"He's such a boys' boy!"

My son’s teacher (at his daycare) made this comment to me, almost off-hand, several months ago. It has lingered with me since. What makes someone a boys’ boy or a girls’ girl? And what of the children (all children!) who don’t fit into these neat categories? Does Jonah’s teacher know that he loves helping mom choose her jewelry in the morning, or only that he enjoys rough-and-tumble play (which prompted the comment)? Most importantly, for us as educators and parents, what impact do gendered labels have on our children’s identity and development?

A lot. The gender roles that children assume as they grow are embedded deeply within our society and culture.  We give gender to children; “girlhood” and “boyhood” are not pre-programmed in us but rather mold to the expectations of the particular culture we grow up within. Adults’ notions of gender define, and perhaps constrain, individual and collective development from the earliest days of life.

At this point in the conversation, most adults respond: “I know that maybe we take it too far – Frozen for every girl and Star Wars for every boy. But, c’mon, just look around – my son went right for the trains and my daughter always goes for the dolls.” I want us to dig deeper than that. Our children deserve a deep and ongoing critical inquiry here. Already by two years old, the young child is often overwhelmed by the onslaught of gendered assumptions they encounter. By the time a child enters their first nursery school classroom, they have been exposed to innumerable stereotypes about what toys they should choose, how they should dress, who they should play with, how their bodies should appear, and how they should use those bodies. The toys children choose during their nursery years are not an indication that gendered stereotypes “get it right”, but rather of the nearly-unavoidable consequences of those stereotypes.

This was the topic of a morning conversation in my office two weeks ago, with a handful of parents and teachers. We spoke about how from birth, based on biological gender, their children were called “sweetie” or “buddy” in the delivery ward and were given princess or dinosaur onesies by family and friends. We also spoke about the emerging industry of books, clothing, and toys that buck these gendered assumptions about children: A Mighty Girl, Free To Be Kids,Jessy and Jack, Princess Awesome, BuddingSTEM, and Handsome in Pink (check these out and compare them to what you see in the vast majority of gendered clothing aisles).

Material culture matters when it comes to gender, and what we believe to be the very “essence” of gender, in fact, changes along with material culture. I’m in the middle of a book on the history of dolls and the commercialization of girlhood from 1830-1930 (yes, such a book exists!), and was fascinated to read that in antebellum America, dolls were made to promote domestic acts such as sewing and hygiene, as young girls were expected to practice these skills on their dolls. Only in the 20th century did dolls become sites for girls to practice social and emotional development; and it was even later when dolls became sites of aesthetic inspiration for girls’ body images (Barbie and princess dolls). Even amidst these changing gendered cultural expectations, the author writes that “daughters with different agendas then their parents…challenged parental authority, restrictive social customs, and gender roles.” In each generation, culture makes explicit its gendered expectations; yet each child responds in their own particular and unique way. If children desire, dolls can be play rough-and-tumble and dump trucks can be swaddled and cuddled.

Culture tells us what to tell our children about their gender. But this is an escapable pattern – it is up to us, in our own local community as parents and teachers in partnership, to determine what our gender culture is. What possibilities of development, of contributions to society, of creative insight, do we foreclose when children grow up in an environment that foists jewelry onto girls and tool-belts onto boys? What else are our children capable of?

For one example of how gendered assumptions have the potential to constrain development, at the individual and cultural level, we need look no further than nursery school teachers.  As mentioned in this article on our very own Adam Metzger, 2.2% of early childhood educators in the country are male. Each year, I hear our parents lamenting the fact their children (both boys and girls) don’t see more men in the classroom. It’s not that men can’t teach young children, it’s that culture tells us that it is for women. When Adam and I used to run into each other during our graduate coursework, we would jokingly say, “There is another guy around here!” How many great male teachers do we lose to the gendered assumptions children run up against early in life, constraining their own life outcomes? The same question could be asked for nearly every profession, from one or the other side of the gender perspective. What possibilities do we stand to gain if we can fight the tide of narrow gender stereotypes?

Emblazoned on a t-shirt in the links above is the words, “Forget princess, call me President.” Shared in the conversation in my office was an anecdote in which a five-year-old girl told a friend, “I’m going to be President one day!” to which the response was, “No, you can’t be President…you don’t have brown skin.” (Think about that for a while!) History has shown us that what we assume to be “true” in one generation becomes anachronistic as culture inevitably marches on. Truisms become vestigial.

In the end, local culture comes down to the words we use, the actions we take, and the physical things we use. What role do you want gender playing in your child’s development? What possibilities do you want to remain open to them in the years to come? What world will they build when they take the reins of culture from us in their own adulthood?  Talk to your partner, your friends, and your child’s teachers about gender assumptions and how they impact your child. We are responsible for considering these questions as we build a school and community together. At its best, culture is about opening, not constraining, possibilities.

Shabbat shalom,