Challenging stereotypes – so many questions!

In the early years we have grappled with challenging stereotypes for as long as I have been a Montessori Teacher.  We have encountered it in Montessori’s own writing, which is very much the product of her day.   We have prepared policies and developed procedures to tackle prejudice and challenge our own biases – but  I ask myself “have we really”?  I just realised I am asking myself this question as I am working on the first draft of this blog on 8 March – International Women’s Day!

I still hear teachers welcoming children at nursery commenting on girls’ pretty dresses and giving high fives to the boys.  I too am guilty of such seemingly off the cuff comments.  As I take my granddaughters to school, I acknowledge their friends’ colourful attire, fun way of doing their hair, amazing hats and other accessories.  More often than not these remarks are directed to the girls.  I do this as I am keen to connect with the children,  acknowledge their unique way of presenting themselves to the world.  I want them to feel noticed – but really – for whose benefit?  Theirs or mine?

I was reminded of these questions only last week during the national World Book Day dressing up. There were many Dorothy’s and some witches approaching the school in our village, the boys came as various cats and dogs and scarecrows as the theme was supposed to be The Wizard of Oz.  There were also many Harry Potters – and lo and behold – these were impersonated by both boys and girls –  so Harry does seem to inspire gender neutral alliances! It made me wonder though – could we not embrace the celebrations of this commercially driven national dressing up day in a different way?  Could we not encourage teachers and parents to really engage in conversations about the books the children like and why?  Would it be that difficult for the children to use the school libraries and make displays of he books they like and encourage them to write about who they like in the books and why?  And thinking about these inherent gender biases in our society, could we not encourage the girls to choose a male protagonist and the boys focus on the qualities of the girls they encounter in the books?  Imagine a World Book Day dress up where the children would be asked to dress up as who ever they like – on the understanding that no one would laugh or frown  or snigger at the boys who dress up as Dorothy and the girls who come as wizards?  How difficult would it be to change the mind set?  

I also wonder how meaningful to the children is this whole celebration – do they really connect with the books and characters they are supposed to represent?  Does the dressing up encourage reading, promote a love of literature or inspire reflection on the qualities of the characters they are supposed to represent?  What about the pressure this puts on parents to provide the outfits?  And what about the children who do not come dressed up because their parents forgot or cannot afford to buy the latest dress up outfit available online or in the local supermarket?  What do we do as teachers to help these children be included in the World Book Day? That is for another blog, yet I believe it is important to include in the discussion.  

Despite the inclusion policies and procedures in place in our settings, it seems we still have a very long way to go to really think about how we communicate with young children and how we help them to understand some of the issues as we assist them in becoming more open adults who accept each person for who they are rather than whom society and culture and home conditioning guides us to believe they should be. This requires not only a societal shift but also a personal transformation and significant examination of our own prejudices and biases.  We need to re-think what we say and how we say it to children – the way we communicate inclusion and acceptance and demonstrate the value of each person in our society, when we share not only books but also in our daily encounters with each other.  This is a huge task but worthwhile pursuing!  Why don’t we begin by being more aware of our communications with children and open to being challenged by colleagues and friends, and honest with ourselves, when unacceptable phrases escape our lips. It is not enough to acknowledge our slips of the tongue,  it requires a conscious effort to think of other ways to express ourselves so that children do not absorb our biases and are given a chance to grow up with much more inclusive mindset.

I have only scratched the surface of this discussion – when I started writing this blog I did not intend to focus on the dressing up for World Book Day – yet it is such a good example of how children’s views can be conditioned in an unwittingly prejudiced way, and to some extent with the best of intentions. Whilst we have gone some way towards a better understanding of gendered stereotyping, there are so many more avenues to explore; how to support effectively and without prejudice children from families from different cultures, children of same sex parents, children from single parents or complex relationship families or  transgender children, to give just a few examples.  

This seems an enormous challenge and we will need to engage with our families, colleagues and also others in our communities and society as a whole.  We will also need to be willing to challenge ourselves by reflecting, reading, starting conversations and making connections.  Why not begin by exploring the work of Virginia Mendez who shares many practical ideas of how to help children navigate the complexing of today’s gendered world through mindful use of language. She advocates a “one step at the time” approach on her website and also shares her beliefs, ideas and examples of practice in her book Unlimited Childhood Parenting beyond Gender Bias.  She has also written several bilingual children’s books  (in Spanish and English)  which introduce Milo and Lola challenging gender stereotypes and encourage critical thinking and promote  self-esteem seen as human super powers!

To start on this journey we have invited Kate Unsworth from Unity Montessori to share some of her deeply help beliefs, experiences and research into this topic. Join us on Tuesday 21 March at 7pm for the next Montessori Musings webinar – register here.

I would like to thank Kathy Brodie from Early Years TV for tackling this topic by featuring the writing and studies of Virginia Mendez, Susie Heywood and Barbara Adzajlic and Dr Verity Downing.

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