Dear Miriam | What’s in a (Country’s) Name?

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Dear Miriam,

I want to ask what to do about a seemingly innocuous, well-meaning assignment in my fourth grader’s class. The class has been talking about heritage and where their families are “from.” I’m really proud that my daughter was able to articulate that while her ancestors came from all over Eastern Europe, none of those countries were home (both for reasons of antisemitism and because of shifting borders). But my daughter now says she needs a country name to put on the diversity flower. She is the only Jewish kid in the class.

I would think this is a problematic assignment for other kids as well but, as far as I know, no one has mentioned a problem with the assignment to the teacher. Do I just make my daughter and her teacher comfortable with a list of countries where people lived? Do we say the U.S.? Nothing is feeling right.


Proud Parent with a Problem

Dear Parent,

You should indeed be proud of your daughter for being able to articulate something really challenging and very difficult for many adults, let alone children, to understand. You should also be proud of her for telling you what she needs, which, it sounds like, is the name of a country to put on a flower so she can complete the assignment like the rest of her classmates and then move on.

When you think about your daughter looking back on this experience, how do you want her to tell the story of what happened in five years, 10 years, to her own children and grandchildren someday? Should it be a story of her blossoming self-awareness? Of her teacher’s rigid understanding of the assignment? Of her mother’s strict adherence to a single perspective? Of her own fluid understanding of identity?

How you proceed from here should be with the goal of this possibly pivotal experience in your daughter’s life reflecting the outcome you hope she’ll have.

I would ask your daughter point-blank what she wants from you. If she does want the name of a country, you should provide her with one. You can offer “Lithuania” or “Poland” and suggest a smaller subtitle that says “Ashkenazi Jewish” or just “Eastern European.” You can suggest she writes U.S. if that feels better to her.

You can and should keep discussing the nuances at home and empower your daughter to explain these nuances to her teacher and her classmates if she wants to and if it is feasible within the confines of her school. But even if her class’s understanding of her heritage ends with the flower that says the name of a not-quite-right country, her own understanding of her background and history won’t end there if you encourage the dialogue to continue.

Nothing feels right because your family history – anyone’s family history – can’t be reduced to the name of a country, especially one that didn’t accept those same ancestors as citizens. If you want to ask other families how they feel about it, go ahead, but don’t expect the same depth of thought that you’ve put into this, and don’t be disappointed if no one wants to raise this with the teacher.

Your daughter is learning a valuable lesson from you about how and when to speak up and how and when it’s all right to let things go. Follow her lead; she’s the one in the classroom every day, and her experience of this assignment is more important than what is factually correct.

The complex details of your family history are going to be best discussed at home, and you are the No. 1 person to guide her as she takes her understanding even further beyond this well-meaning but complicated assignment.

Be well,



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