I have a very traditional approach when it comes to the hot topic of gender. Whilst I don’t like the expectations placed upon boys to take on a ‘masculine’ gender role and girls to follow a predetermined ‘feminine’ gender role, I likewise have a problem with the whole concept of gender neutrality.
Whilst it is not fair to pigeon hole boys and girls and expect them to look, act and think according to what society believes is appropriate for a girl and boy to look and act like, I think it’s also appropriate to point out that on the whole boys and girls are different. They do think and act differently. They do tend to enjoy vastly different hobbies and socialise in different ways. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t be free to express themselves in any way they feel comfortable. It’s just that to me, gender neutrality, in trying to assist the minority of children that don’t subscribe to gender roles (and they are a minority), stifle the majority who fall comfortably within such parameters.
That’s why instead of teaching about gender per se, I prefer to teach about differences and similarities. I prefer to draw attention to the fact that no matter where we come from, what we believe and how we dress, ultimately we all have similar wants and needs. We all crave respect from our peers, the love and support of our families. We all want to feel good about ourselves and the freedom to express our opinions without being adversely judged because of them.
Having said that, I am very supportive of teacher, Melissa Bollow Tempel, who was passionate enough about this issue to include it in her teaching. In her wonderfully incisive piece, “It’s Okay to be Neither,” Melissa recounts her dealing with a student who was being bullied because of the way she dressed.
Allison was biologically a girl but felt more comfortable wearing Tony Hawk long-sleeved T-shirts, baggy jeans, and black tennis shoes. Her parents were accepting and supportive. Her mother braided her hair in cornrows because Allie thought it made her look like Will Smith’s son, Trey, in the remake of The Karate Kid. She preferred to be called Allie. The first day of school, children who hadn’t been in Allie’s class in kindergarten referred to her as “he.”
I didn’t want to assume I knew how Allie wanted me to respond to the continual gender mistakes, so I made a phone call home and Allie’s mom put me on speakerphone.
“Allie,” she said, “Ms. Melissa is on the phone. She would like to know if you want her to correct your classmates when they say you are a boy, or if you would rather that she just doesn’t say anything.”
Allie was shy on the phone. “Um …
tell them that I am a girl,” she whispered.
The next day when I corrected classmates and told them that Allie was a girl, they asked her a lot of questions that she wasn’t prepared for: “Why do you look like a boy?” “If you’re a girl, why do you always wear boys’ clothes?” Some even told her that she wasn’t supposed to wear boys’ clothes if she was a girl. It became evident that I would have to address gender directly in order to make the classroom environment more comfortable for Allie and to squash the gender stereotypes that my 1st graders had absorbed in their short lives.
I recommend that you read the rest of her fascinating article by following the link above.
(Thank you to reader Margaret for bringing this piece to my attention)