By Alec Connon
Edited by Martha Burwell
Male preschool teacher Alec Connon discusses how strict gender roles act as a limitation even in early childhood.
“You can’t be a teacher,” said Erin, a widely smiling four year old and my newest pupil.
“Why?” I asked, understandably enough, given that I am in fact a teacher.
“You’re a boy,” she replied, not missing a beat.
In my 6 months working as a male pre-school teacher, comments such as Erin’s have not been rare. “I can’t put on my bedsheets. I’m not a girl,’ said three year old Julian. “You can’t wear a bracelet,” four year old Juliette informed me confidently, “You’re a boy.”
Now it should hardly need explaining why such concrete perceptions of gender and binary gender roles are apparent in kids as young as three: parents’ and teachers’ conscious and unconscious modeling of gender stereotypes, the mass media portrayals of gender-specific roles and the gender-based gendered assignment of colors, toys and clothes all play a role in creating gender specific expectations from a very young age – sometimes even pre-birth.
“Too quickly kids are placed on either a blue or pink path. And they are expected to follow it” writes author and gender activist, Lori Duran. And my own experience of spending 6 months working in a Seattle preschool only vouches for this claim.
To follow the logic of many pre-schoolers today, a man cannot be allowed to flourish in a role such as a teacher, a man cannot wear a bracelet (even a tattered, old and faded one like my own) and, rather cripplingly, a man cannot even be expected to put on his own bedsheets. The limitations this puts on me as a man are, of course, significant. I will forever have to sleep on a bare mattress, I cannot wear jewelry, and I cannot work in a role such as a preschool teacher where skills such as empathy, patience and compassion are salient.
The fate for women is even worse. A woman must forever be putting on bedsheets for incapable men, she should wear jewelry, and she cannot excel in sports (just last week a five year old informed me that she wasn’t playing with the soccer ball because “that was a boys’ game.”)
A five year old thinking in this way is, of course, a tragedy. It is natural that as life progresses doors will be closed on us forever, opportunities will be lost. Life is funnel-shaped and the list of our potential futures, aspirations and our sense of the achievable only grows ever narrower as we get older. That is perhaps unavoidable, and to an extent there may even be nothing wrong with that. But for us to live in a society where the doors of opportunity are being closed on children as young as three because of how we define gender is, in my humble opinion as someone who is charged with the teaching of our children, a deep and truly grave wrong.
Now, this does not mean I’m advocating to dissolve gender altogether. People often imagine scenes of gray, uniform androgyny when hearing this argument. Like some kind of dystopian future where we all wear monotone jumpsuits and have the same haircut. But in fact, what I’m suggesting is the exact opposite. I’m envisioning a world in which we don’t put such stringent and uniform limitations of gender on our children, and instead, remove some of the restrictions of our expectations and see what amazing, vibrant identities they create for themselves.
Our children are as wonderfully diverse and unique as the infinite variations of colors in a prism, and instead of limiting them to blue or pink, let’s consider that all colors are for everyone.
But we should note that this needs to work both ways.
As a culture, we’re far more comfortable allowing girls to act and dress like boys. But we must also start allowing our boys to explore and portray traditionally feminine traits. The reasons for this are clear: 79% of all suicides in the US are men who are not culturally allowed to ask for help; our jails are filled with men who were not taught to express their emotions except through anger. We need to make it okay for young boys to do humble things like put on their own bedsheets, to know that they can work in vocations that require empathy and compassion - we need to let them know that it is not unmanly to be caring, loving, and gentle. That it is not unmanly to ask for help. And likewise, we need to let our young women know that it is okay for them to be strong and confident, to be fit and funny, to be assertive and to play sports.
So, as caregivers, teachers, and parents, as siblings, friends and peers, let’s pay attention to when the doors are slamming shut on our young children, and work to prop them open instead. Let’s challenge our own perceptions of gender roles daily, and ask why? Why is this type of clothing only for girls? Why is this game only for boys? Why do we not feel capable of doing a certain type of chore? Let’s stop saying (and, as importantly, showing) limiting things like “boys can’t do this” and “only girls can do this,” for things that clearly any child could do, if given the chance.
Let’s continue to evolve and develop what it means to be feminine, and what it means to be masculine. Because, quite simply, what it means to be human is far more significant.
“Dear Parents, let’s talk about kids and gender roles” an article by The Good Men Project
A quick clarification. When I’m talking about gender, I mean the social construction of what it means to be male, female, or another sex. The specific biology or anatomy is referred to as the sex of a person.
About the Author, Alec Connon:
Alec’s first novel, The Activist, is due to be released in summer 2016 by Ringwood Publishing. Alec is also a founder and organizer of Gates Divest, a Seattle organization that is calling on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to divest from fossil fuels.
Alec has also published "Patriarchy and Climate Change" on EqualiSea.