Interview with Samantha Huggins and Mary Bronstein founders of The Kid Code
By Michele Zipp
Photos provided by Samantha Huggins and Mary Bronstein
Our country is on the brink of some major changes. Many of these changes are bleak, have us fearful, yet also prepared for a revolution. There are bright lights among us, strong enough to sprout new life, new visions, new hope into the future. And that future includes The Kid Code. Founders of The Code, Samantha Huggins and Mary Bronstein, are part of the ever-important (but underserved) dialogue of puberty education for kids. And it’s so much more than that. Located in Brooklyn, NY, The Code classes consist of Girl Code and Boy Code for kids 8 to 12, as well as Kid Code for parents and guardians. All kids are welcome -- transgender, gender neutral, and gender-questioning children. This is not your mama’s sex ed class. It’s revolutionary and so vital to making real changes, helping kids find their strength, lift each other up, and make the world better.
I spoke with Samantha and Mary about how Kid Code can empower our youth and create the shift to make America happy, informed, and enlightened again.
Michele Zipp: What inspired you to start Kid Code?
Samantha Huggins: Mary and I both provide resources for families in NYC. Carriage House Birth [where Sam is a birth doula] has been a staple in the community for years as has the PlaySchool and Mary's new Urban Scouts Program. A friend of mine whose son was a student of Mary's at The PlaySchool asked me to teach a sex ed program because her girls were coming up and she wanted them to have a good resource. I had already been toying with the idea of expanding my reach to include kids but wanted to be sure that the program was age appropriate as well as radical and fun. So naturally, I needed Mary to be apart of it.
MZ: How has the current state of America impacted your thoughts on Kid Code?
SH: Now more than ever we need to offer the community a space for kids to learn about their bodies, self respect, gender, race, and how to stand up for themselves and each other and more. We are breathless when we consider the actual to do list. It seems to grow by the day. And now with our new administration? We expect to include a conversation about complacency in our teachings. The lack of balance is our fault. We have to solve this by giving our children the proper tool and it starts with RESPECT, a deeper understanding of where we all fit in in this wild world, and how to ACTUALLY be supportive of one another.
Mary Bronstein: Oh my goodness. How has it not? How can it not?! A country where a man who brags he can grab women by their genitals, has decades of documented misogynistic rhetoric, and made millions of dollars on the backs of objectified and commodified women can become president is an incredibly hostile place to be born with a female body. This man has shamed breastfeeding and menstruation. The normalization of sexist and violent attitudes toward women has already been in place in this country forever and a day, but there is something especially threatening about it being so openly and publicly condoned. Misogyny is a hatred that people don’t feel the need to keep secret. But it isn’t only about Trump. It is about the culture that allowed Trump to happen. The entertainment and commercial industries operate on the sexualization of female bodies, which seems to occur earlier and in more insidious ways each year. Patriarchal pornography is normalized and readily available for unashamed consumption. Campus and military rape are staggeringly huge institutionalized problems that make being in a female body dangerous and frightening. Girls who are coming of age right now have a lot to contend with. There needs to be a space where they are looked in the eye and told that they have nothing to be apologetic or ashamed about because of the body they were born with and what that body can do. They need to be told that they were not born to be looked at and that their body belongs to them and is not primarily for the consumption of others. They also need to be told that menstruation is not disgusting, embarrassing, or a joke. We want to give girls these messages because we don’t see them being given out anywhere else and we want to encourage the next generation of women to be impenetrable to the diseases of the soul that the patriarchy can cause developing girls.
MZ: What has been the reception from parents regarding Kid Code?
SH: Parents have had all sorts of reactions to our curriculum. Mostly positive. Mostly encouraging. Mostly relieved that we are starting the conversation. We aim to lay down a foundation of basic information and will offer opportunities for parents to learn how to deepen their kids’ understanding and guide them through new challenges this year. Stay tuned for Kid Code -- a parents guide!
MB: I would definitely say “relieved” is a key word! Most parents do not know how to weave sex-positive values into everyday life, which is why we have the notion of that one Talk. Many women don’t know how to approach menstruation in an organic and positive way because of their own experiences with it. Parents who find us are happy they did, but ones who wouldn’t be probably aren’t looking for us!
MZ: What are classes like for the kids? What is their reception?
SH: The classes share a basic format but vary each time. Mary and I start off every class on the ground with the kids. We want them to know that they are just as powerful as we are in this conversation. And that it is in fact a conversation. We also offer journals, snacks, and products as a way to therapy themselves through the material. Each kid is different and may need to work out a moment with themselves. It’s amazing what some of the kids feel spirited to ask, draw, jot down. And of course there is a power point presentation that supports the topics and offers visuals for the kids.
MB: Usually the kids start out quiet, but begin to come alive pretty soon in. The part of the workshop where everyone comes out of their shells is when we talk about menstrual products and invite them to play with them and experiment with their absorption with cups of water. It is insanely fun to watch. At the last group, all the girls wanted to try on maxi pads in the bathroom! We try very hard to create a space for the kids that is comfortable, validating, and freeing. We are talking about things that they do not normally talk about, especially with adults. So far our approach has worked the workshop ends up being very lively and enjoyable.
MZ: How have you dealt with any negative feedback?
SH: We haven't really had any yet. Occasionally a parent would like a little clarity on something their kid thinks we said or didn't say but for the most part, it’s been nothing but smiles.
MB: It’s true! We have been lucky that so far it has been an incredibly positive experience. We are up-front about what our values are on our website. We teach about potentially controversial things, in our workshop homosexuality, gender fluidity, sex before marriage, birth control, choosing childlessness and abortion are completely normalized and menstruation is discussed as something to be celebrated and proud of. We talk to boys about the responsibility of not participating in rape culture and harmful pornography practices. So far no one has challenged this material and the kids have shown us they can not only handle it, but are starved for it.
MZ: Sam, as a doula, you empower women. You are there for their strongest and most incredible moment -- birth. How has this been the next step for you in your work?
SH: Creating Kid Code has been a very organic next step for me. As a doula, I watch and hold space for the people birthing our future. I see first hand birthing people in their rawest version of themselves. Many of their past experiences for better or for worse often surface. I see people call for their mothers, face the people who abused them as adults or as children or both, told them their bodies were gross, dirty and shameful and that it was unreliable and broken. This language comes from parents, partners, medical community, media, and more. It is astounding but not surprising how many people have a really tough story that is told through their journey into parenthood. Often not with words. Often with their whole being. I want less of the negative version of that. I want to see people who do not live in fear of their bodies failing them again. I want to see people who know with 100 percent certainty (95 percent would work for me too!) that they are strong and fierce and not broken or too complicated. That their little voice is right and trustworthy. I want to see their support team have a solid understanding about a body capable of growing another human. It isn't shameful, it’s life.
Kid Code is a natural extension of my reproductive work because I believe that empowered birth experiences for people who choose that, starts by kids having open and honest conversations, lessening confusion, lessening sexual assault, lessening accidental pregnancies, leveling the playfield with people who might want to control their reproductive choices and more.
MZ: Mary, in your bio, you mention the importance of creating "sacred spaces" for girls and women -- can you talk a little more about that?
MB: Sacred spaces for girls and women are something that comes out of radical feminism. Traditionally this refers to a space that is a respite from the patriarchy or the stresses, hang ups, limitations or self-talk that comes from living in a patriarchal society as an outsider (which is exactly what people with female bodies are made to feel like through a lifetime of conditioning). In this type of space female bodies are celebrated, normalized, validated and taken very seriously. The idea of the psychological, financial, emotional, and physical effects of the patriarchy on us is acknowledged and validated. These are spaces where it isn’t wrong to be female and where there is no right or wrong way to be a girl or a woman. The work of it is to create a space where total self-acceptance and self-growth can happen free from the confusing messages and demands society hoists on girls and women. It’s about creating an environment where girls and women are the center of their own experience and narrative. Girls are raised to view other girls (and subsequently women) as competition. In a sacred space, a goal would be to restructure that view so that they can begin to see the truth: girls and women need to trust each other and work together. I believe that it is extremely healthy for all developing beings to have spaces where they can see themselves reflected in a loving way. When one is part of what popular culture, government and tradition considers the majority this is not a struggle: you are everywhere reflected in ways that make you feel real, right and important. Girls, people of color, LBGT people, and people with disabilities have a much harder time finding these positive reflections. It is the job of whoever feels called to do so to create them.
Girl Code is certainly an example of a sacred space and so is the Urban Girl Scouts program that I started and run. Last year I spoke about sacred spaces for girls and young women at the Women’s Liberation Front radical feminist festival and they have asked me to create and run Gyrl’s World, a space within the festival just for young girls. I am so excited to be able to do this for them. I look forward to working more with adult women, although I have not decided what this would look like yet.
MZ: By working with kids, you are making a difference at the ground level. Your work with children is poised to be the most impactful, creating real change for our future. What are your thoughts on that?
MB: First of all, thank you! These are extremely powerful words. It always feels cheesy to say children are our future, but come on … they are the future in the most literal and tangible sense. I take this very seriously and in many ways consider this to be my life’s work. I think it’s the responsibility of radicals and liberals to find ways to inspire, nurture, and educate children toward being the people to take on the messes of previous generations and continue to improve the world. It is of vital importance that we raise boys in such a way that girls are not an ‘other’, to respect women and explicitly that rape is wrong. It isn’t enough to raise a boy who won’t grow up to rape; boys need to grow into men that won’t tolerate anyone else harming women and would be willing to take action. It is vital to teach girls to respect themselves, to know they can be anything they want to be even if they do not see it in existence yet and that sexism exists, is wrong, and is capable of making them feel lessened. Girls need to be taught that other girls and women are not inherently competition or untrustworthy; they are love and acceptance. White children need to be taught that people of many, many, many different varieties exist and are no different from them; white is not ‘normal,’ it is just one kind of person. Of course, no one can do all of this. But if people who are called to do this kind of work pick one little section of the equation and work seriously toward these goals we might have something.
MZ: How can parents bring positive and constructive conversation about our bodies into the home so our kids feel safe to talk to us about it?
MH: Conversations need to start at an early age and be a consistent and normalized part of family life. The key is to give kids age appropriate information as they need it. Being body-positive is very different than being sexually explicit or burdening children with information they don’t need. But there is no reason that a girl who lives with a menstruating women should not know about menstruation in a completely normalized way. For her not to means that someone is going out of their way to make that happen. If a girl grows up always know about it in some shape or form it becomes a very natural thing for her to learn it will also happen to her body. Parents need to show children that they are comfortable with their own bodies and with their children’s bodies. This takes away the feeling of secrets and shame and opens up the probability that a parent would listen if their child has a question or concern about their body or sex.
SH: … I have to add that the same goes for boys! Boys also need to know that their mothers menstruate and that their partners (male or female) are supportive of this positive cycle that is an indication of health and vibrancy! When adults make it their choice to open the doors and discuss their bodies with their kids, they are setting a tone of normalcy that needs to exist!
MZ: Who inspires you?
MB: In my life, I’ve been very inspired by radical women who take a difficult path to put their thoughts out into the world. Andrea Dworkin and bell hooks are major inspirations to me in this regard. I recently read all the work of the Bronte sisters and saw the wonderful exhibit on Charlotte Bronte that the Morgan Library had. I find the Bronte sisters inspiring because they were women who knew so thoroughly that they were put here to write and be read even though every single their family and society showed and told them indicated otherwise. As children they created full books no bigger than matchbooks because they were easy to hide. I find women with voices that cannot be silenced endlessly inspiring.
SH: I always say this but it continues to be true. You all inspire me. I am moved daily by the people all around me. Mary! My partners in Carriage House Birth and all of our doulas from coast to coast. I am honored to have been mothered by one of the most radical women I have ever known. Being a loud and powerful voice and living with one was so normal for me, I didn't know that it had a name until college! I am deeply inspired by the women who make change their lives. Who live it and breathe it. Who peel my eyelids back even farther just when I thought I could finally see the work that needs to be done. That lift me off of my privileged pedestal. I am endlessly in awe, thrilled to tears, and honored beyond words to have access to so much greatness and positivity.