Question: I have a 4-year-old boy in my class who is being raised by his mom. The little boy sometimes misses his dad, and he talks about him sometimes with great sadness.  I’ve spoken to the mother and she says the child hasn't seen his dad in two years.  What can I do to support this child when the topic of his dad comes up?

Polly Greenberg: No child wants to feel different. It’s important for every teacher, regardless of her personal views, to emphasize to all children that families come in many sizes, colors, and shapes. Without speaking to or about any individual child, we can frequently mention this fact and expand upon it whenever appropriate — perhaps when reading a relevant story. I once overheard this marvelous conversation between two four year olds:
“Where’s your daddy?”
“I don’t have a daddy.”
“Everybody has a daddy.”
“Well, I don’t.”
“Where is he?” the interrogator continued.
“Where’s your brother?” asked the annoyed recipient of the daddy question.  
“I don’t have a brother.”
“Well, I don’t have a daddy.” End of conversation.

It’s good to develop a comfortable relationship with your children’s parents. When talking with this boy’s mother, you might want to say that sometimes the subject of fathers comes up and her son seems sad. Ask if the mother sees this. Say you want to support her in whatever she says to her child about his dad. Is he in the military? In prison? Does he have problems (substance abuse, mental illness) that prevent him from showing his son love? You can help by making the little guy feel less different. Assure him that he’s a great kid, that there’s nothing wrong with him, but his daddy can’t be with him now because [a simple statement that’s true]. Saying something like, “Everybody has a dad who helped make him, but not everybody lives with his dad or sees him very much. Maybe when you’re older you’ll see more of your dad. I know you’d like that.” Always offer hope, but never promise. Above all, make his days with you happy days.

For more advice by Polly, check out the Setting Limits column.