My mind is bending, maybe a good thing. I just read the Washington Post's front page feature about Kelsey Beckham, a biological eighteen year old girl who doesn't feel like she is either girl or boy. As a child of the fifties and sixties I cringe at ambiguity, especially where gender is concerned. Don't get me wrong, friends! I love my gay and bisexual friends. Having been in opera and music for so long, I could hardly avoid the reality of their existence, or the pleasure of their company. But gayness seems much more open and shut than this new concept of a "gender spectrum".
In early childhood courses, when we were allowed to teach human development vis a vis early education (the psych people took over those courses some years ago--a sore subject), we discussed gender identity versus biological sexuality. Little girls and boys are socialized to either one or the other idea of who they are according to their biological sex. The sociological and cultural influences run so deep that who children think they are and what they should and shouldn't like isn't usually questioned by either children or their parents. That is what we taught. We needed to provide opportunities for boys and girls to play with gender-neutral materials and toys. Steer girls to blocks and boys to art. Kicking and screaming if need be. Gender was socialized. Sexual identity was a given. At that time, we didn't talk much about the awesome pressure of the cultural norm, and that it came from all corners of the Ecological System, as Urie Bronfenbrenner called the concentric circles of influence on a child's development. These pressures are powerful.
In reading about this astounding (to me) new field of gender identity, fluidity, expression, etc. I come to the realization that when we work with young children, we must be alert, as always, to how children express themselves, and how we, as teachers, can help them express themselves more fully. We must educate parents to understand that this is important at home, too. Children need encouragement to try out the whole range of the artistic and athletic arts. Our acceptance of each child as an individual needs to include gender fluidity. We need to watch out for boys who avoid art simply because other boys don't want to do art. We need to provide opportunities for girls who secretly want to build with blocks or legos, but don't because the boys stake out the territory first and, by about four, tell girls that only they can do the building. It is not easy! I catch myself steering girls to the dramatic play when they aren't sure what to do.
Last week, while acting out the children's stories, a girl wanted to play a father. Several children objected. I invoked "non-traditional casting" (theater term) and encouraged the girl to play him.
The pressures are great to make children conform. It is so much easier because the children, after age four, are gender Nazis, guarding the purity of the party of one or the other. The parents laughingly (and understandably) go along with the cultural norms. What will the next child, confused about her/his identity, do? How will we, as teachers, respond? Can we make this a world safe for every preference and expression of gender identity? I hope we can.