“Do you know if it’s a boy or girl?”
And with that, we’re off – we’re constructing gender. From a baby’s prenatal days, our most-asked question (OK fine it’s tied with “When are you due?”) already triggers a cascade of cultural assumptions. (Dads, stay with me, this is for you just as much as it is for our moms)
Inevitably, though not inherently or innately, our minds are assaulted by the way our culture expects us to preform gender, shaping our own early expectations of child development, behaviors, and dispositions. Culture tells us how our gender informs who we are; we then tell children (in our own local replication of that culture) exactly the same thing.
Inevitable, because of the omnipresent, persuasive force of culture. But not inherent, because of the remarkable human capacity to be counter-cultural. And not innate, because this one has been decided – it’s nurture, not nature. We create gender, we don’t inherit it. I know, “nature vs nurture” is usually used rhetorically, and the joy of it is that we don’t actually answer the question. But on this one we can turn to our friend neuroscience and realize, as I referenced in a 2015 Note on this topic, that the gendered-differences in our brains are very slim, yet they are exploited by culture and cracked wide open. Or we can turn to our friend anthropology, and realize that across the world and throughout history, gender is not static nor uniform. “Boys will be boys” is actually a historically false statement. As I wrote in a 2016 Note, “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.”
I’m thinking about all of this now because of this NY Times article, which reviews how the Swedish state curriculum for early childhood explicitly instructs teachers to deconstruct gender in their classroom. It’s a fascinating article and well-worth reading. The day after reading the article, something that Jonah said to me really stuck out, especially when considering the way the article connects nursery school with gender identity.
Jonah was describing something from school to me: “Sometimes I like being mean. Sometimes we play ‘fighting the girls’.” I was naively shocked, and certainly saddened. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. You might feel this is a reach, but I’m pretty confident here – “being mean” and “fighting” is in Jonah’s arsenal – in his toolkit of behaviors – because of how he has learned to be a boy. Material culture gives children early, repeated exposure; culture assures they inhabit the space of superheroes and bad guys. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not absconding my responsibilities as a parent nor removing Jonah’s general disposition or attitude from the equation. That is all real as well. But I know how hard it is for him, and for me, to combat the version of masculinity that culture offers him. I know that the “fighting” and “being mean” that he sees in superhero/bad guy books are not whimsically dismissed – they are absorbed, studied, and then enacted. The things our children see, read, and hear are their culture.
This has been the source of one of my greatest frustrations in the last five years as a nursery school director. As a Reggio-inspired school, we maintain a vision that school can serve as a change agent – I devoted my speech to this topic at Parent Orientation this year. We believe, as we have learned from Reggio, that schools are imbued with the capacity to not only transmit culture but to create culture. I really believe that our classrooms, at their best, are places where kindness, love, and empathy are on such vivid display, are practiced so deeply, that those qualities can emanate outwards and impact the ways in which our children understand and interact with the world. And yet when it comes to gender, it seems an almost impossible nut to crack. Our children arrive at school as toddlers already gendered, already snared in the web of gender expectations. Despite our best intentions and strongest efforts, our classrooms continue to annually fall prey to superhero play for the boys and princess play for the girls – as a near-exclusive, binary fault line. Now, on several levels, there is value to that play – to finding an affinity group, to learning a plot line and exploring it, to build content knowledge in a favored discipline. But our children deserve more nuanced understandings of their own identity, of the possibilities that life presents, of how they can express themselves.
I mentioned dads earlier because this is harder for us to acknowledge than it is for our moms. I don’t mean this as a sweeping generalization and I understand of course the irony of repeating a gendered stereotype. I mean that, empirically, in multiple Coffee Chats on the topic and numerous informal conversations in our community, I keep hearing the same general statement – “In my house I’m kind of on my own on this one. I think my husband sees it differently.” It is hard for us because of our male privilege, because of the conditioning we’ve all gone through throughout our lives, because being a masculine man – bending towards expectations rather than away from them – tends to work out well in life. But I think our boys deserve better then what we give them. I think the homogeneous boyhood they see in pop culture, on t shirts, in their toys, robs them of so many rich opportunities to learn from a broader, more diverse model of what the world can be. Or as Jonah put it succinctly at bedtime last night after we finished reading Princess In Training, “Daddy, why are there no boy princesses?”
As a classroom teacher several years ago, I realized that when our students entered in the morning, the girls received hugs from us as teachers and the boys got high fives. That was an easy fix – hugs for everyone (kinda catchy right?). It also got me using bud/dude/pal and sweetie/honey/cutie more interchangeably for our boys and girls. Our teachers use “friends” instead of “boys and girls”; we do our best to track and counteract gender imbalances in play areas; we add gender-bending books to our libraries, with female heroes and countercultural representations of gender.
But for several months last year, two advertisements on the sidewalk near the JCC – the last two images you saw if approaching the JCC from the south before entering school – showed first a tall, seductive woman in a bikini and second, Homer Simpson eating a donut and showing off his bowling-ball belly. Your children saw this, every day, for a chunk of the year. Probably none of us talked about it with our children. But they saw it, they absorbed it, and then they entered school for the day.
As I said before, this is hard! I want your help. For all its importance, children’s time in a classroom is only a small sliver of their life. Gender is constructed everywhere and sets in fast. I don’t want to assume your values or perspective here, but I do think we all benefit from critically self-reflecting on the role that cultural gender-expectations are felt in our families and our classrooms. We all benefit from examining what society gives us rather then blindly accepting it, and we can all act as change agents in our capacity as parents, teachers, and community members.
What gender models do you want for your child? What gender models are available for them? Talk about this with your children. Talk about this with your partner. Talk about this with your teachers. Let’s talk about this as a community. As a school leader and a parent, I know that our children are capable of more than we are offering them.
“Do you know if it’s a boy or girl?”