“Boys Will Be Boys,” and Both Boys and Girls Will Learn to Care for Each Other’s Minds and Bodies: Reflections on Gender and Respect in Early Childhood Education
“Boys will be Boys.” We’ve been hearing that a lot lately in the news and other media platforms, justifying behaviors that we must all recognize are less than acceptable. I heard this phrase countless times while growing up as a young girl and later as a young adult, instilling a feeling in me that perhaps the acceptableness of certain offensive behaviors was determined not by the behavior itself, but by the context or by the identity of the perpetrator. These phrases that casually brush off the so-called “boyish” behaviors of dangerous masculine entitlement add to a culture in which children are encouraged to define one another by gender, boys are taught to see girls as objects, and girls are taught that their needs and choices for their own bodies don’t matter.
But I spend most of my time with children between the ages of one and five years, and I can tell you that we humans don’t inherently start out thinking of things in this dangerous binary.
So how can we work together to change this culture that pits boys and girls against each other and reduces their interactions to, at best, reinforcing stereotypes and, at worst, physical and sexual harassment and abuse? As an early childhood educator it is more clear to me than ever before that the answer is education—thoughtful and clear education starting with our youngest students.
I have found that my views and values regarding early childhood education are most aligned with the philosophy and practice of the Reggio Emilia approach, which was birthed in a small town in Italy shortly after World War II as this community’s answer to the question of how to reject fascism. This history feels especially relevant to me today. Their answer was, as ours should be, that we start by investing in our society’s youngest citizens, and create for them a culture of respect and responsibility within the framework of a democratic environment. In Reggio practice and philosophy, there is an innate respect for the child as citizen, and an understanding of the child’s voice as relevant in the classroom and in the world; children are not vessels to be filled with knowledge and facts, but rather individual human beings who come to social interactions already brimming with their own unique experiences, desires, and ideas about the world. And in this key idea lies the framework for the creation of a culture of respect and understanding.
The Reggio classroom is a microcosm of democracy in action. The children speak in many “languages,” but each one’s voice is heard. Each is viewed as an individual, with individual skills, needs, and opinions and while their expressions may be varied, no one voice is valued more than another—at least this is the ideal.
While a nursery school classroom often represents the ideal environment in which a child may safely grow and flourish, it is inevitably affected by the problems of the society that surrounds it. And in our society, some of these problems lie within the way we construct and define gender.
In progressive early education it has become best practice to minimize the use of gendered language; for example, you may notice many preschool teachers using the traditionally Quaker manner of referring to students and classmates all as “friends,” rather than the more conventional “boys and girls.” However, there are still so many, sometimes subtle and sometimes explicit, ways in which socially accepted gender constructs and stereotypes make their way into our interactions with our youngest learners, and when we start to actively look for and question this language, it becomes clear that there is in fact a way to shift this cultural construct.
In general, I prefer my interactions with young students to focus little on gender, and I try to use as little gendered language as possible, especially because I have had students in my classes before who were gender-questioning or already knew that they did not fit neatly into the male-female gender binary. One year, however, my co-teachers and I decided to make a point of taking all gendered language out of our conversations with one another and our students, and it became a kind of social experiment in which we called out each other and ourselves throughout the school day for using gendered language. The most enlightening part of this “experiment” was that we each suddenly realized how often gendered language really does creep into our speech and interactions with others, and the act of noticing also made us reflect more thoughtfully on when and how we used such language. For example, even if you are not someone who frequently uses overly gendered terms, such as addressing young girls as “pretty princesses” or referring to young boys as “brave superheroes,” you may start to notice different, more subtle, gender expectations embedded in the language you are using with children. When you ask a child to do something themselves, because it’s what a “big kid” would do, are you saying “be a big boy and carry your own backpack,” or offering praise to a “good girl” for staying quiet in public? Do we subtly provide different expectations for girls and boys that come through in our gendered language, such as when we comment, with well-intentioned kindness, on a young girl’s lovely clothes or appearance, and compliment a young boy for his strength and agility on the playground? Individually, innocent comments like these may not have an effect on our children, but when layer upon layer of interactions such as these are piled upon our youngest learners, girls start to believe that their value lies in their appearance, and boys start to believe that their voices and needs should be louder and matter more and overpower those of others.
We don’t mean to pretend that gender does not exist, and we don’t attempt to completely keep it out of our classroom environments in every instance. It is inevitable that conversations about gender as a social construct and physical gender differences will come up frequently within an early childhood setting. However, we make a point of defining each other and our students by many other qualities; a person’s gender is only one aspect of who that person is, and there are so many other parts of their personality on which we can focus when discussing whom we enjoy spending time with and why. When we frequently model this inclusive and respectful language and behavior, it encourages our children to do the same.
In a similar vein, we focus much of our social learning in preschool on teaching children to respect each other’s ideas, needs, and desires. If we as a society start from a place of thinking of everyone, even (especially) young children, as individual human beings with unique insights and emotions, we must also understand that each of these humans deserves equal respect. We teach children to recognize their own needs and use their voices to share these needs with the world, and to respect each other’s bodies and boundaries, including physical and personal space. We teach our children to ask each other for permission before touching one another’s bodies, and—this lesson is especially important—we tell them that they can always feel comfortable saying “no” when they don’t want to be touched, when they disagree with others, or when they feel the need to leave an uncomfortable situation. And we must reinforce these important teachings by modeling this behavior ourselves. For example, we adults must ask children for hugs, but not demand them, and, as hard as it sometimes can be, we must respect their voice when they decline. When we truly listen to our children as they tell us what they need and feel, we encourage them to listen to others, to respect one another’s needs, and to value everyone’s voice as having equal significance and power, even when others are expressing something we may not want to hear.
In modeling appropriate social interactions for our children, we can also offer them enough respect to actually explain why we do and say things in certain ways. Sometimes there are not choices to be made, and the answer to “why do we have to put on our shoes and leave the house now in the middle of our favorite television show?” is undeniably “because otherwise we will be late for our doctor’s appointment.” But using the “because I said so” excuse too often, when there are other explanations to be offered, gives children a sense of powerlessness in their own actions and decisions. Instead, we aim to teach them to take responsible control of their actions, and to make wise and thoughtful informed decisions. So as we model appropriate choices for them, we can also offer reasonable explanations for our actions, and give them the benefit of the doubt that they can process this information. With this approach, we can help children understand that all of our actions come from choices, and that we have the power and responsibility to make educated decisions that in turn affect others.
So yes, boys can certainly be boys, but let them be boys that choose to respectfully interact with girls, and other boys, and all human beings within a culture defined not by archaic gender stereotypes but by mutual responsibility in which all voices are heard and given equal value. And let them start in preschool.