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.
Kekere Schoolhouse is a life learning adventure composed of a mama and three little ones.
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