Education: It’s An “All of Us” Thing

In my two years working as a preschool teacher, I have been affected by many things. I am constantly overwhelmed by the amount of love I receive from the students each day. I am amazed at the ways in which the children take care of each other when someone is sad or hurt. I find myself consistently impressed by how quickly they retain information. I am always really surprised at just how tired I am after a day at work. More than anything, though, I am disheartened by the ways in which gender plays such a massive role in my students’ lives, even at the ages of four and five.

When I started working for my particular school, I was placed in a classroom of toddlers. The oldest child in the room was three, so lessons were often not a part of the day. More than anything else, we were listening to music, painting, playing with toys – typical toddler activities. One of my classroom’s favorite choices was playing dress-up. Each child put on whatever outfits and accessories they liked, eager to become whomever they wanted to be for that small amount of time. A policeman, a princess, a teacher, a tiger! – absolutely anything. I always enjoyed sitting and watching the students, seeing what role they would take on for the day. More often than not, the girls would immediately go for any dresses, high heels, jewelry, and crowns they could find, while the boys would look for hard hats, uniforms, boots, and tools. After dressing up, the conversations between the children would begin. This is normally when I would drop what I was doing and really pay attention. The conversations always surprised me – not because of what was being said, but because I truly was not surprised by what I was hearing. The roles adapted by these young children were already deeply ingrained enough to affect their style of play.

A sample conversation between me and a girl student would normally go as follows:

Girl: Look! I’m a princess!
Me: Yes, you are. Remember, though, we have a lot of outfits over there. How about you dress up as a cop? Oh! Or a superhero? That would be cool!
Girl: No, those are for the boys.

And a sample conversation between me and a boy student would go like this:

Me: And what are you dressed up as?
Boy: A cop! A really strong cop!
Me: Do you want to give another costume a try? I see a lot of cool outfits over there.
Boy: (looks over) But that’s all girl stuff.

No matter how hard I tried, it was almost impossible to convince these children that ‘girl things’ and ‘boy things’ did not exist. Almost everything we did in a normal day became divided up into ‘boy’ and ‘girl,’ not just by the students, but by my fellow teachers, also. It was difficult to listen to a lead teacher disciplining a girl for being loud and rambunctious, stating that “that is not how little girls are supposed to act!” while seeing a boy being excused for being loud and rambunctious because, as we all know, “boys will be boys.” My personal attempts to break up this behavior were often met with reactions of disbelief. One teacher even asked about my constant questioning of this boy/girl divide with a retort of ‘Why fix what’s not broken?’

Approximately a year later, I began working at another center within this same school system and was placed in a preschool classroom. I stayed optimistic about the ways in which gender would be approached, hoping that older children would be able to recognize that toys and clothing don’t have to be gendered and that, in fact, any child can use or be anything he or should would like. I kept high hopes that boys would be wearing pink! Girls would be dressed as cops! Teachers would be disciplining children with absolutely no gender bias included whatsoever!

Unfortunately, that was not the case.

Most of my current students refer to things as “boy” or “girl” things, while constantly letting each other know what can or can’t be used by other students because of their gender. A common argument in our class is over Legos, especially when a girl student hopes to join in on the fun. She will walk over to the table, ask to play, and the boys immediately dismiss her or her desire to join them. They will tell her to “go to the art table” (which has been deemed girl-friendly) or “play dress-up,” which is not even available within the classroom. Another shocking incident occurred only a few weeks ago when, after approaching a girl student and asking her why she had been following a boy student around all day, she answered ‘Because I want to marry him! I have to marry someone and I choose Ryan!’

I have no words for the disappointment I feel when seeing or hearing things like this. To watch children feel obligated to do something because he is a boy or she is a girl or, even worse, because others have made them feel as though their initial desires are wrong, is hard to stomach. I try my hardest to encourage students to “play their own way” – essentially, do what you want. Not in a reckless sense, but in a “Hey, if you want to dress up as a tiger cop and go color for awhile and talk about painting your fingernails pink AND you’re a boy?! Go for it!” way. Gender expression is important. Allowing children to be children is important. Inhibiting them and keeping them from expanding as individuals, simply because what they are doing does not fit within a societal or cultural binary is ridiculous.

Boys will be boys? Girls will be girls? No. Boys and girls can and will be whoever they want to be.

By Caitlin

25 years old. Proud Michigander. Lover of Scandinavia, feminism, the Detroit Tigers, and perusing unaffordable real estate.

Du har. Du vil. Du burde.

8 replies on “Education: It’s An “All of Us” Thing”

At my kindergarten it was a bit different from this (you’ll have to forgive me for somewhat hazy memories though – this was 24-25 years ago! Also, I didn’t go to school in the U.S.; in N.Z. ‘kindergarten’ is for 3 and 4 year old children, like (I think) preschool is in the U.S.) There was one boy – a very aggressive boy, incidentally – who LOVED the plastic oven set in the playhouse part of the room.  As in, he would hit you if you went too near it without his permission, and woe betide the child who dared touch ‘his’ pink frilly apron.  The fact that I remember that at all speaks to how much I had adopted gender roles, I guess – it was notable because he was a boy – and I vividly remember thinking that boys had it rough, because they couldn’t wear dresses and skirts but I could wear them AND pants, so definitely I have early memories of gender norms.  But I was interested mostly in trucks and cars rather than dolls, AND I was a very girly girl and went through a pink phase for about 3 years.

I think the pressure to fit in at that particular age is actually a crucial factor, as children are learning about bodies – that they have them and that other people’s are different from theirs – so that they are more attuned to difference. I also think that what might appear to adults to be children self-policing their dreams and goals based on gender isn’t necessarily a) how children themselves see it (it’s more a club, a locating yourself in the world) or b) something that lasts. If I self-restrcted my clothing to certain colours as a little child, I never felt restricted by gender in other aspects of my life.

I think I said something to this effect in the post about “girl LEGOS,” but I’ve been trying to make my kids aware of not having to tolerate people saying “that’s a girl thing” or “that’s a boy thing,” somewhat to the point of being annoying about it, so that my almost-8 year old daughter will catch herself saying something and go, “I KNOW, I KNOW. Only boy toys and only girl toys don’t exist.”

And then the other day, my 4 year old son asked his sister if only girls have trouble eating dairy (both she and I are lactose intolerant), and without me saying anything, my daughter said, “What? No. It’s doesn’t matter what gender you are.”

I added, “I don’t think your stomach cares what gender you are.”

Which I know isn’t related to toys/activities exactly, but it’s in the same neighborhood of thinking about it.

Gendering kids that young makes me so sad. My daughter tends to like “boy” stuff more than “girl” stuff, and I’m kinda nervous about her 3rd birthday party at the end of the month. I have no problem with people giving her dolls and stuff, but I know she’d rather have trains and toy cars and it’s gonna irritate me if everything she gets is fluffy and pink. At least the parents of the kids in her gymnastics class (which is mostly boys!) know she’s a little hellion.

I dressed her up as a doctor for Halloween and everyone thought she was a boy. Which I knew was gonna happen, but it still made me mad. Just let kids be kids for fuck’s sake!

Yes, I have many *feelings* about this. Great article!


It’s so true, and I think school contributes (not necessarily teachers, because my kindergarten and elementary school teachers are some of the most amazing women I’ve ever known.)  Something about having that many kids of the same age together and the pressure to fit in. I was unschooled after third grade, so my memories aren’t great, but I do remember elementary school.  I remember that I was a tomboy, and while I had girl friends, they were always better friends with each other than they were with me.  I remember a lot of lunches sitting with a group of boys (who, at least in my school, were more accepting of gender non-normativity than the girls) and being made fun of by the girls for being friends with the guys.  I dunno.  In terms of gender norms, I found the unschooling environment to be much healthier (and there was still a lot of gendering going on.)  Maybe because I had three brothers and a tomboy best friend, so I had fewer people telling me how girls “ought” to behave.  Any which way though, it makes me sad to see young kids absorbing these restrictive ideas about gender so young.

It’s extremely disappointing. As much as I love my job (well, for the most part) and the school I work at, it is disheartening to see the ways in which boys and girls are often treated differently. I do my best to encourage the children to, as stated in the article, ‘play their own way,’ but it’s a bit tough when feeling like it’s one vs. everyone else in the school!

Ah, well. All I can do is try and keep trying. Positive thoughts. :)

Oh that is sad.

My kids went to a traditional daycare until they were three, and while I wasn’t there much, I didn’t see too much of these stark gender dividing lines. My daughter played with trucks, my sons played in the kitchen, etc.

At three they’ve both switched to Montessori schools, and reading accounts like these make me every so happy they did. Evey child gets individualized lessons on every work in the room. Every child is expected to work through a certain progression in the classroom- the girls must work through spatial materials, the boys must wash dishes. I taught for 13 years and gender issues were never what you described in your post!


Montessori schools are great, but it doesn’t stop kids from pushing gender ideas on each other (I went to Montessori school from Kindergarten through third grade.)  But the curriculum and teachers are amazing, and I do think it’s a better environment than a lot of school environments.

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