Family Composition: the Issue Cast Aside
Above: A few members of family composition affinity group pictured.
The Packer community prides itself when engaging in conversations surrounding personal identifiers, yet one important aspect of a person’s life goes regularly unaddressed: family composition. Although it is a pivotal part of an individual’s life, family composition is not commonly talked about at Packer.
After last year’s emotional family composition PIA day affinity group meeting left many members crying and yearning for more conversations, students realized the pressing importance of the topic. Alongside other students, Ava Horn (‘19) realized that there are not enough spaces at Packer to discuss family composition, so, she decided to create an affinity group. She thinks that coming to the affinity space and sharing or listening to stories will eventually help spread awareness surrounding family composition.
“Family composition is not really focused on as a part of an individual’s identity at Packer, even though our family is very much a part of who we are,” said Avery Fingleton (‘20). In order to ascertain how many students felt similarly to Avery and had unconventional family structures, the affinity group crafted an anonymous, optional survey with a few questions asking about the respondent’s family structure, if they felt family structure is often talked about, and other similar questions. However, when the survey was vetoed by the Packer administration, it sparked a lot of controversy, and students began to question if family composition is even a topic on the administration’s radar.
“I don’t know if this was the administration’s intention, but it sort of seemed to me that they would rather sweep it under the rug than deal with it,” said Delia Barnett (‘20).
The administration claims that sending out the survey was too personal. “In terms of privacy concerns, that is real. But, also, the answers to the questions and the potential public discussion of those stories are very private matters,” said Head Of Upper School Jose De Jesus. While the students in the affinity group understand that having students talk about their home lives can be a sensitive topic, the students still felt frustrated.
“Describing a person’s family composition as something that is ‘too personal to share’ suggests that having an unconventional family at Packer is something someone should be ashamed of. It is bullsh*t,” said an anonymous student. Many other students expressed confusion because other personal surveys surrounding sensitive topics such as anxiety and appearance have been sent out this year.
“When we delve into someone’s family background, something that affects people greatly, that it is suddenly deemed too personal- that is outrageous to me. This is not any more personal than anything else that has been sent out this year,” said Delia.
“Having the survey shut down made us feel alienated, because there could be a survey sent out about parents and siblings, yet we can not talk about dynamics of family. This is kind of frustrating and upsetting because that is what my family is, and who is to say that that is wrong?” said Ava.
The members of family composition affinity group are not the only ones who feel this topic is not adequately addressed at Packer. The results of a survey sent to the Upper School by the Prism, which was very similar to the one family composition affinity group tried to send out earlier this year, showed that out of 100 responders, 99% felt that family composition is not often discussed.
“I think that it is crazy that you were able to send out your survey, even though it was practically the same thing as family composition’s, but just without that one question,” said Chloe Ford (‘20), referring to a question that asked about specifics of family makeup.
An anonymous survey responder commented: “It just like race, gender, and socio-economic status; family composition is an identifier that affects the ways in which people lead their lives. By ignoring it, we are making assumptions and therefore alienating a large part of our community.”
Many other students who responded to the survey agreed, and one even added that “[ignoring] the multitude of family compositions within the student body seems inconsistent with Packer’s goal of inclusivity.”
As expressed by many of the students surveyed and interviewed, the Packer administration is not always accepting toward those with unconventional family structures; getting two signatures on permission forms, easily receiving two textbooks for multiple households, and engaging in conversations with specific faculty members can be difficult.
“I have had incidents with teachers and students speaking insensitively towards my family composition that has, at its most extreme, brought me to tears. This should not be the case in a school where you are supposed to feel safe, cared for, and understood. Packer should provide language and background knowledge for students as well as faculty to make sure nobody feels ostracized,” said an anonymous survey responder.
“[Skye] gets bothered [when people do not accept our family],” said Sam Brodsky (‘21). “I do not love having to defend my family, and the fact that my family is a family,” replied Skye Brodsky.
Many students expressed that family structure is not something that is adequately and respectfully discussed within the student body. Rory Dolan (‘19) said he “sort of hates comparing the various different conversations and topics that we discuss: be it race, gender, sexual harassment, or other things.” But if he had to choose, “besides mental health, family composition would be the least talked about thing, and the least supported.”
Although family composition can be an uncomfortable, difficult topic to discuss, there are many steps that the Packer community can take to continue to the conversation. According to the survey sent out by the Prism, 37% of students have unconventional families; nevertheless, many more students and faculty members could be more aware of the situation. Eve Berrie (‘18) commented that, “being more aware of the student body when engaging in conversations surrounding family composition” might be useful. Overall, the conversations surrounding family composition have barely begun, and the Packer community has a long way to go before calling themselves a fully inclusive community.