Is Defying Parents the Only Ethical Alternative?

Instead of rigid rules, educators need the freedom to finesse delicate questions about young students’ gender identity.

A black-and-white photo of a children's feet next to two paper-doll costumes—one traditionally male, the other female
Jamie Hodgson / Getty

Meet Michael, a 4-year-old who “usually comes to school in jeans and a T-shirt but always goes to the dress-up area as soon as he arrives and puts on a dress or skirt.” The preschooler is the subject of a 2019 case study in the education journal Young Children’s “Focus on Ethics” column, a recurring feature about how educators ought to respond in fraught situations––in this real case, a parent objecting to their child’s gender expression.

Take off that skirt, Michael’s mother tells her child one day while volunteering in the classroom. She orders him instead to put on firefighter gear, a cowboy hat, or “something that boys do,” the authors Stephanie Feeney, Nancy K. Freeman, and Katie Schaffer recount. Later, the parent tells the teacher, Ana, that Michael “plays female roles at home and shows little interest in toys and activities typically associated with boys.” She asks Ana to prohibit Michael from playing with “girl stuff” at school. “Ana also has observed that Michael strongly prefers playing with girls,” the authors add, “and chooses activities that are stereotypically feminine, like having tea parties and wearing dress-up clothes that have lots of ribbons and sequins. He also frequently tells the other children that he is really a girl and that he wants to be called ‘Michelle.’”

What should Ana do?

The National Association for the Education of Young Children, which publishes Young Children, has a Code of Ethical Conduct that directs teachers to “recognize and respect the unique qualities, abilities, and potential of each child”; to “develop relationships of mutual trust and create partnerships with the families we serve”; and to “acknowledge families’ childrearing values and their right to make decisions for their children.” In essence, this case study explores what ought to happen when those obligations are in conflict. Ana should defer to the child, its authors conclude, not the mother. In fact, they say she has an ethical responsibility to do so.

Although disagreements between educators and parents are as old as the teaching profession itself, disputes over gender expression are becoming ever more frequent in American classrooms as the number of young people who identify as trans has increased. And to a degree that has surprised me, many educators believe that their judgments on these matters should trump the judgments of parents, if the latter are even consulted about their children.

Last spring, for example, four parents in Ludlow, Massachusetts, sued their school district over its failure to inform them that their middle-school children approached teachers and counselors, wanting to change their name and pronouns at school without telling their parents. School administrators honored the request––and then, according to the plaintiffs’ lawyer in the case, fired a teacher who informed a parent about what was happening. (Two of the parents subsequently dropped out of the lawsuit.) Last month, a federal judge ruled that the school had not violated the parents’ civil rights when honoring the requests of the children. But the judge’s ruling also stated that “it is disconcerting that school administrators or a school committee adopted and implemented a policy requiring school staff to actively hide information from parents about something of importance regarding their child,” according to the National Catholic Register, which has followed the case.

Amid such controversies, the 2019 case study in Young Children is illuminating because it spells out the logic behind the notion that educators can be obligated to overrule parents on a matter as fundamental as a child’s gender.

The case study is also a portent of conflicts to come. When rejecting the notion that preschools and kindergartens can ethically defer to a parent’s preferences about their child’s gender expression, the authors promulgated a professional norm that democratically elected leaders in some states came to reject. In Virginia, Glenn Youngkin ran for governor vowing to respect parental rights in public education. In keeping with that promise, his Department of Education released new guidelines last year “requiring that teachers obtain written permission from parents before beginning to treat students as transgender,” National Review reports. As we’ll see below, many early-childhood educators take a narrower view of what parental rights entail and a more expansive view of the deference the profession owes to children.

In many of Young Children’s ethics case studies, early-childhood educators are counseled to apply the following method of analysis: to decide whether they face an ethical dilemma—that is, “a situation for which there is more than one possible resolution, which can be justified in moral terms”—or an ethical responsibility, defined as “a situation with just one morally justified course of action.”

Disagreements between parents and children might fall into either category.

A 2016 case study describes a 3-year-old, Jane, who is brought to school each day at breakfast time, when all children are served both milk and water but left to decide what they want to drink. One day, Jane’s father declares that he and his wife do not want the teacher to allow Jane to drink water “until she has drunk at least a full cup of milk.” At the next meal, when told by the teacher that her parents want her to drink her milk, Jane sobs uncontrollably and refuses it. Should the teacher honor the parents’ request or not? Freeman and Feeney, the authors of this column, conclude that this is not an ethical dilemma where either decision is defensible; the teacher, who they say “believes that it would be wrong to force any child to drink milk because it would be disrespectful to the child and might cause emotional harm,” has an ethical responsibility to make water available to everyone, including Jane.

The “Focus on Ethics” column also deals with what its authors see as closer calls. Some of those require what Feeney and Freeman call “ethical finesse”—that is, finding “a way to meet the needs of everyone involved without having to make a difficult decision.” A 2017 case study concerns Victor, a 4-year-old who enjoys playing dress-up in his classroom’s dramatic-play area. “When engaging in dramatic play, Victor’s leadership shines as he collaboratively creates scenarios with his classmates,” the column states. “He is particularly adept at playing characters such as firemen, princesses, bumblebees, and moms.” But one day, the boy’s father comes to the school to pick him up, sees him in a pink princess costume, and “curtly tells Marge, Victor’s teacher, that he does not want her to allow Victor to play in the dress-up area in the future.”

The teacher “is facing an ethical dilemma because she can justify agreeing to the father’s demand and also justify refusing to honor it,” the column states, noting the value of dramatic play in building children’s social skills and imagination. She “must balance the benefits for Victor of his taking part in pretend play with the right of his father to make decisions about Victor’s upbringing.” The authors report that groups of other educators had considered the case. Some felt that Marge would have been justified in refusing the father’s demand, but the column proposes many alternative solutions: meeting with the father to try to change his mind, inviting him into the classroom to observe the activities other than dress-up that Victor enjoys, asking students’ parents to suggest dress-up themes, and stocking the dress-up area with more gender-neutral costumes and props.

The column also notes that Victor’s case “involved a Hispanic family whose first language was Spanish,” observing that “many childrearing values are strongly rooted in families’ cultural beliefs” and that “sensitive teachers must carefully balance their responsibilities to children and families, a task that can be particularly challenging when working in cross-cultural settings.”

The Young Children authors have a contrasting recommendation in the case that began this article––the 4-year-old who identifies as a girl, likes to wear skirts, and prefers the name Michelle to Michael. Feeney, Freeman, and Schaffer offer this advice to the teacher: Reject the mother’s request to prevent her child from dressing up in female clothing—and start using the child’s desired name instead of the name the parents gave the child.

After contemplating Ana’s situation, they conclude that she has an ethical responsibility to respect the 4-year-old’s gender self-determination––that deferring to the parents cannot be morally justified. The authors say that two groups of educators that discussed the situation “could not justify forbidding a child to behave in ways that express her strongly held sense of self and that, therefore, they could not comply with this family’s request.” Though Ana should treat the family with understanding and respect, “she needed to honor Michelle’s ways of expressing her identity.”

Why was that advice different from in the bygone case about Victor dressing up in clothing his father dislikes? Because “Michael’s interest in ‘girl stuff’… is not limited to playing with clothes and roles,” the authors explain. “Michael consistently gravitates to female-assigned pursuits, identifies as a girl, and asks to be called by a girl’s name.” They go on to argue that there are “potential lifelong consequences of respecting or refusing to respect Michelle’s view of herself,” and that “denying children the opportunity to express themselves by forcing them to accept adults’ views of gender-appropriate behavior is likely to damage relationships and the children’s sense of self.”

When I reached Freeman by email she replied on behalf of Feeney and herself. The two have co-authored a lot of scholarship on ethics, including a book for teachers and caregivers of young children. Freeman wrote that the column “still reflects our views about how best to support young children’s developing gender identity.” (I could not reach Schaffer, the third author, for comment.) Freeman was careful to note that, although her work with Feeney “reflects our knowledge of the [early childhood education] field’s ethical values and responsibilities,” she and Feeney aren’t speaking for NAEYC. Still, Feeney was among the authors of the ethical-conduct code that the association first approved in 1989, Freeman said. The two experts have taken part in subsequent code revisions, and they wrote the “Focus on Ethics” column in Young Children for many years.

Because I’d support a 4-year-old of my own in choosing whatever toys or clothes sparked joy and would encourage other parents to do the same, I am sympathetic to aspects of the column counseling Ana to honor her student’s preferences. Still, I’m struck that, in the premier professional journal of early-childhood educators, ethics experts say not only that a preschool teacher should reject a mother’s unambiguous request but that doing so isn’t even a moral dilemma––the teacher has a nonnegotiable moral responsibility to overrule the primary caregiver.

For Virginia teachers, that moral obligation is now in conflict with state law requiring parental permission before a teacher accedes to a student’s self-identification. These two sharply contrasting approaches are also notably similar in one respect: Under both viewpoints, educators seem to lose flexibility and discretion in dealing with a parent’s request if they believe a child is consistently gender-nonconforming. Put differently, both the gender-affirming faction and the conservative faction would have us believe that the stakes are so high when a 4-year-old may be or may identify as trans or nonbinary that their teachers must be mandated to always respond in certain ways. (Never mind that a teacher has no sure way to know whether any preschooler or kindergartner will grow up to be transgender or otherwise gender-nonconforming.)

My instincts tell me that a young child’s claims about their gender identity deserve a degree of deference, and that allowing a 4-year-old to play dress-up is harmless, whether that preference is deep or fleeting. Yet the reality is that many parents are less comfortable about that than I am––and if those parents succeed in removing gendered clothes from some dress-up bins, I doubt that will do much harm either. I worry more about affording teachers flexibility to defuse conflicts with parents unless they believe a child is trans, in which case a fixed rule applies.

Calling a child by a new name of their choosing, directly contravening the wishes of the parents, perhaps would serve some children better than the alternative. But is that usurpation of parental prerogatives, along with the conflict it introduces between home and school life, in the best interest of most children? I have doubts.The typical preschool or kindergarten teacher will be a memory by the end of the academic year, while parents remain children’s primary caregivers. In my view, Ana faces an ethical dilemma rather than an ethical responsibility. The result of disobeying the parents could be that they withdraw from the school and send their child somewhere less accepting, or tension that precludes cooperative engagement on other aspects of the child’s education. The case study doesn’t consider the possibility that one of those negative outcomes could have “potential lifelong consequences” while the 4-year-old’s desire to wear dresses and go by the name Michelle could prove fleeting. Even if Michelle grows up to be trans, might she not benefit as much as Victor from ethical finesse?

Meanwhile, say that a child in Virginia thrives in the classroom when called by their preferred name and pronouns but disrupts everyone while learning nothing when addressed by their given name. A teacher might reasonably conclude, without parental consultation or permission, that using their preferred name is the best course.

Most teachers and parents are reasonable enough to forge compromises. Unreasonable outliers shouldn’t foreclose that flexibility for everyone. Neither decentralized decisions nor dialogue, negotiation, and forbearance are especially popular right now. But judgments about what’s best can be informed by nuances one grasps from knowing particular kids, families, and communities. The best approach on this issue is to dictate no mandatory approach. Ethical finesse can be useful, even on matters as contentious as gender identity in schools.