• Educating Gender

Children are Complex and Inspiring and Challenging, not Innocent and Wonderful

“What is a normal child like? Does he just eat and grow and smile sweetly? No, that is not what he is like. The normal child, if he has confidence in mother and father, pulls out all the stops. In the course of time, he tries out his power to disrupt, to destroy, to frighten, to wear down, to waste, to wangle, and to appropriate . . . At the start he absolutely needs to live in a circle of love and strength (with consequent tolerance) if he is not to be too fearful of his own thoughts and of his imaginings to make progress in his emotional development.”

― Donald Woods Winnicott, Deprivation and Delinquency


Greta came to a meeting with me about her third grade son and then preceded to call him an asshole. Well, I will qualify that comment by saying she actually stated that there were times when he could “be an asshole.” This might sound like I am splitting hairs but it is the difference between denouncing and prosecuting. 


Honest and vulnerable parents are inspiring.    


Greta’s son was not tearing up the classroom or being obstinate or being difficult with the teachers. His great sin was that he always needs to be correct. Being right was more important to him than anything in the world. It not only created issues for him regarding his learning. He could never allow himself to be corrected or shown how to improve his work, and under these circumstances, wrong becomes right. His go-to expression when hearing criticism was, “I know that, you don’t need to tell me.”  Then, he would go off and make the same mistake again.  

Making friends was also becoming a high mountain to climb. On the recess yard or in discussions in the lunchroom, all major and minor conversations, negotiations, disputes and disagreements turned into an inflexibility of thought. If no one was willing to bend to his understandings and interpretations of reality, then he would either explode in outrage or walk away, no longer wanting to have anything to do with “those” kids. The fallout was obvious -- no one wanted to go on playdates with him, weekends were largely spent alone, in growing isolation. It was hard for him to imagine that his way, his truth, was getting in the way of relationships. And, as many of us come to realize, deep fulfilling relationships are rarely built on perceptions of right and wrong. People desire a certain level of flexibility, and they desire a lot of understanding. Greta might have been relying on a harsh version of reality when describing her child as an a-hole, but she is aware and concerned about what will be the eventual adult version of her son.

She is sure of one thing: she does not want him to grow up to become what he currently is today and neither does he; he can be miserable and is miserable.

It was hard for him to imagine that his way, his truth, was getting in the way of relationships. And, as many of us come to realize, deep fulfilling relationships are rarely built on perceptions of right and wrong.

Our tendency is to glorify children and make childhood something that it really isn't. The very definition of childhood has changed over the past 200 years for many reasons including the drastic extension of human lifespan. Eight looks much different when you live to 80 than when you live until 40. We now tend to want to let “kids be kids” which includes a sense of maintaining some form of purity and innocence that we project onto them. For those of us working in schools, the illusion of the tabula rasa or blank slate theory of development, disappears very quickly. In fact, the subtle and nuanced personality traits, both positive and negative, that we see in adults, are on not-so-subtle display with our students from the moment they walk into our classrooms. Their excitements and passions, their laughter, their cruelty and their downright disrespect. Many of the traits that we reign in or even disguise in other forms as adults in order to function and traverse the adult world can often have much more fully obtuse expressions in children.

For those of us working in schools, the illusion of the tabula rasa or blank slate theory of development, disappears very quickly.

In Juliet Schor’s Born to Buy, she writes, “Flesh-and-blood children are not merely innocents, but complex beings, with conflicting desires and impulses. As we consider how childhood is changing, it’s important to avoid our own nostalgia, wishful thinking or culturally specific experiences.” * (See Source Below) These “experiences” include, but are not exclusive to, the complex ways in which gender identity is formed for us, as parents and as educators. We regularly face the challenge of having to be aware of these implicit and explicit assumptions.

I have consulted in several schools with very progressive missions and agendas which want to tackle the gender issues within their classrooms and throughout the school culture. As “woke” as these educational institutions think of themselves, I often observe classroom spaces and approaches which look and feel more like 1950 than 2020. Not one of these educators is doing anything on purpose. They have no agenda. My question is why do early childhood classrooms have to have a kitchen area? Why do elementary school line ups get divided by gender? Why are Middle School instructors three times as likely to call on boys than girls during class discussions?

As “woke” as these educational institutions think of themselves, I often observe classroom spaces and approaches which look and feel more like 1950 than 2020.

The impulse to consider children nothing more than not-yet-adults or adults in waiting does not give them the dignity of their individual actions, thoughts and feelings, and also makes us feel that they always need to be shaped, molded or worked on. We only allow them to be in a state of becoming and we rarely take them for where they are or just in their being.

By allowing them to have the successes and make the mistakes which they do in real time and calling it for what it is, we will be more likely to engage with them in the particular, for all they truly are, regardless of confining categories such as gender.


*Schor, Juliet B. Born to Buy. New York: Scribner. 2004

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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy

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