How To Be More Gender-Neutral in Early Years
Almost without fail, the first thing asked when someone is expecting a baby is “Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?”, leading us to make assumptions about that child even before they’ve been born. This isn’t necessarily our fault; we live in a heavily gendered world. Whether it’s shampoos for women being labelled with the names of flowers and fruit while shampoos for men having more “rugged” conceptual names, or “for her” greetings cards showing mostly gin and flowers while the “for him” cards consist of football, beer and cars, gender stereotyping is everywhere.
However, just because it’s not our fault doesn’t mean that we don’t have a duty to challenge it on behalf of our early years. As Early Years Professionals it is our duty to ensure the children in our care are given the best start in life, and this includes allowing them to be themselves and not confined to boxes or labels that may not fit them.
So how do we avoid forcing gender stereotypes on our children?
To start, we need to look at ourselves. There are so many common phrases and figures of speech that are part of everyday life but, once examined, subtly perpetuate harmful stereotypes. If you find yourself excusing more rough-and-tumble play with “boys will be boys”, or if you talk about girls “maturing faster” than boys, it may be time to check how you speak around and about the children in your care. Girls maturing faster than boys may be statistically correct, but the cause may be nurture, rather than nature; we don’t tend to say “girls will be girls” when they’re playing rough, which implies we expect very different things from different genders even in Early Years. Perhaps we encourage more maturity in young girls, making the phrase a self-perpetuating myth. Equally, where things can be said or claimed to be true across groups, that does not make it true about the individual child in question, and they are as we know both vulnerable and highly impressionable.
Similarly, the language we use about home life can influence our children. Again, even if it is statistically more likely that in your setting the female parental figures tend to do more of the housework and male parental figures tend to be more likely to be in full-time work, checking that you talk about “dad” doing the laundry as much as “mum” will make a big difference in helping children see less of a divide between the different genders.
The toys we allow, or encourage, children to play with can also have an effect. While we may not necessarily forbid a boy from playing with dolls if he wants to, if we only ever offer him cars or building blocks to play with he will get the message that that is the “right” type of toy for him. We need to ensure that all children are offered an equal opportunity to play how, and with what, they want so they can discover their own preferences and express them freely.
While we can’t completely shield our children from gendered language in everyday life, we can challenge the things we do encounter. For example, if reading a story about a male firefighter, encourage a discussion about how there are female firefighters as well. Talking to the children about the qualities a firefighter would need (brave, strong, etc.) and making it clear that these are qualities found in all genders.
For more information about how children’s toys and books are gendered, check out Let Toys Be Toys, a campaign to stop the toy and publishing industries “limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys and books as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys”. They also have some great resources for practitioners.
And, for suggestions on some Early Years books that are fighting gender stereotypes, why not take a look at That Nursery Life’s Six Early Years Books to Break Down Gender Barriers?