Is It Time For Two Family Trees?

Here’s a story from the NYT that I’ve been meaning to get to.   (I’m not caught up on comments, but because I have limited time and a couple of posts I wanted to add, I am just going to try to do shorter posts on the newer stuff and then return to the comments.)   It’s about the modern family tree and the dilemmas posed for some families.

The story starts with Laura Ashmore and Jennifer Williams–sisters by any reckoning.   Ashmore and her husband, Lee, learned they could not conceive a child.   Williams agreed to serve as a surrogate for her sister.   She became pregnant using sperm from a third party (who I think was anonymous) and gave birth to Mallory.   Mallory was then adopted by the Ashmores.

(This last point leads me to a couple of side notes.   If the Ashmores adopted Mallory then when Williams must have been a legal parent to begin with.   This reminds me that there are two important variations on surrogacy–one where the surrogate is a legal parent who intends to turn over the child to someone else and the other where the surrogate is never a legal parent.   It also makes me think about the difference between conventional adoption and what happened here–the main difference being that the child was deliberately conceived for the eventual parents.)

Anyway, we could now describe Mallory as a child of either Williams or the Ashmores, depending on what we mean.   From a genetic point of view, Mallory is Williams’ offspring and will always remain so.  Laura Ashmore is Mallory’s aunt.   But from a social point of view, Mallory is the Ashmore’s child and Williams is the aunt.   The law–my habitual concern– happens to endorse the latter view in this instance.

If we draw a family tree starting with the two sisters, where do we put Mallory?   And what’s the proper description for the relationship between Mallory and Jamison, Williams’ genetically related son?   Or between Mallory and Williams’ lesbian partner (who is, let’s assume, Jamison’s legal parent, too.)

The article uses this frame to offer the following observation:

Some families now organize their family tree into two separate histories: genetic and emotional. Some schools, where charting family history has traditionally been a classroom project, are now skipping the exercise altogether.

This ought to make us think about the different reasons why people draw family trees.   A the article notes, genetic history can be important for medical reasons.   But social or emotional history is obviously important, too.  It all depends what it is you are trying to capture/convey in the family tree and what it will be used for.  It would be foolish to present the doctor with the social family tree when she/he wanted the genetic one, but in fact, both could be useful to him/her.

You can say the same thing about the school assignment.   A long time ago I wrote about the difficulties the school exercise family tree can create.   Recognition of this difficulty is captured in the quote above.   It seems to me the critical question with the family tree drawing assignment, as with the general drawing of family trees, is what are they for?  When a teacher assigns it as a project is it to have the child learn about family history?  Is it to teach basic genetics and the heritability of various traits?    Surely no teacher offers this assignment for the actual purpose of destabilizing a child’s sense of her/his place in the world.     If we are clear about what the pedagogical purpose of the assignment is, then we can consider whether it’s an effective teaching tool given the complicated realities of children’s lives.

Then, of course, there is my perennial question:  What about the law?   Which version of the family tree should the law recognize/enforce and why?   Is there a way it can recognize both?   If one has to choose, how do we choose–either as individuals or as a society?   It is increasingly clear to me that we need to recognize both types of connections but the law is nowhere near accomplishing that.

6 responses to “Is It Time For Two Family Trees?

  1. Julie – I agree that both social and genetic family tress have validity. The law needs to recognise both as connected to the individual in my opinion.

    I have 4 family trees as I have chosen to do each parents tree as a unique tree so I have two legal/social trees and two genetic trees. I appear in each.

  2. It really depends upon what the class exercise is about right?

    If the purpose of the project is to show inherited biological traits such as skin tone eye color hair texture the sound of our voices things like that, then maybe its best simply to assign each kid an imaginary family of people to do trees on so that nobody is doing the family they live with or anything that has to do with themselves personally. Genetics and biology does need to be taught as part of the curriculum so if its totally getting side tracked by social family issues just find another way to deal with it

    If the purpose is to talk about tolerance and the different kinds of family structures people live in well then obviously starting the conversation early about how all kinds of environments can be healthy to grow up in if the people caring for the child love the child. Well that can be good and it can be very important for children to explain what their home life is like.

  3. we can not expect a class to omit human biology and focus only on trees simply because some families are raising their kids with the belief of immaculate conception. same as not teaching evolution because some families are raising their kids to believe in the genesis account. Families have no write to expect the rest of societies to collude with the myths they tell their children. They either have to prepare and deal, or make their own school.
    So much for genetics. But what about roots and history? Is it fair that now child can display their roots, because some children’s roots are vague or insecure?

    • Teaching human biology (including sex ed and genetics) is terrific. Ought to happen. This doesn’t tell you what exact assignments should be made. I’ve seen the “draw a family tree” assignment in a variety of contexts. Sometimes the pedagogical purpose might be related to genetics (if you can roll your tongue can your parents?) but it isn’t always. Sometimes it is about identity.

      I don’t think anyone is making the claim that the only way to teach the genetics aspect of this is by having people draw a family tree. Indeed, I’ve seen the counter-assertion–that this is not an effective way to teach genetics. (You can see a bit of this discussion here: It is really beyond my expertise.)

      So as to the genetics, the point to me is that for some kids–say those who know they are adopted, those who know they were conceived using third-party gametes–the simple exercises won’t work and if anything could impede learning. Why not choose an assignment that is most likely to work for most or even all kids?

      If you’re having kids draw a family tree to learn something about their extended connections, then it seems to me you ought to have some discussion about the basis for human connection–which might include love as well as genetics. Those are big topics to take on in school. I’m okay with that, as long as this is done in a way that is reasonably sensitive to the diverse range of kids you’ll find in the class.

      Ultimately for me this isn’t about political correctness–it’s about effective teaching. To teach effectively you need to be clear about what the point of the lesson is and you need to be sensitive to the range of positions your students will occupy. This is true for all teaching.

      I actually think you could do really interesting things with two family trees–one showing genetic lineage and one showing social affiliations. For some kids there would be a lot of overlap and for some not so much or none. Some excellent discussion points there. But maybe not for eight-year olds.

  4. A teacher could address it head on from the beginning:
    “You may include people that are not genetically related.” End of story.

    • Right–and that would be fine if the point of the exercise was to draw a tree about affinity/connection. The key for me is to be clear about why the assignment is made–what is being taught. If you are teaching genetics, there’s not much point in including those who are not related. And give that we all know that there are adopted children out there, it might be that the family tree approach isn’t great for teaching genetics.

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