During my first year working in a preschool I consciously realized that early childhood education could be a site for social transformation. I’d had the intuition that working with young children could be a space to fuse my curiosity, playfulness and deep belief in equity, but I didn’t yet have the words to articulate why. It was a perfectly ordinary day. H, a three-year-old with a bubbling laugh, bright eyes and a passion for dressing up in the dramatic play area, peed on his pants while playing outside. I helped him get to the bathroom, narrated while helping him take off his wet pants and underwear, and gave him space to look for something clean to wear in the extra clothes.
My heart squeezed when I heard him suddenly crying. After a couple of minutes his tears slowed down enough for him to say “My dad is gonna be sooooo mad at me! He doesn’t like if I wear this. He only likes Spiderman!” H had put on a large pink shirt, the only thing in the extra clothes bin that would fit him.
I was shaken. Until that point, I hadn’t realized how strongly young children perceive gender norms and have the language to discuss them by two or three years old. Those five minutes vastly shifted the way that I engaged with young children and educators, and the messages that I intentionally share about gender identity and performing gender. As a gender-conforming person myself, I’ve been conscious to cultivate learning environments where children explore and express as many aspects of themselves as they can. One of my favorite explorations of gender was as a preschool teacher when our class immersed in the theme of “Princesses and Superheroes”. Still, our babies live in this world and breathe in stereotypes as surely as they take in oxygen. I’ve found the best armor is cultivating a space for open communication and supporting the skills of compassion and critical thinking.
Last week as we started to make the guest list for our Summer Solstice performance my eight-year-old son expressed his reluctance to do the performance at all, and said that he’d rather just help off-stage than perform his dance. After several minutes of digging, and talking and silence he said that would only do the performance if we didn’t invite his friends because he didn’t want them to think he was “crazy- and not in the good way”. Together we discovered that his concern was about other folks (mis) gendering his performance. He feared that dancing would be perceived as too feminine, while playing instruments could be perceived as a masculine or gender neutral act.
We had a lengthy discussion about stereotypes, unpacking and resisting them. Below are a few lists that we came up with together. The words are his, except where italicized. I wanted to share this is an example of how a simple list can help children think and feel their way through complicated feelings about stereotypes and social exclusion. These moments are part of the work of decolonizing/liberating our children and ourselves.
What are some stereotypes about dancers or dancing?
What is something you're afraid your friends might say about your dance?
What are some stereotypes about boys?
What could we say if someone tries to make us fit into a stereotype or says something hurtful to us?
After making the list we did some role play, each taking turns being the child being stereotyped, and the child doing the stereotyping. As a family we’ve been having these conversations their whole lives, and I have been having tough discussions about gender and orientation since adolescence, so the process isn’t new to any of us. Wherever you are in your journey of supporting young people in developing healthy gender identity, I hope this can inspire or support you. I’ve also included a couple of links that I found helpful/insightful in my reflections.
Oh, I’m so delighted to share some of the work we’ve been doing studying the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, aka The Radiant Child. This exploration was definitely inspired by the interests of the children (anatomy, playing with color and form in their art, etc.) but was certainly not explicitly asked for. I’m still sorting through the balance of totally emergent, self-directed work and surrounding the children with unapologetic, Cosmically Black resources and experiences to counteract the insidious white supremacy that is (post) colonial America. Our artist studies are typically a bit more initiated by the themes that I pull out of their independent curiosities and are one of the primary ways that I include art, history and culture of Africa and the Diaspora. Little Sparrow in particular identified with Basquiat as a kindred spirit in mischief and creativity.
Here are some suggestions for how to go about an artist study with someone as prolific as Basquiat.
While playing dolls with Little Light (4) this weekend, I noticed a few themes in colorism and ableism. We were practicing braiding their hair when she opted for the dark skinned doll in place of her usual favorite, Light Brown Baby, that she’s preferred for a few months. Pleasantly surprised, I asked why she wanted to use Dark Brown Baby and she stated that her usual doll was “yucky.” When I asked why, she pointed at the bite marks on the doll’s hands and feet, which the puppy had made while teething.
We continued playing, but I noted the comment to reflect on later. Twenty minutes later, we were discussing potential names for the dolls and Light referenced a favorite book of ours, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. When I suggested Light Brown Baby might be named after Nyasha, the protagonist, Light countered she should be named “after the mean one.” Again, I asked why and she pointed to the chewed-up hands and feet.
Noticing the pattern of bias, I asked Light, “Do you think now that Light Brown Baby has a hurt hand and feet she’s mean?” Light nodded and said, “the mean sister has chewed-up hands, too.” I replied that I didn’t think that was true, and Light suggested we should read the book to find out. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find it, and our conversation got derailed by snacktime and baby sister needing a new diaper.
Later in the afternoon, we were playing with the dolls again, braiding their hair, and talking about all the things we love about curly hair. I used the opportunity to share my thoughts about the bias pattern I noticed.
“Light, can we please pause the game? I want to talk with you about something. I think I noticed some prejudice in the way you were talking about Light Brown Baby earlier. Prejudice is when you make an idea about someone before you get to know them based on how they look, instead of how they act. Light Brown Baby used to be your favorite doll, but today you didn’t want to play with her and you took off all of her clothes and gave them to Dark Brown Baby. Later, you said that you thought she was mean now, since she has chewed up hands and feet. That sounds like prejudice to me because I know that people with all kinds of bodies and abilities can make kind choices and can also make hurtful choices,” I gently explained. At this point, she was starting to look bored, so I wrapped it up. “Thanks for listening to my words. I’d like us to think and talk about this more sometime,” I said.
By early evening Light resumed her usual adoration for Light Brown Baby, dressing her and carrying her around the house and garden. It was interesting to notice how ability and color were ranked in Light’s eyes. She has preferred Light Brown Baby as “prettier” for months, but valued the able-bodied appearance of Dark Brown Baby over the previous skin-color ranking.
We have been reading, retelling and watching various versions of Beauty and the Beast as a lens through which to talk about beauty and behavior. Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe is a wonderful book that explores physical beauty and character, and is also just a lovely read and has been a favorite of mine since childhood. As always, the conversation will continue. I’d love to hear how you discuss these themes in your family. Have you noticed ableist ideas or patterns with your children or in your family? What resources are you using to support the conversation? Where do you feel stuck?
Note: I refer to my daughter as Light as a reference to the meaning of her name, and not the color of her skin. Out of respect for my children I try to keep their names out of public platforms whenever possible.
Kekere Schoolhouse is a life learning adventure composed of a mama and three little ones.
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