Surprising Conversations: Talking to Early Childhood Parents About Gender and Education
Working with early childhood programs and centers regarding my new book, The Gender Equation in Schools, has been one of the most rewarding experiences of the past 12 months. And nothing has been more surprising than the level of interest and engagement from the parents in these communities when I follow up a day’s work with professionals and get to do a late afternoon/early evening program with them. I didn’t expect this to be the case and I worried in fact that, given our current climate regarding issues of gender and education, I would be met with everything from skepticism to rants about indoctrination and grooming. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Early childhood education is so exciting because it’s the beginning of the formal educational journey for children. So much of how students see and experience education for years to come relies on these years from 2-5 years old. Of course, most of us will only have snippets of memories, but there are plenty of unconscious feelings and sensibilities that will impact us for a lifetime. I still remember vividly the rooftop playground at the local YWHA where I went to preschool. Growing up in New York City, it felt like we were on that roof regardless of heat, wind, cold or snow and we loved every minute of it!
...I worried in fact that, given our current climate regarding issues of gender and education, I would be met with everything from skepticism to rants about indoctrination and grooming. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
The professionals who work in these educational spaces are also quite aware of this enormous responsibility, making sure that the future educational memories of these students are painted with positive bright colors. The educational goals are also so different. Early childhood educators want students to learn to walk into their classroom and hang up their own bags, to greet others when they see them, to follow single, dual and then multiple sequential instructions, to feel comfortable singing in front of their peers, manipulate plastic objects using fine motor skills, and of course, play. Lots of play. They assess whether students can skip! (A critical measurement of cognitive development).
The parents? The parents can be a bundle of joy as well as nervous energy. Is Kevin able to identify his letters yet? Is Donna paying attention during circle time? Why does Jon keep reversing his letters and why is he holding his pencil so weirdly?! Will my kid make friends? Will they feel left out? Will WE feel left out as a family? And, of course, when I drop my child off in the morning, is she safe? They seem like they have the same concerns as any generation of parents I’ve encountered in my career.
The professionals who work in these educational spaces are also quite aware of this enormous responsibility, making sure that the future educational memories of these students are painted with positive bright colors.
And yet, this generation is aware of certain aspects of human development and identity that no generation previously has experienced: namely the fluidity and variability of gender.
When I speak with parents, I typically begin by showing how school spaces quickly become highly binary and highly gendered. Classroom construction and design is a major area of concern and research in early childhood education. When I tell parents that girls can become frustrated with how boys create domineering and imposing rules regarding classroom play, everything from who can participate and what games can be played and who can and cannot use certain toys (think: block sets), parents of girls immediately resonate with the complaints they hear when their child comes home. They not only complain about the boys but also the teachers who seem to allow this contradictory set of classroom rules to exist and flourish.
Boys also have their complaints when they come home. But most of these comments are directed at the teachers and adults. Boys are disciplined at a rate four times that of girls and are four to five times more likely to be suspended or expelled from their preschool programs. In parent groups I speak to of moms of sons struggling in school, you often hear stories of boys moving to two or three different schools…by the time they are five! These extremes highlight the rule that many boys already start the journey of school with highly negative feelings. (See more on boys and discipline in schools)
But, perhaps the most striking conversations I’ve had with parents are not just about the experiences of their children. These parents are able to clearly extend these situations and patterns into their adult lives, particularly into the workplace.
One mother, who was an HR director of a woman led company in Los Angeles,
told the group that she spends an enormous amount of time coaching the women employees to have a voice in meetings with their male counterparts. The company has 100 employees and only 9 of them are male identifying. This parent was able to draw a straight line between how we put girls into a gender box of secondary status and obedience as they go through school and what that can look like in the workplace.
In parent groups I speak to of moms of sons struggling in school, you often hear stories of boys moving to two or three different schools…by the time they are five!
My favorite story is of a father who was chuckling in the back when I talked about boys getting into conflict with teachers. He’s a lawyer and said whenever men get contradicted in meetings or in conversations at his law firm, he’s noticed their tendency to “take their ball and go home.” (His words not mine). They exit out of conversations where they perceive they’re being challenged particularly by women, not being able to tolerate that someone else might have a better idea or the power to make decisions.
This connective tissue that parents are able to draw between their children’s experiences early on in school and the ramifications in adult life demonstrate more than just intelligent insight. They are able to see how larger systems are constructed; school as a system can lay the foundation for attitudes in broader systems throughout our society. These parents see the larger implications of allowing these gendered patterns to persist and how we all need to play a role in disrupting these systems for the future of our children.