Make Room for Pirate Girls, Princess Boys

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.


Have you seen the book 'The

Submitted by Susan Cee on 18 June 2012 - 6:10pm.

Have you seen the book 'The Night Pirates'? It's all about girl pirates, but the children don't know that they are girls until a few pages into the story. It's always interesting to hear their responses and take the discussion from there.

I really like this article

Submitted by Stacia on 14 November 2011 - 3:02pm.

I really like this article because it reminds me of my nephew Kaedin. He loves to play dress up and he loves pretending that he is painting people's fingernails and toe nails. We as his family are very accepting of this and even participate when he is acting these things out. His father also allows him to explore these things by allowing him to actually paint his own toenails. I think it is very true that there are things perceived for just males and just females but that when an interest is shown by the opposite gender that it should not be stifled.

This is a very touchy

Submitted by C on 4 November 2011 - 1:48am.

This is a very touchy subject, even though its for young children, because it comes back to the household the child is being raised in. I don’t like dealing with this subject because of past issues with it. But the teacher does have a valid point (as usual). Working with the difficult task to help a child express themselves in a safe environment is one of the task of a teacher. In the article the child was very conflicted when he responded to the questions, “Do you like princesses?” The young male child said, “yes, but don’t tell anyone.” With children its common to see them play both roles sometimes. The boy will dress up in the princess dress and the girl with put on a firefighter’s coat. This is a sensitive time for their minds to understand themselves and their peers, so anything to help them is highly recommended.

This article talks about

Submitted by Amy on 3 November 2011 - 1:38pm.

This article talks about children and gender roles. Children are influenced by their families and their peers. They may learn completely different information from home and from school. They may be embarrassed to express how they truly feel about something because they do not want to get in trouble. I was at a picnic once and there were three little girls and one little boy. The girls had their dolls and they were playing with them. The little boy’s parents had not brought toys for him to play with and he wanted to play with other children. When he walked over to the girl’s one of them gave him a doll and he started playing. He father walked over a while later and said to the little boy “girls play with dolls, you’re not a girl, go find something else to play with.” The little boy went to his mom who found him something to do. In a classroom children should be and are allowed to play with whatever they want to. Some children may become confused on what they should or should not play with.

i feel this story was very

Submitted by ECS on 2 November 2011 - 2:14pm.

i feel this story was very touching, i feel gender roles have become a little extreme. it is amazing that a 5 year old stuck up for himself and he had the ability to let his teacher know how he truly felt.

You're right most kids do

Submitted by katie on 2 November 2011 - 1:25pm.

You're right most kids do come to school having their own ideas about gender roles. Not saying that its wrong , but parents need to let their kids be more open minded about genders. That girls can do what boys do, and vice versa. I wish the world would realize this, I feel it would be a better place.

I going to college for early

Submitted by Alison on 2 November 2011 - 1:16pm.

I going to college for early childhood education and one of my professors told me a story about how one year, when she was teaching preschool, one of the little girls in her class was playing pirates in the pretend play area. All of the girls and boys started playing which gave my teacher an idea to do pirates as a theme. The kids loved it! All the boys AND girls! I think a lot of gender bias does come from home and also society. Like stated in the article, princesses are thought to be feminine. This comes from society and how advertisement is also geared towards little girls never boys. Also, as children, we are told boys do these things and girls do these things. Children are afraid to say what they like because they might get in trouble if they like a "girl" thing when they are a boy. I enjoyed reading this article.

I love this article. Early

Submitted by Rachel on 1 November 2011 - 5:51pm.

I love this article. Early childhood educators should be teaching children that it is okay for them to have their own opinion, also that their voice is important and they shouldn’t stay quiet. Children should know that it is okay for them to like both pirates and princesses. Nothing should be gender limited. Girls should be allowed to play football and boys should be allowed to dance ballet. As their teachers children look up to you for guidance and if you don’t encourage them to like the things they want to like they will never be sure of themselves and they’ll never figure out who they truly are.

By far this really is the

Submitted by randi on 1 November 2011 - 5:31pm.

By far this really is the cutest article I have read! It's nice to see that at a such a young age Joe was able to distinguish the gender roles, but also say "Girls could be pirates too!". He is very aware about his surroundings including the "gender roles". Reading that more than often, little boys like Obie like to dress as princesses sometimes, but Obie was hush about his likings. It was also nice to hear that some parents were supportive of the child's choice what they want to play as, or dress as. Although many children see the gender roles a lot in TV shows and in movies, it can be hard to get them not to sterotype at such a young age. As long as there's support I think all the children can be whatever they want!

You're right. Some kids are

Submitted by Laura on 11 October 2011 - 7:16am.

You're right. Some kids are coming to school with biases learned at home. Many times, these biases do not jive with the child, so he is caught between what feels right and what the adults at home may be saying. As teachers, we can be voices of reason just by letting a child feel safe to be heard.