Letting kids play on the gender spectrum: a partial defense of “Egalia”

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.

13 thoughts on “Letting kids play on the gender spectrum: a partial defense of “Egalia”

  1. Gender essentialists and their theories made my life a living hell as a kid and continue to do so in various ways even though I am now an adult. While I am a happily cis-woman, to this DAY I get the “you’re not really a girl are you, or you are SUCH a DUDE, or you should be more lady-like” crap. It can be bad now, it was HORRIBLE when I was a kid.

    The sooner people realize and accept there IS a scale and people are gonna fall at different points ALL over it, well, the nicer the world is gonna be for ALL people. Heck, I had to fight to take shop class rather than home economics in school, and there were boys who had to fight to do the reverse- the more days like that are put behind us, the better for EVERYONE.

  2. Issue dodged there:
    “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.”

    What about a little boy who wants to wear a dress? Something really transgressive from the viewpoint of conventional gender, and I don’t think there’s any equivalent for girls, especially very young ones. She hates anything pink and wants to play with trucks? How cute. But I’ve read stuff on blogs and forums from progressive parents who wonder how far to let their little boys enjoy wrong-gendered presentation–sleeveless clothing, dresses, long hair–where does it end? Where should the parents force it to end?

    Maybe Swedes should look forward to a non-gendered Slutwalk!

  3. John:

    How about wanting short hair, and I don’t mean like a bob, but say, a flat top or crew cut- a generally termed as Male Only Hair Cut? Prolly not *quite* the same, but, well, defintely could cause a similar sort of eyebrow raising, especially in certain regions. Could be in LA or NYC, not to many folk would say much about a boy in a dress or a girl with a buzz cut- but in, oh, Allience, NE or Rockingham, NC, could be VERY contraversial.

  4. I think there are two main driving forces behind parents being nervous about their kids straying far outside of gender norms:

    1. The fear that they, as parents, will be blamed in case their kid turns out messed up. If you raise your kid traditionally and your kid ends up messed up, well… you did what you were supposed to. Who can blame you? And if you let your kid be whomever she or he wants to be, and your kid ends up messed up, well then you were a bad parent. You should have raised your kid better.

    2. The fear that, even if they know artificially enforced gender roles are BS, allowing their kids to stray far out of gender norms will result in their kid being harassed, beat up, bullied… in excess of what’s considered normal hazing or rites of passage.

  5. Well, any preschool girl with a buzzcut, unless she is wearing a dress, will be assumed to be a boy, flat-out. Just like unless a preschool boy has a buzzcut, any boy wearing a dress will be assumed to be a girl, flat-out. Very equivalent. :)

  6. I mostly agree re the crew cut. That’s a good example. A girl could have a pixie cut or a pageboy (can a boy be a pageboy?) but a buzzcut would raise eyebrows, where so equipped. The world is funny about women’s hair, even if we’re not in Iran.

    And I agree re parents wanting to keep their children looking more or less “normal” too. You have to be have real liberal convictions to let your child make what you think is a fool of him/her self.

    I just recalled a news item from a few weeks ago: there’s a British school which lets girls wear skirts or trousers, but boys can wear trousers only. No shorts for anyone! When the weather warmed up, one boy wore a skirt to school because he said it was the only way he could dress for the season. It’s easy to find the story:

    But I wonder if he did it more than one day. Of course if his school had been Egalia, there wouldn’t have been internationally circulated news reports. The irony there, of course, is that 30 or so years ago, young boys in England typically had to wear shorts to school, regardless of the weather. Now, it’s not even an option.

    Speaking of shorts, another thing no boy would do unless he wants to stand out would be wearing shorts that really are short, the kind that’s usually reserved for girls. I look at these knee-length-plus “shorts” the young guys wear and I think I’m way too old for that stuff!

  7. The idealist in me grins from ear to ear when I occasion to read a news story like this one; but then the pragmatist in me starts to get worried. Yes I want everyone in the world to have the absolute freedom to express their gender, but on the other hand I worry not only how will society treat these kids, but also how will these kids understand themselves in relation to society? Are the kids at the school at all made aware of different structures that exists outside of the school? Also since there’s a long waiting list to enter this school I wonder how the school decides who gets in? I do realize that this is Sweden so the socialism in the country might make it more fair (although I’m not totally sure about that). The real reason I bring this up is if something like this were to happen in the united states (in say NYC) I get worried that a bunch of wealthy liberal parents would begin clambering to put their children in a school like this, while everyone else went to public school. It just seems really easy (at least in an American context) for gender expression to become an axis of privilege.

    But despite my worries I am glad that somewhere in the world a serious attempt is being made to change gender inequality.

  8. John:

    I dunno, I see a lot of guys around these parts in running type shorts, or soccer type shorts, which aren’t long…I mean, their butts are covered, but they are pretty short.

  9. Um… have you guys heard about Storm yet? Short 411: Storm lives in my part of Toronto, a very young child. Storm’s situation has raised controversy (to put it politely) because this child’s parents won’t reveal his or her gender to anyone outside their immediate family. The baby’s parents and siblings know the child’s gender; everyone else has to guess. Storm’s parents want their child to grow up without the bombardment of gender cues and stereotypes. According to stories done on them, they have a two older older boys on the “pink” end of Hugo’s “gender spectrum”.

    The Canadian feminist Susan Cole used to tell a story: when she visited a relative who had given birth, she went to ask for a baby blanket. The nurses said to her: sure, what sex? She replied: what sex? Cold baby!

    I’ve attached a link to one of the many stories about Storm here.

  10. This brought back some memories of school for me. I took wood work (joinery) from the ages of 13 to 16 and was only one of two girls in my year that did so – Mandy was, at that point a ‘tom-boy’ – I was a trendy which meant, back in 80s – that I would take on whatever gender was coollest at the time… But I loved the satisfaction of making things from wood and still have the balalika I made – plus, our teacher was wonderful.

    I eventually went with my pals and took needlework in my final year, just because I wanted to be with them. That’s the only gender pressure I remember, no teacher ever questioned my choice and I never felt uncomfortable, so I must have had a good school – at least in this respect.

  11. There is a difference between not enforcing gender stereotypes, and refraining from using the words “him”/”her”/”girl”/”boy”.
    There are many differences between males and females, and these will come out despite any gender neutralness, or gender enforcing. But to not use sensible words like him and her etc is bordering on plain stupidity.
    Schools have come a long way in gender neutrality since most of us went there. Boys and girls regularly take metalwork, woodwork, cooking, sewing, etc, and in fact it is part of the curriculum for all students in most schools.
    In the same way, the case with Storm is also ridiculous. The child cannot choose their own gender – they are born with it. It is insane to not recognise facts while trying to encourage openness and freedom.

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