A children's book broaching subjects like gender identity and same-sex relationships starts: "Worm loves worm. 'Let's be married,' says worm to worm." As the protagonists in "Worm Loves Worm" plan their wedding, they're unsure who will wear the tux and who will wear the dress because they're also unsure of their sex -- as worms are simultaneously male and female.
Some Colorado preschools use material like this to teach kids about family and sexual diversity, as well as gender roles. It's part of what's called "anti-bias curriculum."
Parent R.B. Sinclair says she was concerned when she learned the Denver school her 4-year-old attended read such books. She says her daughter is too young to understand.
Bethy Leonardi sees it differently. Leonardi is a co-founder and research associate at A Queer Endeavor, an initiative out of the University of Colorado Boulder focused on gender and sexual diversity in education.
They spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner about this curriculum and to grapple with the question; what's a good age to talk with children about gender identity and family make-up? Click the audio player above to hear the conversation, and read interview highlights below.
Sinclair on the incident that upset her daughter:
"I picked up my daughter from school. She was upset, agitated and afraid. She asked me, 'Where is dad?' And I said, 'Well he's at work.' He actually was on a trip. All day and all afternoon [she was] very agitated. She informed me that he's going to leave he's not coming back because he does not like girls anymore. And I said, 'What do you mean?' She said, 'He does not like girls anymore and he's leaving us. He went with this other guy penguin and they're having a baby.' ... It turned out that one of the penguins -- his name was the same name as her daddy."
The penguin in reference is from a book called "And Tango Makes Three," which was read in the classroom. It's about two male penguins who fall in love. The zookeeper than gives them an egg to raise.
Sinclair on when sexual identity education is appropriate:
"It was too early. ... I saw the reaction and the fears and the agitation she experienced. And the second thing that also occurred was, ... my child did not know ... the anatomy -- the difference between boys and girls. She comes back and she draws a picture with a penis. That scared me. Where did she see that?"
Leonardi on the right age to teach sexual identity:
"Preschool is an age when we talk about the diversity of families, which is inherently talking about sexuality. And we do it all the time when we talk about having a mom and a dad. That's sexuality too. We just don't recognize it until it's something unfamiliar like two moms. ... The longer we don't name the world in the ways that it is, the fear just builds and builds."
Leonardi on a school's role in sexual identity education:
"The novels that you read in high school are very much about sexuality... And there is all of a sudden, this recognition or this, 'What's happening in our schools?' And it's like, 'This is always been happening. Now we're just including all families.'
"So I think at the preschool age, it's about that. But it's also about gender and gender norms and the gender binary in teaching kids to kind of question norms and assumptions around what boys can do and what girls can do. And so we support teachers to kind of disrupt binary thinking around gender and the sort of pink and blue rules. Those are the kind of conversations that we support our teachers to have.
"Teacher effectiveness legislation in Colorado says to be an effective teacher you have to make your classroom safe for a diverse population of students. That includes gender diversity and includes sexual orientation. So what kids should be seeing in the curriculum is that diversity represented for them to be acknowledged."
Leonardi on whether "how young is too young" is the right question:
"The question should be, 'We have LGBTQ kids. We have LGBT families. How do we do this right? How do we teach gender and sexual diversity in a system that has long silenced gender and sexual diversity? How do we get it right?
"You do have four year olds with two moms. You do have four year olds who identify as transgender. So what should a school space look like, knowing that those are kids in the school? Those are their lives. That's their normal."