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.