Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"I Think That's Rude"

This is a sort of follow-up to yesterday's post on navigating cross-gender play. I grew up in an era when  Skinnerian conditioning held sway as the predominant mechanism through which gender stereotyped behavior was learned. Today, the pendulum has swung (I think too far) in the direction of biological explanations. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between, but since I can do little about inborn gender differences, I certainly can at least strive to not let gender-roles become a trap for either girls or boys. I try to do this by remaining as neutral and non-judgemental as possible, listening, role modeling, making statements of fact, and offering my opinion when it seems appropriate.

That said, among my strongest memories of kindergarten was playing the game "Boys Chase Girls." That's what we called it, and that's what we did. In first grade the game flip-flopped to Girls Chase Boys, with the added (dis)incentive of the girls threatening to kiss us if they caught us. I don't recall catching or being caught, but I do remember chasing and being chased.

Similar games are being played on our 5's playground these days. Up until recently, however, the cross-gender game of choice was to get married. There has been nothing as heartbreaking as last year's romance between "Mary" and "Jeff," but we've had at least one full-on wedding, complete with rings and the building of a house in which the happy couple lived for an afternoon. Most of it has fallen into the ridiculous/sublime category. For instance, one day I watched a group of boys and girls playing "eeny-meeny-miney-moe" to determine their marital pairings. 

Another time I overheard two boys talking:

"Are you really gonna marry her?"

"Nah, I just wanted her to give my shovel back."

Pre-dating the marriage craze, going back to October and November, it was all about queens and princesses, knights and guards. I can't tell you how often a group of boys would build something, either indoors or outdoors, then say, "We need to get some princesses over here." They then called them over, incentivizing the girls with special rooms or beds or a collection of prized stuffed animals. To this day, Connor calls Audrey "Your majesty." So ingrained is this that I sometimes wonder if he even remembers her actual name.

Not all the cross-gender play is so archetypal (or if you prefer, stereotypical), and at any given moment there are likely mixed gender groups engaged in all sorts of pursuits, from combing doll hair to hunting for treasure, but gender-roles, gender-pride, and gender-relations are increasingly central parts of our dramatic play together. I don't know where I read this, but I'm under the impression that children tend to adopt increasingly extreme views of gender until they're about eight-years-old, after which they are capable of more nuanced views. I might wish this wasn't the case, but I've certainly found it to be true in my own observations of young children. And yes, I realize that this may simply be a failure on my part: it may well be that my own sexism and stereotypes somehow influence the children around me, but I honestly don't think I'm that powerful. I strive to stay nonjudgmental, to role-model non-stereotypical behavior, and to voice my own opinion when children attempt to use gender as a way to divide, hurt, or engage in unfairness.

For instance, last week Logan brought a favorite doll to class for show-and-tell. As she held it up for the others to see, one of the boys, said, "Eww!" then turned to his buddies, laughing, attempting to get them to join in his expression of disdain at this manifestly girlish thing. I understood that it was a misguided attempt to define himself, but at the same time, I worried about Logan's feelings.

I try to stay focused on the child doing the presenting, but in this moment I broke away briefly to say as matter-of-factly as possible, "I think that's rude," then returned my attention to the show-and-tell item at hand. We've had off and on conversations about rudeness throughout the year, mostly surrounding circle time etiquette, so I was confident everyone understood what I meant. I was hoping that by stating my opinion (as opposed to commanding silence) I would create the space for this boy to chose politeness. Whatever the case, my comment seemed to have the desired effect of clearing the floor of harsh criticism for the rest of Logan's presentation.

As she continued telling us about her doll, her audience kept their comments to themselves, although I did see Leon's hand go up, our agreed upon signal that someone has something to contribute. At a pause, I said, "Leon has something to say."

"I like it."

"You like what?"

"I like the doll."

At this, several more hands shot up. It seems that by simply stating my opinion, I'd managed to create a space for more than one child to do a little thinking.

I said, "That's a compliment." Then I turned to Logan, "Look, she's smiling. You made her feel good."

I turned the task of calling on hands over to Logan, who collected her complements with an obvious joy. 

Even the boy who had originally said, "Eww!" took a turn telling her how much he liked her doll. I don't believe for a minute that his mind was changed about that doll. He doesn't have to like dolls. That will never be the goal. Showing respect for the opinions of others, be they girls or boys, that's what it's all about.

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Anonymous said...

Awesome as always!

satyamara said...

Well done

Cyndel said...

I recently discovered your blog :) I love your perspective.
Its been a tough year and I've needed a refresher on this way of relating to children.