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There are Lots of Ways to be a Family

Music and Diversity

Mara Sapon-Shevin


What do we want for our children — those in our own families and those for whom we sing and perform? We want children to notice the diversity around them — people who have different color skin, speak different languages, eat different food, are good at different things, live in different kinds of houses and families. We want children to know that they can be closely connected to people who don’t look like them, don’t talk like them, don’t share every characteristic of their own lives or families. 

And, we want children to know that there are problems in the world and that they aren’t powerless. We want them to believe that racism is unacceptable, that violence against homosexuals is intolerable, that name-calling and teasing and exclusion damage the very fiber of our community and our society. We want children who will see themselves as powerful players against societal oppression, able to notice when things aren’t right, attuned to injustice and unfairness, and willing and skilled in taking a stand.

How, then, can these goals be applied to music about families? In a previous article in PIO, I raised the importance of how we use music to teach about differences. Some of the key points that emerged from that discussion were the following:


  • It’s important to talk about and sing about differences within a context or commonalities. Differences should never be defined or described in ways that imply that the differences are all there is, nor should we imply that every person or everyone’s family is “the same”


  • Songs for young children should avoid introducing the difference and the oppression at the same time. While we want students to be aware of and attentive to issues of discrimination and prejudice, we don’t want to imply that all children with a particular individual or family characteristic are rejected or that teasing and exclusion are inevitable for children and families with obvious differences.
  • It is important to consider the audience and the audience’s diversity in choosing a song. Some songs might be appropriate in particular audiences and insensitive in others. The capacity to do follow-up work with students might be a critical factor in determining the advisability of a particular song (i.e. will it raise painful issues and will students have any place and any safe person with whom to bring it up later?) 
  • Avoidance of difference is not the solution. We are not trying to make differences invisible and encourage people not to see one another fully. Telling my friend Robin that, after a friendship of 10 years, I never noticed that she uses a wheelchair doesn’t make it sound like I’ve paid very good attention to who she is in the world. Neither does it say much about my ability to be a sensitive and helpful ally around issues of access and discrimination.

If we extend these principles from differences in general to “family differences,” how might that look and what would be important to remember?

  • Music about families should acknowledge that there are many kinds of families, and that most of them share some key characteristics. We have to be careful in articulating those commonalities, however, since some typical ways of defining families are not accurate. Not all families live together (Dad may live in Arizona and Mom in New York); not all families are related by blood or look alike (there are adoptive families and blended families); and, certainly, not all families have a dad and a mom and kids (some families have two moms or two dads, some have just a mom or a dad, some have a grandma in charge, and some are very different — communes, foster care, etc.). 
  • When singing songs about family, it may be very helpful to define families broadly enough so that many children will see themselves represented. In Uncle Ruthie Buelll’s song, “The Family Song,” many different kinds of families are described, including the following verse:

Susie and her brother

Live with their mother

And someone whom their mother loves a lot

And they’ve got a cat named Rover

And a dog who won’t roll over

And I’ll tell you something else that they have got

A family, a real family

There may be dirt upon the floor

The roof might leak above

But they’re a family, a real family

That’s living in a house that’s made of love

In Karen Howe’s song, “What Makes a Family,” the chorus says:

What makes a family

Who’s loving, caring for you

What makes a family

People who are seeing you through, ah-huh

People who are seeing you through

One verse reads: 

Mom and a dad could be a family, 

mom alone, she is one too

Your Mom with a friend or your dad and you, well

That’s a family too

In Bill Harley’s song, “Family,” the chorus is:

Family is just people living together

Family, learning to get along

One verse reads:

Jamie’s got two sisters

Sometimes that’s no good

Tommy doesn’t have any at all

Sometimes he wishes he could

Sarah lives with her father

Her mom is far away

And Terry’s house has got an extra room

And her mom’s friend is coming to stay

Sarah Pirtle’s song, “Sing About Us” has the following chorus:

Sing about us.

Tell me again. You don’t have to be just like me 

to be my friend, be my friend.

You don’t have to be just like me to be my friend

When Sarah sings this song with children, she writes new verses to reflect the diversity of the class. In working with a kindergarten class, she was alerted by one of the mothers of a student that it was important that her son’s family not be omitted, and she suggested that it be expressed as “We have two Moms.” This resulted in this verse:

In some families we live with our grandparents.

In some families we live with our Mom and Dad.

In some families, we have two homes.

You know, love makes a family.

In some families we live with our Mom.

In some families we have two Moms.

In some families we have a foster Mom.

Every family is a good family.

Sarah reports that the children smiled in recognition when their particular family configuration was mentioned, and another child spoke up (in addition to the boy with lesbian parents), saying, “I have two Moms. And I have two homes. There’s my Mom and my step-Mom.”

Similarly, Ruth Pelham’s song, “Under One Sky” whose chorus is “We’re all a family under one sky, we’re a family one sky” and which is a “zipper” song designed for call and response can easily incorporate verses relating to family differences:

We have one mom

We have two moms

We live with our dads

And our moms and dads too


  • Singing about non-traditional families without implying that there is anything “problematic” about such situations is critical. In Jenny and David Heitler-Klevin’s wonderful song, “Love Makes a Family,” many kinds of families are described, including those with divorced parents, children who are adopted, and childless couples. After serious consideration, Jenny and David recently changed the words to the verse about lesbian parents so that it would describe the situation without linking it to teasing or mistreatment. The new verse reads:


Our friend has a sister and also two mothers

He doesn’t have a dad and he doesn’t have brothers

Through good times and bad they take care of each other 

And their house it is filled with love

While teachers would certainly want to discuss any situations in which students from gay or lesbian families (or any other kind of family) were being teased or excluded, the song does not introduce that marginalization or oppression as inevitable or normative.

  • It would be tempting to say that families are places where people love you — we all wish that were true. Unfortunately, however, we have to make a place in our performing and teaching for the fact that not all families are places of love and safety. While we may not want to name this explicitly, it can be helpful to be aware that songs about “loving, happy families” may be challenging or painful for some listeners (including adult listeners!). Ruth Pelham’s song “I cried” is a wonderful example of a loving, warm family that has been transformed by the parents’ separation. While there is considerable evidence of caring and loving parents, the child in the song is, nonetheless, sad and disturbed by the changes in her life. Such a song may give young listeners (and adults) the chance to talk about what’s hard in their family and to get support for the wide range of challenges that families face.

The music we share with young people provides us with multiple opportunities to shape their understanding of what constitutes a family, how we care for and about one another in relationships, and what it means to loved. Let’s continue the commitment to making music that allows all listeners to feel included and embraced, confident that they are lovable and capable of loving. . These are critical messages and our work is important.

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