Robert has his first day at the sewing machine. He eyes follow each stitch, compressing the pedal ever slightly, as the teacher guides him on how to operate the sewing machine. After finishing the body or his work, he moves to the next step of stuffing, what will soon become, what he calls: a “Batty.” A cross between a monster and a character you may see in a cartoon. He then puts on the final touches with a button for a nose.
Later in the afternoon Robert sits down next to his friends during lunchtime, and notices that he is among boys. He blurts out: “Hey…this is a boys table.” And others boys at the table soon chime in: “Yeah…this is a boys table…no girls can sit here.”
Robert like many of his peers are between the ages of five and seven, and the topic of gender is vastly explored and at times wildly projected.
And so a teacher interjects: “Actually these tables here…are ALL to sit at, and everyone is welcome to sit here.” Sometimes challenging the language a teacher will sit at the “boys” table as if staging a sit in protest, just to add a monkey wretch to their thinking.
Sure, the lunchroom at times can reflect boys sitting all at one table, (traditionally we do not assign seats in the lunch area) and the girls at another, and this natural set-up is quite appropriate for a kindergartner, but it also warrants a critical perspective and an opportunity to rethink this seemingly ingrained social gender stereotypes. Obviously there are differences among gender and they are at a time of their lives where they are also figuring it out.
At the community school (where I teach at) we’re conscientious about the language we use which may trigger demarcations among gender. For example, we don’t address certain groups as boys or girls, rather we use a neutral term, like a name for your class that the kids make up. Pink is never associated as a girl color, boys are definitely encouraged to sew, girls do use trucks, and boys can play with dolls. Andrew in our class, stacks pink Lego pieces on top of his battle ship, because he said that he “likes” the color pink. And all though I acknowledged his statement, I said nothing to the contrary. There is definitely a space for battleships with pink in them. Just as there is a space for girls to play ninja outside with boys.
Schools in particular need to be environments careful not to be gender biased. Yes, there are notable variances among gender, but kids can learn profoundly more from learning to be inclusive, non-intrusive, and non-judgmental in their interactions as adults model and promote these qualities in them selves while expecting it of others. As educators and parents, we are the one’s they look highly up to, the one’s who can challenge status-quo images of what gender roles look like, while promoting an autonomous environment challenging of gender stereotypes.
When John Dewey, in The School and Society describes examples of real life applicable skills offered in the “modern” school movement, he makes reference to distinctions of work, assumed to be related to a certain gender. Of course this is a book written over a hundred years ago, but I think it still illustrates some of the outmoded ideologies of today, that can plague schools:
It keeps them alert and active, instead of passive and receptive; it makes them more useful, more capable, and hence more inclined to be helpful at home; it prepares them for some extent to the practical duties of later life – the girls to be more efficient house managers, if not actual cooks and seamstresses; the boys (were our educational system only adequately rounded out into trade schools) for their future vocations.
I’m not arguing for schools to be staging groups for prepping youth to be ambitious and successful career chases, but rather if managed cooperatively, honorable of personally distinctions, takes a critical view of gender roles, allows space for self-driven interests, cherishes the needs of each student, provides opportunities for life learning endeavors, and allows one to find their pace and calling. The value then is in challenging the complacent ideal of socialization and the defining of gender roles, while welcoming gender diversity and intermixing. Then we can rest assure in knowing that the kids will do their own gender defining, rather then the media or what someone else says.