Several people sent me the link to this story that ran on Yahoo this weekend: No ‘him’ or ‘her’; preschool fights gender bias.
At the “Egalia” preschool, staff avoid using words like “him” or “her” and address the 33 kids as “friends” rather than girls and boys.
From the color and placement of toys to the choice of books, every detail has been carefully planned to make sure the children don’t fall into gender stereotypes.
“Society expects girls to be girlie, nice and pretty and boys to be manly, rough and outgoing,” says Jenny Johnsson, a 31-year-old teacher. “Egalia gives them a fantastic opportunity to be whoever they want to be.”
It’s a rather innocuous project, but judging from the hand-wringing comments below the piece, it’s an initiative that’s misunderstood. The school doesn’t, for example, deny biological difference (the children play with anatomically correct dolls.) The school doesn’t force little boys to play with dolls while insisting that girls take up sports. Rather, as Johnsson says, the whole idea is to give kids the “fantastic opportunity to be whoever they want to be.”
Having a daughter in preschool has reinforced something I already knew: gender happens on a spectrum. Some girls are “girlier” than others. Our Heloise wants to play with dolls more than soccer balls; her friend Ruthie prefers rough-housing. Some of the boys prefer playing house with Heloise; some of the boys prefer to tumble about with Ruthie. At this stage in their little lives, Ruthie and Heloise (like their preschool classmates) find themselves at different points on the spectrum of stereotypical gender behavior.
Gender essentialists insist that there are certain immutable truths: boys are violent, girls are nurturing. Anyone who spends time with little children will notice that at best, that’s only partly true. As a group, the boys do seem rougher and the girls gentler — but invariably, on close examination, a healthy minority of the boys are more tender than an equally noticeable minority of the girls. It’s not a binary, it’s a spectrum — and on that continuum between ultra-masculine and ultra-feminine, little kids are scattered at virtually every point. Furthermore, Tuesday’s rough-houser can be Wednesday’s little nurturer.
Biology isn’t destiny, but it isn’t irrelevant either. Rather, it’s one factor among many that goes into making children who they are. The Egalia pre-school seems committed to allowing children to find themselves without being forced too soon into rigid gender roles. That’s healthy and good.
Gender roles can be fun. There’s nothing wrong with wearing dresses, or preferring pink to blue. There’s only something wrong when you’re a little boy who is told you can’t wear pink, or you’re a little girl who’s told you can’t play with trucks. It’s equally foolish to deny girls who want to play dress-up the right to do so, just as it’s worse than useless to shame boys out of a rowdy game of cops and robbers.
Gender roles aren’t the enemy of equality; rather, the insistence that one set of roles matters more than the other is the problem. Mandatory androgyny is a great silliness, but that’s not what Egalia is promoting. From what I can gather, Egalia wants to liberate kids to be who it is they wish to be. For some, thanks to any number of factors that we don’t always fully understand, that will mean taking on all sorts of traditionally feminine — or masculine — characteristics. For more than a few, that may mean taking on some of the roles and behaviors traditionally associated with the opposite sex.
It isn’t always easy, but we have to be willing, really willing, to let kids be “who they want to be.” For some little ones, that will mean choosing traditional roles; for others, it will mean rejecting them.The less freaking out we all do, and the more opportunity we provide our children to discover their own place on the gender spectrum, the better off we, they, and the whole damn world will be.