Defining Masculinity as the Absence of Femininity: A Preschool Teacher’s Story

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Defining Masculinity as the Absence of Femininity: A Preschool Teacher’s Story

 

By Christie Angleton— Gender performance is something I think about a lot. As a preschool teacher and PhD student – not to mention as a mom – I have a research interest in the ways kids navigate and express gender in their lives. In my experience, girls tend to have an easier time of it when they bend, or even break, gender stereotypes. My own daughter prefers Darth Vader to Disney Princesses, and no one ever bats an eye over her preferences. For the boys in my class, however, singing songs from Frozen or sporting a Princess Leia shirt tends to ruffle feathers.

Our school recently hosted a Spring Fling, complete with a temporary tattoo booth. The next day, our class hosted a pajama day. Ben entered the classroom in his Batman pajamas, proudly displaying a Frozen tattoo he had chosen the previous night. As he excitedly approached his friends, sleeve pulled up proudly, one boy pointed to the tattoo and said, “Oh, why’d you get a Frozen one?! That’s just for girls!” Ben quickly rolled his sleeve down to cover the tattoo.

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Yes, I intervened, reiterating to the group that “boy things” and “girl things” are something we’ve talked about many times before – that colors, toys, and experiences are for everybody. This is a dialogue we’ve had since the beginning of the school year. And yet, worry crept in. Because we’ve been having this conversation in many variations since August. Okay, this 4-year-old kid slipped into a common social expectation: Frozen is for girls. But I worry about the conversations that will inevitably happen when no one is there to offer support.

I worry that eventually Ben will let these comments influence the choices that he makes: Ben, who occasionally comes to school in sparkly nail polish and frequently disrupts the comments of children who categorize toys, talk, and activities as “for boys” or “for girls.” Ben, who, in addition to this Frozen tattoo is also wearing Batman pajamas on this classroom pj day, and yet, in the eyes of his peers is somehow less of a boy because he likes Frozen. I worry about the girls overhearing this exchange: how they might perceive comments about their interests as somehow less, because their interests are “for girls.” I worry about my own daughter and the choices she makes, and how these seemingly innocuous comments might influence her, Ben, and others to not be true to themselves.

For now, Ben simply rolls down his sleeve and changes the subject. But what about the next time he is offered something deemed “girls only” by his friends? Will he remember the way he felt on pj day and make a different choice, even if it’s not what he desires for himself? Will he quiet his own voice as he did on this day?

Navigating gender is tricky business, in preschool and in life. Validating kids’ lived experiences isn’t something I take lightly. But for all my hard work, the worry continues to creep in. I’m one small voice among many louder ones. But I’ll keep at it, for Ben, for my daughter, for all of the kids who won’t be boxed in – because Darth Vader and Frozen aren’t “just for boys” or “just for girls.” They’re for everyone – children – boys and girls alike.

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About the Author

 

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Christie Angleton is a preschool teacher and PhD student with a strong research interest in gender performance and expression in children. She is moderately obsessed with books, coffee, and social justice advocacy. She blogs about preschool and her teaching practice at www.looselywondered.blogspot.com.

5 Comments

  1. Alan Moore | May 4, 2016 at 10:47 PM
     

    I find this interesting as a male early years teacher. Last year at the end of term, the children chose to watch Frozen dvd – immediately most of my boys were reactive and saying “ugh Frozen, it’s rubbish! It’s for girls” etc. I countered this with an “No I love Frozen! Im gonna join in with the songs”…
    At this point, the divide happened. 3 of my 8 boys relinquished and joined in with Frozen mania! The other 5 remained quiet and afar observing all that went on. Of the 3 that joined in, they were probably my most confident boys keen to follow in my lead – keen to impress in any way. The others did not question anything any further and by the end of it, all of my boys had cracked a smile and joined in!
    But as you say this is with adult input/modelling – without it, it would have been a different story. We are always up against gender stereotypes, particular if they are rife in home life. A mine field of a topic!

    Reply
    • Lori Day | May 5, 2016 at 12:36 AM
       

      I love how you handled that. Brilliant!

      Reply
  2. Name (required) | May 4, 2016 at 11:22 PM
     

    As a male pre-school teacher (with a female co-teacher), I recognise this as a battle being fought around the world (I teach in China). I have a three year-old son who attends my school, and who also has male and female co-teachers! In my class there are 18 boys and 5 girls of 4-5 year-olds. There are daily conversations about what constitutes girl colours/boy colours, girl play and boy play, girl toys and boy toys. We can only continue to question/ challenge/ support/ discuss and reflect with the children.

    Reply
    • Lori Day | May 5, 2016 at 12:38 AM
       

      I’m loving that there are now two comments, both from male preschool teachers. And you’re both hitting it out of the park. 🙂

      Reply
      • Christie Angleton | May 5, 2016 at 12:51 AM
         

        I agree, Lori! How amazing to have the voices of men in the field. I am fortunate to have three assistants in my class, one of whom is a man. I always really appreciate his perspective and it’s great to have him there disrupting very narrow views of what it means to be a boy or a girl. It’s hard work, but it’s so important.

        Reply

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