I was interested by this post the other day from the Secret Teacher, who wrote about discovering that certain educators, including colleagues, have a worrying attitude towards feminism.
It got me thinking about my own experiences in the classroom and how we as teachers talk about boys and girls. I’m a primary teacher so most of my experience comes from working with children who haven’t yet gone through adolescence and so haven’t had the confusion of hormones and sexuality added to the mix. But I think a lot of our programming and assumptions about sex have already taken place long before our kids have gone to secondary school.
There’s the preponderance of pink, for one thing. You can’t avoid gendered products by the time you’re going to school – I even saw some boys’ and girls’ santa hats at the weekend. A trip to Toys R Us is a trip into Boy/Girl Land; there are even pink and blue Kinder eggs and gendered Nerf guns nowadays. Even in the Sindy/Action Man days of my childhood, I don’t remember it being quite so siloed.
So then you get into school, and other messages take over, from which toys you choose to play with in nursery onwards. “That’s not very neat writing for a girl,” someone might say, or “Of course, boys can’t do more than one thing at a time.” A lot of the messages come from teachers or adults that you meet, which is why I think it’s really important how we use language towards children. Things like “don’t be such a girl”, for one, or “boys don’t cry” have a strong impact. You’re supposed to model good communication in so many other ways, so I think modelling good communication of equality is really vital too.
It’s very hard to stitch your own anecdotes into some kind of meaningful thread, but then again you can only talk about the things you’ve seen and heard. So with all the necessary caveats in mind about putting too much significance into any events I’ve been a party to, I’ve been thinking about what we expect from boys and girls from nursery age to the end of primary school, and what that means for them. Of course I’m not saying this is the case in every class in every school ever.
I think, also, that I notice things about expectations around boys more than I do around girls – which isn’t tremendously surprising, since I suppose I was a boy myself and I was not a girl. Someone else would probably notice something completely different.
But here’s what I think. I think we put pressure on boys to be ‘strong’ and not ‘weak’. We expect girls to cry and not boys; we look down on boys who have a tendency for tears, or who are sensitive, or who sulk. Some people might say this is because they are showing ‘female’ and therefore ‘bad’ traits but I tend to disagree; I think it’s because we’re simply saying that certain things are not meant to be shown by boys.
Boys are expected to react with their fists if they’re bullied; if they aren’t, they’re somehow ‘weak’ and are seen as less worthy. If they complain of bullying, I get the sense there’s a whiff of less sympathy for them than if a girl had made the same accusation. But boys are strong! Why are they upset by name calling? If they are, they are somehow less of a boy.
I think as a boy you do get a lot of messages, from everyone – your parents, your school friends, your teachers and everyone else – about what you should be like. It’s so important that these messages don’t make you feel bad about being who you are. It’s all right to be gentle, if you’re a boy, because gentleness isn’t a female characteristic. It’s all right not to want to fight, because aggression isn’t a male characteristic. It’s OK to be the sort of boy who hurts a bit sometimes, because if that’s who you are, that’s who you are. It’s all right.
I suppose I should explain something at this point. I notice all this particularly because, well, I was that overly sensitive, snivelling little boy, when I was younger. I remember all too well the ridicule that came with being someone who cried a lot, and the feeling of humiliation that teachers, as well as pupils, found it hilarious when I found everything a little bit too much. I was that boy. I remember the feeling of vast isolation when I realised that it wasn’t just some of the other kids in the class, but the teachers too, who were less than impressed. Tears were something to be punished, with shame.
Some of these attitudes still exist, and it hurts me deeply when I hear other members of staff muttering about how so-and-so is “a dick” because he started crying, as happened some time ago. It makes me furious when staff make fun of a boy who is quiet, or shy, as if these are somehow things that shouldn’t be expected of a male child, for some unexplained reason. It makes me angry, because I know how alone it makes you feel.
I don’t know what the answer is, other than constantly questioning the words that are coming out of your mouth or the expectations you have of the children around you. We’re so careful to be inclusive when it comes to different races and religions; I don’t know if we’re as careful with ensuring we don’t project expectations on boys or girls just because of whether they’re boys or girls.
On the other hand, I’m not filled with despair. Talking to children in schools, in PSHE lessons or elsewhere, you get a sense that they’re pretty resistant to a lot of messages flung in their direction. They’re really aware of the expectations on them and they are starting to become aware of things like transgender issues or gayness if they haven’t encountered them in their lives. Maybe one upside of the rush to make kids grow up so fast is that they are capable of considerable maturity. Whether that’s a thing to celebrate or not, I don’t know, but there it is.