakotta from the school office. She had become so upset that morning that she went to the nurse’s office, crying and complaining of a “stomachache.”
Activities of “inclusion” can actually exclude
As the annual back-to-school routine begins, administrators, teachers, and members of the Parent Teacher Association are tasked with creating events that foster feelings of inclusion and strengthen the bond between young students and the larger school community.
But two school events that have gained popularity nationwide—Donuts with Dads and Muffins with Moms—may actually do the opposite.
Not only did my then-6-year-old niece Dakotta feel excluded during the Donuts with Dads event at her school, the experience was emotionally harmful to her. Sarah Kirk, an elementary school counselor in Oklahoma and a finalist for the 2019 American School Counselor Association’s school counselor of the year award, said that emotionally distraught children will often say they have a stomachache because they don’t know how to articulate what they’re feeling.
Teachers have criticized Donuts with Dads and Muffins with Moms because of their gendered nature, and because these events exclude children who do not come from “traditional” households. As of 2016, there are more than 700,000 cohabiting same-sex couples in the United States, and an estimated 114,000 with school-age children. The number of children being raised by neither of their biological parents has also risen dramatically over the past 25 years. Nationally, 5.7 million children under the age of 18 are living with a grandparent—and this doesn’t include children being raised by an older sibling, an aunt, or other guardian.
But there are also millions of children being raised in single-parent families, leading some parents to suggest that schools should cancel Donuts with Dads and Muffins with Moms altogether.
While these events are well-intentioned, I’ve seen firsthand the effects they can have on a child’s mental health.
It’s one year later and with her mom’s permission I interviewed Dakotta about how she felt during Donuts with Dads. She shared with me that she didn’t think a lot about not having a dad in her life. But on the day of the event, she “thought about it a lot.”
“It was a hard day because my daddy wasn’t there. I felt sad because I wanted to be with him that day,” Dakotta said. “That day I felt like the only kid that felt that way, but I think other kids were probably sad because they didn’t have daddies to go, either.”
In Los Angeles County, where Dakotta lives, 35% of children are being raised in single-parent households.
Kirk says schools should strive to use inconclusive language whenever possible—and not just for events, but for all communications involving the school, children, and caregivers.
“We can’t necessarily prevent all students from getting upset unless we just never invited parents or caregivers into our school, but we don’t want that,” Kirk says. We are trying to get parents and caregivers and loved ones involved. My opinion is that we can prepare students for events that may be hard [by using] inclusive language and [creating] more trauma-informed schools.”
A culture of respect and support
The Treatment and Services Adaptation Center, comprised of clinicians, researchers, and educators who are experts in school trauma and crisis response, reports that 1 in 4 children attending school have been exposed to a traumatic event that can affect learning and behavior. Traumatic stress in children can stem from a wide variety of issues, including divorce, homelessness, bullying, or fear of a school shooting.
Having a “trauma-informed school” means investing in education and training so that administrators, teachers, and other school staff are prepared to recognize and respond to children who have been impacted by traumatic stress. According to the center, “the goal is to not only provide tools to cope with extreme situations, but to create an underlying culture of respect and support.”
Naomi Hillyard is a teacher, parent, and a member of the PTA in the Shoreline School District, just north of Seattle. Part of the reason she joined the PTA, she says, was to ensure that the school community was inclusive and welcoming for all students. This means taking into account “all different kinds of families,” Hillyard says, including families with LGBTQ parents and families with different immigration statuses. It also means taking race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and other factors into account.
“We’re always trying to keep equity in mind. If we’re going to have school events, we want to do it right and include as many families as possible,” she says.
Hillyard’s children recently went back to school, and to mark the occasion the PTA had a “welcome-back coffee” for all “caregivers.” Hillyard says she would push against a Muffins with Moms or Donuts with Dads event, especially because there are so many easy alternatives that don’t alienate caregivers and children with different family structures.
“I push against anything very gendered. It’s just a very strange approach, in my opinion, because you’re really just leaving out so many people and leaving so much opportunity on the table for involvement,” she says.
Improving the lives of children
The impetus and history of Muffins with Moms and Donuts with Dads events is hazy, but it’s clear they remain popular. A quick Google search reveals that these gatherings will take place nationwide during the 2019 school year. Given that these events don’t lend to creating a welcoming and inclusive environment, it seems that schools would simply choose to amend the language.
But it may not be that easy, Hillyard says: School districts are “terrified of controversy” and “fear” acknowledging gay parents or different family structures.
This is where the PTA can assist.
Most people think of the PTA as comprising “bored, stay-at-home moms,” Hillyard says, but the PTA is the largest volunteer-based child advocacy organization in the nation and has a history of advocating for what’s sometimes perceived as “radical” legislation with the goal of improving the lives of children. This includes the creation of kindergarten classes, arts in education, child labor laws, and hot and healthy lunch programs.
“As a caretaker, you can go to the school PTA with your concerns and tell them why you think Donuts with Dads or Muffins with Moms isn’t the kind of event you want to see at school,” Hillyard says. “If the partnership between the school and the PTA is done right, the PTA can really empower families and ensure everyone is included.”
These events aren’t fostering the school life they are aiming to create, especially not if children are being harmed, she says. “And it’s such an easy fix.”
Kirk agrees. She says while taking a trauma-informed approach is being proactive, the larger school community should also consider “the preventive piece of the puzzle.” Meaning, instead of knowing an event may be a problem and preparing to deal with the aftermath, schools should consider looking at their scheduled 2019 events with an eye toward preventing issues and amending language that might be hurtful or harmful to kids and their families.
Kirk adds that it’s important to note that changing the name of the event doesn’t change the meaning of it. Many schools have the same events each year because “it’s what they’ve always done.” Traditions are great, she says, but being inclusive is also important—and in the case of Muffins with Moms and Donuts with Dads, it only requires amending language.
A few alternatives circulating online include: Donuts with Grownups, Muffins in the Morning, and Breakfast with Buddies.
“This isn’t about slapping a school on the wrist for having Donuts with Dads or Muffins with Moms,” Kirk says. “Schools should think of this as a teachable moment. These events aren’t as inclusive and accepting as we should aim for them to be, so why not change it?”
I asked my niece Dakotta what she thought.
“On that day, I felt pretty bad,” she said. “They should change the name so that kids don’t feel sad.”
Tina Vasquez is an award-winning journalist focusing on racial injustice and the intersection of immigration and reproductive justice. Formerly, she was a senior reporter covering immigration at Rewire.News. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, NPR, and the New York Review of Books. She is based in North Carolina.