Years ago I worked with a child named Justin. A bright, happy child, Justin was a wonderful artist. He loved to create, exploring shapes and colors with crayons and markers and paints.
One day, when he was 4 years old, we were coloring together in his big notebook. We had been at it for some time when I picked up a purple crayon and began to add purple to the dazzling array of colors on our page. Almost as soon as I’d begun, Justin dropped his crayon and stared at me.
“No! No! You can’t use purple!”
He looked panicked. There were tears in his eyes. I stopped drawing. “Ok,” I said. “I won’t. Can you tell me why?”
“Because,” Justin stammered. “Because if [my best friend] David comes over and sees purple in my notebook he will, he will kick me out of the club!”
He was pleading with me to understand. I had never seen this kind of fear in my normally playful, relaxed friend. “Oh,” I responded. “How come?”
Justin then informed me in a very matter-of-fact manner that boys don’t use purple. We talked about this for several minutes. I asked, “So, what happens if a boy does use purple?” He didn’t skip a beat, “Well, then the police will come and they will put you in jail!”
Justin was onto something here—something besides the developmentally typical 4-year-old exploration of concepts of “good” and “bad.” He was articulating the very real pressures that preschoolers feel to figure out and fit themselves into our gender binary world.
Being a “good girl” or a “good boy” is central to being a “good preschooler.” And this means learning to limit one’s self. This means discerning which colors are “ok” to use based on one’s gender, which dress up items are “ok” to choose from the dress up box...which materials in the classroom are allowed and which are off limits.
Play is the work of a preschooler. Exploring their world through play teaches invaluable skills and nurtures development in all areas. We know that the brain responds to experience, and that its development is helped or hindered by the variety of experiences we have or do not have. These early limitations we put on children based on gender roles and expectations—and which children, in turn, put on themselves—have a powerful impact.
Justin remains a wonderfully creative and artistically expressive child. He is a child who is comfortable with his “boy” identity and simultaneously able to express himself in a diversity of ways. He continues to make beautiful pictures.
Still, I often stop to wonder...what might his artwork be like if he had never felt threatened by that small purple crayon.
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Editor’s Note: This blog was written for Welcoming Schools by Dylan C. Bosseau, an early childhood educator based in New York. It was originally posted by Welcoming Schools on Dec. 10, 2012.