One of my fondest and most salient memories from the past school year happened toward the beginning of the year. Joe had just turned 5. He was making his own book about pirates.
Each page of the book was a picture of a different pirate. It was more a collection of images and ideas than a fluid story. There were pirates doing various things. All of the pirates were referred to with masculine pronouns. And then, on the very last page, before writing “The End” with me guiding his hand, he had me write, “Boys are not the only pirates.” On this page, there was a drawing of a girl and a boy pirate. He then explained to me, “It’s really true. Girls really could be pirates.”
This episode, while not exactly rare, was a teaching moment for me. Joe was clearly able to distinguish between boys and “boy things” and girls and “girl things.” He also happens to have a family who works to bring up non-traditional gender roles and break down conventional gender stereotypes. Joe was a voice of reason in some of the questions that would come up during the course of the year.
In the early morning, one of the choices for activities is called survey. This involves thinking of and recording a “yes” or “no” question and then asking each child in the class. The results are tallied, recorded and presented at the morning meeting.
One morning, the question was, “Do you like princesses?” Now, princesses are conventionally, at least in mainstream America, the domain of girls. Princesses are feminine, wealthy, beautiful and in constant search of a suitor or savior. The concept is flawed before we even get to how young children perceive and think about princesses. Expectedly, the yeses were mainly girls, and the noes mainly boys, with a few exceptions. One 5-year-old boy, Obie, responded, in hushed tones, “Yes, but don’t tell anyone.”
The problem with teaching about gender roles is that children arrive at school with ideas about gender. They see gender roles played out on TV and in movies. Even now, it can be challenging to find enough books to read to young children that present men and women in nontraditional roles.
And when a family supports a particular view of what it means to be a boy or a girl, an alternate viewpoint from a teacher can cause confusion on the part of the child. Sure, it’s a hard line to walk, but not impossible. In fact, it’s necessary. One job of the teacher, in the early childhood classroom and beyond, is to ensure that every child feels comfortable in expressing his or her own viewpoint and offering an alternative view when merited.
Obie was feeling very conflicted, caught somewhere in the web of family, peers and self. As a teacher, it is important to get children to begin to think critically about gender roles and stereotypes.
Young children already have an idea of what’s fair and not fair. These ideas need to be explored for the benefit of the classroom community, even if I, the teacher, have to step in and say, “Boys can like princesses, too. Some boys even have long hair, like me!”
Palenski is a kindergarten teacher in Connecticut.