As many of you know, in addition to writing this blog and doing some freelance writing here and there, I teach preschool. I adore my little three-year-olds and I love my job. I’m not a teacher by trade, but as they say here in Texas, “I got here as fast as I could!”
It never surprises me to watch my boy students play in the kitchen or “beauty shop” and for my girls to play with the cars and castle blocks. But, just last week one of my boys said, “Ms. Carla, the girls said I can’t play in the beauty shop cuz it’s only for girls.” What? Not good, my friends. Not good.
Some things are just hard to change, right? So ingrained is society’s thinking on gender that I actually went to a training workshop on it just last week…the same week my girls wouldn’t let my boys get their hair done!
Presented by Dr. Shelley Nicholson of Nicholson Early Childhood Education Center, the training had me at hello.
First off I learned that men and women have the same hormones – testosterone and estrogen – just at different levels. Hmmmm…didn’t know that. I also learned that gender really has nothing to do with body parts or sex. “Sex” refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women while “Gender” refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women. Gender is biologically fixed and irreversible. Boys play with boys and boy toys and girls play with girls and girls toys, right? Wrong. Young children don’t give a hoot about gender and the only reason they congregate toward same sexes is because they are natural sorters and since sex is constantly emphasized through everything from dress to hair styles, that’s how their little brains sort and separate things to make sense. It’s not brain surgery, it’s preschool brain activity.
As Dr. Nicholson told us, women are not worse at math and boys do cry. A child’s choice of toys based on their sex has more to do with social expectations than psychological ones. You know that famous “What are little boys made of?” saying? It’s 200 years old! And Barbie? She first came out in 1952, targeted naturally to girls, and from her came G.I. Joe for boys in 1964. But, there was no way a rough and tough Army man could be called a doll. Manufacturers of G.I. Joe coined the term “action figure,” and the rest is toy history.
Girl toys have long been packaged in pinks and purples and focus on fashion, grooming and friendship, while toys geared more toward boys are based on action, fighting, or strength. This style of marketing and thinking in general is detrimental to society as a whole. Civilization needs men and women to work well together, so when we give our girls all the dolls and our boys all the trucks, we are not doing them or us any favors. Yes, many girls will gravitate toward a doll house and boys will opt for cars, but we need to balance it out for them because when little ones grow up and venture out into the big, bad world, they will need to work successfully and productively with the opposite sex.
Study after study, however, shows that when it comes to little girls and little boys we all generally treat them differently. One showed babies of both sexes playing with a Jack-in-the-Box. The toy would be wound up and the clown would pop out, but amazingly, most described the girls as being “scared” but the boys as being “mad” even though their reactions expressions were similar.
Strides have been made in telling girls they can be and do anything, but the opposite isn’t necessarily true of our boys. Think about it, if Susie wants to play softball instead of try out for cheerleader, mom and dad will probably support her. But, what if Johnny wants to try out for the cheer squad instead of the football team? Chances are he might not have complete backing from mom and specifically dad. It is how it is. (Personally, I always told my daughter it’s better to have others cheer for her rather than her cheer for others!)
Yes, there are more and more male nurses, flight attendants, and beauty experts, but for the first time in history, there are more girls in American universities than boys and only 2 percent of Early Childhood teachers are male. Yay college-aged females but where are our toddler’s male teacher role models?
If we start gender-specific thinking at a young age, it becomes ingrained. You see, brains look for habits and habits are really hard to change once they are established. There’s also a “but wait” aspect to it all. If we give boys balls and trucks right away and encourage rough play but then punish them for that very behavior once they get to elementary school, what message are we sending them?
I’m guilty as charged. I sometimes unwittingly implement what experts call “The Hidden Curriculum” in the classroom. This is described as when teachers unintentionally separate genders. Greeting my female students with a compliment about their cute sparkle shoes makes them feel good, but if what they hear all their life is how cute the “outside” of them is, again, what message are we sending them? Yes, I always tell my girls to use their “girl muscles” when attempting something physical but I also love the fact that my husband is responsible for all things bug, trash, car, and lawn related in our home!
Not surprisingly toy makers are feeling the heat. Gender-specific toys have long been the norm – just walk into any Toys ‘R Us and you’ll see obvious “boy” aisles and apparent “girl aisles – but science sets for girls and blue Easy-Bake ovens are in high demand, the latter the result of a 13-year-old girl asking Hasbro to make an oven that would appeal to her baby brother. The toy industry generally reflects society as a whole and the days of girl toys being home-related and boy toys being brain-related are long gone. Just recently Lego came out with pink sets and London giant Harrods department store redesigned its toy section by theme rather than gender. Well done chaps!
I know, I know, why pink Legos, but hey, if they get girls to build then what’s the harm? The goal is not to de-sex or de-gender society, but to make opportunities open to all. Just think about the bird world. Do female peacocks and cardinals complain that the males in their families are much better looking? Probably not!
According to Dr. Susan Linn of Harvard Med School, children begin to identify themselves as boys and girls between the ages of three and four. That’s my classroom! Yes, there are neurological differences between boys and girls at birth, but limiting their interests limits their growth.
I love it when the girls in my class play with the boys. They have fun, they share, and they learn. This is normal for the age group, as proximity is the main way friends are made during the toddler years. This changes once kids start school however, as “common interests” become the way friendships and peer groups are made. Still, as early as preschool, “gender segregation” occurs without anyone even realizing it and it persists throughout life. In all age groups, social identities are often formed by sticking to your own. Girls will think “I’m a girl so I belong to that girl group.” In the end, we just all want to fit in.
One of my long-time biggest pet-peeves is when girl teams are called “Lady Tigers” or “lady” anything. Why aren’t the “Lady Longhorns” just the “Longhorns?” Title IX went a long way in benefitting female athletes but it should have gone further and banned the word “lady” or “girl” or “female” before any team name!
Okay, I digress. So, we have clearly defined gender roles. That’s a given. Still, some things are surprising. Did you know that women weren’t the first sex to wear high heels? I found this out while watching “CBS Sunday Morning” recently. I love that show and about fell off my stilettos when I heard that high-heeled shoes were first worn by men as a sign of nobility. Even King Louis XIV of France was often seen wearing red-heeled shoes.
Sounds very Downton-ish to me but I just can’t go there. In my mind, certain things are just meant for one sex, not both. I’m so not on the “everyone is the same and equal” bandwagon but I do strongly feel girls and boys should be allowed to equally strive for similar goals and dreams. Call me silly, but it just might start in my little preschool class. Boys, make those muffins and girls, start your engines!