This year, the Women’s March was all about the signs. As one of about 300,000 people marching through downtown Chicago last Saturday, I made sure to ask if I could take photos of some of my favorites.
Letting go of gender roles was a favorite subject. In front of the Art Institute, I caught up with a woman who carried a large green poster board with the slogan, “Pizza Rolls Not Gender Roles.” The Chicago Tribune captured another tasty take on the theme: “Cinnamon Rolls Not Gender Roles.”
Although much discussion of gender and schools focuses on middle and high school, like Peggy Orenstein’s classic study, “Schoolgirls”, and Mary Pipher’s book, “Reviving Ophelia”, the roots of gender stereotypes run much deeper and start much earlier.
While the youngest children show remarkable flexibility in their thinking about boys and girls, by kindergarten the boy and girl codes start to kick in.
Practices as simple and seemingly harmless as the boys’ line and the girls’ line reinforce separation and difference between the sexes. Ultimately, these practices subtly reinforce stereotypes that hurt both genders, like boys have to be tough and prove their strength, while girls can express their emotions but not their leadership abilities.
Strict separations of boys and girls can also be hard on children who defy the roles assigned to their gender. If all the girls play in the house and all the boys play with the blocks, what happens when someone assigned to either group wants to play with a toy from the other side? This was the situation in my kindergarten classroom, 45 years ago.
You may think those days are over, but I see my kiddo having her own versions of these experiences.
Back in my day, those rigid expectations for boys and girls were colliding with 1970s feminism, which brought us the movie “Free to Be You and Me.” If my memory is correct, that movie was shown in my school once a year from first through fifth grade. But my daughter has only seen snippets, at home with me.
Times have changed, and not all that change has brought progress in equality between the sexes.
Scary but Worth It: Asking My Kid’s School about Gender Practices
I know that my third-grader’s classroom teacher engages in some best practices around supporting kids to be themselves, regardless of gender stereotypes. The boys and girls aren’t separated into different lines, students are addressed as “friends” or “scholars” and all seating is co-ed.
But I don’t know whether we’ve moved to the next level. Are there schoolwide common practices? Are teachers helping students examine rigid gender roles? I wondered whether my school had the appetite and bandwidth to do more.
All these reflections led me to send an email to the school social worker earlier this week. Here are some of my questions to her:
- How many teachers line kids up some other way than a boys line and a girls line? Who is modeling alternatives?
- Are the adults who supervise recess encouraging kids to play co-ed, noncompetitive games? Would that be possible at least some of the time?
- When will our school hold another training for teachers on gender and gender identity issues? One was held three years ago, but we have not had another and we have had staff and leadership turnover since then.
- Why is the gender-neutral restroom always locked when I try to use it? Are any kids ever allowed to use it? Would they be ridiculed if they did?
- What are other ways our school can open up space for kids to be themselves if they don’t adhere to conventional gender expectations?
Honestly, I felt very nervous after I hit “send.”
It can be scary to ask these questions. My nerves calmed down when I heard back, “I think all the points you outlined are valid and just good practice—and agree, some of it can be quickly shifted!”
We have work to do, but doing the work is easier when you ask the right questions to a thoughtful, supportive ally. I hope all parents can find those allies in schools to work on important issues, whether they relate directly to achievement or build a school culture that supports all our kids to be their best selves.