I ran my first anti-sexism workshop for children last week. They were a Montessori class of 5-6 year olds and I concentrated on questioning gender stereotypes, identifying sexism and a little bit of acceptance stuff of gender queer identities. I didn’t use those terms though, I talked instead about people thinking there are rules about boys and girls and how these aren’t really rules, and everyone should get to choose for themselves what they like and how they like to look.
It all came about after I heard about some worrying examples of ‘gender policing’ going down in my daughter’s class. I approached her teacher to see whether she had any plans for tackling this stuff with her class and she asked me if I’d like to run a workshop for them. I am really grateful to her for that invitation; this was a lovely opportunity not only to help turn something bad around in my daughter’s class but to see what other young children think about sexism. It was pretty fascinating.
The workshop went really well – the kids were really receptive and by the conclusion of the workshop were readily able to spot sexism in toy catalogues presented to them and were happily repeating phrases in their analysis that I’d been using throughout the workshop, like “colours are for everyone”, “feelings are for everyone” and “toys are for everyone”.
In many ways the children were a lot less weighed down by stereotypes than I’d expected – my first question to the class was “can boys like pink” and the class consensus was a quick and resounding “yes”. It was difficult to tell whether they were particularly progressive children (ie. maybe those enrolled in a Montessori school are not representative of their peers), or if they are too young yet to have met some of the more rigid ideas about gender. For instance, another question we discussed was whether boys can cry and the kids were like ‘have you seen our playground at lunch time?’ whereas once we got to the slide with pictures of men crying they paused. In fact, one boy was quite challenged by those images and my accompanying statement that “everyone cries sometimes” and told us emphatically that his father has never cried. I suggested that this was something worth asking his father about – when was the last time he had cried. This same boy gasped and covered his eyes with his hands when a slide later came up showing pictures of boys playing with dolls, wearing ‘princess’ clothes and learning ballet. It was an impressively horrified reaction. He was an interesting little boy, and brave to share his reactions so honestly given he was increasingly at odds with the class in his views. I would have loved to explore his responses more, we did a little bit of talking about them, but there is a limit to how much you can unpack something challenging with a child you don’t know very well and also to how much you can focus on one child while also keeping hold of the attention of a class. Sometimes you’ve just gotta plant the seed and leave it to grow or wilt elsewhere.
As progressive as they were (‘can girls have short hair’, ‘can girls run fast’, ‘can girls do skateboarding tricks’, and ‘can boys grow up to be daddies who stay home and look after their children’ all received enthusiastic endorsements from the class), there was still plenty of sexism in their thinking to keep the workshop rolling. For instance, “can girls be the boss or are boys the leaders?” got some disturbing responses. However, once I started testing their thinking with some real world examples they were quick to nominate examples of their own of female leaders. They caught on fast. Working with children that age is fabulous, they’re totally guileless. They don’t try to second guess your workshop or get jaded and cynical with you, they just leap right in with their honest thoughts – and so many of them are ripe for the unpacking. For example, showing the children an image of two medical professionals doing similar tasks, one male and one female, and asking them which was the nurse and which was the doctor produced a clear and probably unsurprising result. The woman is the nurse, they decided and the man was the doctor, when in fact in this particular example it was the other way around.
Some of the work I did with them about questioning sexism and stereotypes was from the perspective of looking at how ‘appropriate expressions of gender’ change across time and place and therefore aren’t absolutes. A great example for this was looking at ‘boy clothes’ and exploring the many skirt and dress-like clothing options worn by males in countries outside Australia – Scotland, Fiji, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Greece, many African countries etc. Another example I talked through with them was the history of ‘pink for baby girls’ and ‘blue for baby boys’ and how it was once the reverse.
Towards the end of the workshop we looked at some photos of androgynous and gender-queer children and adults and I talked about how you need to get to know someone for who they are rather than knowing people as a ‘girl’ or a ‘boy’. Having unpacked so many gender stereotypes along the way the children were entirely unphased by this component. It was pretty delightful to watch – no rejection of the images, not even mild giggling – just some nodding and quiet attention.
This week I am running the workshop all over again for another class of children the same age and it will be interesting to see how they compare. Wish me luck.
(Image credit for the illustration in this post).