Sunday, December 11, 2011

"Maybe When You Grow Up!"

It's nice having princesses in the classroom again.

Last year our 3-5 class was virtually princess-free. I've noticed over the years that our costume collection tends to be predominantly patronized by 4-5 year olds and last year all of our older kids were boys, nine of them, and if they wore costumes at all it was most likely our capes or cowboy hats. So even when when the younger girls dressed up last year, they leaned toward capes and cowboy hats as well, with maybe a little frilliness sticking out from underneath.

The princesses did descend from their tower for a time last week to try their hands
at cutting snowflakes from origami paper: rainbow snow.

This year, we've had a mini gender flip-flop: of our 9 Pre-K kids 6 are girls, and if you add to that the younger girls who've been inspired by their older classmates, there are days when we have a dozen princesses living amongst us. Thankfully, we've been able to augment our stock of pretty dresses, and while there is something of a rush each morning as a few of the girls vie for their particular favorite, they've done a commendable job of accepting that they can't always get what they want. (I do have a few more sequin and gauze numbers stashed away in the storage room, but if I've learned anything as a preschool teacher it's that there will be a lice scare at some point during the year and I'll need replacement costumes while the first team is in quarantine.)

The stories we're telling have had strong princess themes as well, with lots of falling asleep and hiding from dragons and peripheral princes.

Last week Siena, Elena, Sena and Sadie, appropriately outfitted, took over the top of our loft. They sat cross-legged in an inward facing circle, each holding a small stuffed animal. And they talked. It had been more than a year since I'd seen that at our school, a confab of princesses, engaged intensely in their dramatic play. I wanted to listen in, but feared my presence would change everything.

Meanwhile, a group of younger boys were engaged in their own dramatic play. River, Luca, Rex and Parker were not be-costumed, but instead had unified themselves by commandeering prop laptop computers, which they carried tucked under their arms as they noisily marched around the classroom, alternatively claiming to be police and "bad pirates." Them I didn't worry about interfering with, as they regularly marched up to me to announce, "I'm a bad pirate," or "I'm a police," which more or less seemed to sum up their game: marching around with computers declaring the part they played.

The mostly older girls, on the other hand, I would later learn, were telling stories about themselves, up there in the loft, choosing to be off the adult radar while the boys sought to place themselves fully in the center of the grown-ups' attention.

There was a time when I'd have let the stereotypical gender divide bother me. I'm still prone to engage in subterfuge designed to bring the two groups together or at least to infuse a bit of gender-bending into the mix, but I've come to accept that this is the world we live in. It really doesn't matter to me if it's nature or nurture (although certainly it's a combination of both) that causes girls and boys to select the roles they do when exploring power. Parents are often quick to point out to me that "at home" little Susie plays construction worker or Johnny plays house. I'm obviously not the only one thinking about it. We all are. Except for the kids.

The important thing is that they are engaged in these experiments with power. Everyone needs to experience what it means to be the center of attention, to fly, to triumph, to be a big deal in the world.

To paraphrase Marianne Williamson (in a quote made famous by Nelson Mandela): it's not the darkness within ourselves that we fear; it's the light. I think that's much of what we're dealing with here, at least at some level. Young children haven't yet learned to fear that incredible, limitless potential that each of us possess -- the 90 percent of our brains that goes unused. That is, at least in part, what they are engaging when they play with the superhuman powers embodied by these princesses and police and bad pirates. And sadly, I think, it's our adult fears of this light that ultimately causes most of us to give up on assuming our most powerful selves as we engage the world.

At the same time, our children haven't yet learned to fear the darkness either. The violence is exciting. The romance of it is thrilling. As adults our broader experience teaches us that the horror of violence must be reserved as a last resort; that the pursuit of impossible standards of beauty can lead to diseased behavior; that none of us will ever actually possess the "super powers" in question. 

Like it or not, this is our society. These are the models of power that the larger world presents to our children. I don't know if they are any better or any worse than the models of power presented to children in other eras (Did the ancient Greek children play Apollo and Aphrodite?), but I do know these images are more insistently pounded into our children than ever before. Marketers target children with these superhero and princess messages because they know your children need to imagine what it means to fly.

As parents we're caught in between. Of course, we want our children to engage in robust and imaginative power play. On the other hand we want them to understand that there are other ways to be powerful than through cookie-cutter beauty or violence. You can try to block it out, but it still gets in, it's everywhere; you can slow it down, but believe me, you can't stop it.

The society our children see through the lens of the mass media is incredibly warped and it's our job to provide the rest of the story. Understanding this, most of us try to limit our children's exposure to these powerful media images, but that can't be the only thing we do. One of our jobs as parents is to equip our children with tools for dealing with the parts of our culture that emerge from the darkness. It's our job to make sure our own opinions are understood. We need to make sure our children know where we stand on issues of beauty and violence. If we don't do this we are letting marketers decide what our children learn about being powerful. And we must do it without panic, browbeating, or anger, trusting our own honestly held beliefs, expressed clearly and calmly, to guide our children to make the right choices.

And as we gently point out the flaws and the myths of princesses and superheroes, we must provide other, more realistic ways to exert power in the world. We need to make sure they also experience some of the thousands of other ways to shine our powerful light in the world.

For instance, one of the most popular circle time activities at Woodland Park is giving compliments. I ask, "Who wants to make someone else feel good?" and one at a time the children are called on to demonstrate their "superpower" of saying something kind to a friend. More often than not, it's an actual compliment (e.g., "I like your shoes," "I like your hair") but we're not sticklers. Sometimes it's a statement of affection (e.g., "I like you") or a wish ("I want you to come play at my house"). Sometimes it's whispered into a friend's ear and the only way we know it worked is by the resulting smile. In any event, all on their own, the children often follow up their "compliment" with a hug. Throughout the exercise I repeat the mantra, "Sally (or Billy or Johnny) is being powerful by making making someone feel good."

We keep track of each compliment by adding a "link" to a plastic chain that we hang from the ceiling. The goal is to encircle ourselves with compliments by the end of the year. Our plastic chain link set came with 500 pieces. That's a lot of power play! I love the mighty cheer each year as we add the final link. I see in their faces and hear in their applause how (super)powerful they feel. Look what we've done!

Some teachers ban princess and superhero play, but I've made peace with it and try my best to use the power these impossible heroes embody to help children develop their own powers. At school we try to point out that the real mission of these characters is to help people, not to scare them or fight them. We find traits beyond mere beauty to praise in each of the Disney princesses (e.g., Ariel is adventurous, we know Belle is smart because she loves to read, Cinderella is kind to animals.) Those are real world superpowers. And I think that's the opportunity here. If we can, even in small measure, help our children experience their own light, to find their own real world super powers -- that potential represented by the other 90 percent of their beautiful brains -- then we help them actually become the princesses and superheroes they imagine themselves to be.

At one point the boys approached me with their computers and made fierce faces at me. I asked, "Are you monsters?" They each replied by telling me they were, in fact, police. 

I answered, "Oh good. I'm worried that people might not be safe in here. Police remind people to be safe." 

River looked around the room, "I think those girls might fall out of the loft," and with that the boys marched across the room to the loft where, I presume, they reminded the princesses not to fall. There was some discussion, then the police went on their way.

By now the princesses were all standing, so I joined them for a moment. Sena immediately introduced them with their princess names: "I'm Rapunzel and she's Rapenzel and she's Aurora and she's also Aurora." They had clearly spent a lot of time working this out. 

I said, "I want to be a princess too."

Of course, they objected, telling me however, that I could be a prince. 

I pretended to mope, "Princes don't get to do anything. They just ride around on horses and get in fights with dragons."

Sadie said, "No, no, you can get married to us!"

There was a long pause as they girls looked at each other, some reality landing on them all at once.

I finally asked, "I can marry all of you?"

Sena thought quickly, "I'm actually a baby princess so I can't get married."

Sadie said, "And I think I'm just 8-years-old."

Siena added, "I'm not going to get married."

Elena took pity on me, "You can get married with me . . . But you'll have to live under the castle."

I said, "Okay, but I'd still rather be a princess."

Sadie looked at me thoughtfully. She really didn't want me to mope. "Maybe when you grow up!"

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Aunt Annie said...

I'm so sharing this one. :)

Juan said...

I love how you reflect on every aspect of your kids' lifes.
They way you see every situation as a deep learning opportunity inspires me.

Loving Earth Mama said...

Okay, I flipping love this and am so going to share :D

I particularly appreciate the 'this is the world we live in and you got to accept what is and make the best of it' vibe (which is the core of this article). I have a two year old and have heard much of how Disney has sent out the princesses to 'get' my little girl and enslave her to their brand. I like your calm, realistic take on this - a lot. Thanks!

Just to be that person, though, I think the 'we fear our light' quote you are referring to was actually written by Marianne Williamson and famously read by Nelson Mandela. So, you were very close, geographically speaking.

Thanks again. Sharing on my blog's fb page!


Teacher Tom said...

Thanks Gauri! Fixed it! =)

Carrie said...

Very nice... I've been following the Anti-Bullying movements lately as our state just enacted new legislation this past week. My most recent article has been about how "bully prevention" really starts before school and it's by employing exactly the techniques you write about. Thanks