Boys wear pink, girls wear blue: challenging gender norms and educator bias
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Sector.
Comedian and author, Nelly Thomas, was inspired to create a series of picture books for children who are awesome (also known as “different”) after an established career working in welfare and ‘comedic health promotion’. Here, she talks to The Sector about the importance of educators dealing with their own bias, without projecting it onto the children in their care.
Designed to celebrate and encourage expression, the Some Kids series examines stereotyping, gender and notions of conformity with the aims of: instilling confidence in children; celebrating individuality; challenging the idea that all boys and all girls are the same; teaching children to love and accept their friends as they are; giving parents and educators a tool to talk with children about gender; and, honouring the right of all children to an emotional life.
Ms Thomas recently spoke with The Sector Editor Freya Lucas to explore notions of critical reflection on the topic of gender expression, and to answer the question – also the title of a recent opinion piece of hers – ‘who’s afraid of a boy in a skirt?’
Ms Thomas was asked about fear of children expressing their gender and sexuality in ways considered to be outside heteronormative ‘normal’ – a question inspired not only by the title of her piece for The Sydney Morning Herald, but also by recent statistics reported by The Sector showing that, in some parts of Australia, more than 80 per cent of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and intersex (LGBTQI) community would not feel safe to disclose their sexual orientation, or to dress in such a way as to draw attention to it.
When it comes to community fear about children and adults expressing themselves through clothing, makeup and hair choices, Ms Thomas said she had no idea what sparked the fear, and, at the same time, a very clear idea: homophobia.
“Some people equate a boy in a skirt with being gay and then think that’s wrong/bad/to be feared,” Ms Thomas said.
“There’s nothing innate about skirts that makes them female – think about kilts, ‘ie lavalava, the fact that up until the 19th century, children of all genders wore skirts exclusively… but also, if a boy is ‘feminine’ – so what?”
Pulling no punches, Ms Thomas made her views on children being treated inequitably by educators and other adults, based on their possible sexuality or gender very clear:
“It’s 2019 and if you’re judging a child for possibly being gay, you need to work elsewhere. Unless a child is getting sunburned, is too cold or there’s a safety concern, they should be able to wear what they want. If that bothers you – that’s up to you to cope with, not the child.”
Children who are awesome (aka different), can face some challenges in being met with stares, comments, or attempts to change to meet societal expectations. When asked for her message to boys in skirts, girls with buzz cuts, and children everywhere who are wanting to live their best lives in the face of a world determined to misunderstand, Ms Thomas said:
- It is not your fault if people don’t understand you.
- Bullies are usually bullies because they are sad and afraid.
- You are the strong one.
- It will get better.
- You are wonderful exactly as you are.
Those working in early childhood education and care (ECEC) are compelled, through following the approved learning frameworks, to reflect on their role in children’s learning, and on their own views and understandings of early childhood theory, research and practice to focus on not making assumptions about children’s learning or setting lower expectations for some children because of unacknowledged biases.
In their work with children, under the approved learning frameworks (outcome two specifically), educators are tasked with finding ways to support children to develop a sense of fairness, with one demonstration of competence in this outcome being that children develop the ability to recognise unfairness and bias and the capacity to act with compassion and kindness.
Educators exploring their own personal bias is not only mandated in the approved learning frameworks, but also in the Early Childhood Australia Code of Ethics, where educators are asked to act ethically by ensuring that children are not discriminated against on the basis of gender, sexuality, age, ability, economic status, family structure, lifestyle, ethnicity, religion, language, culture, or national origin.
All educators come to the work of ECEC with their own personal histories, internal biases and challenges. The Sector asked Ms Thomas how educators can challenge a lifetime of programming and seek to overcome biases about children and their gender or sexuality.
“That’s a challenge for all of us. The first thing is to face the truth: I am uncomfortable.
Then ask why: is it a legitimate worry, or just old fashioned stereotyping? Do I really care if a boy wears a skirt? Why? What on earth has it got to do with me?” Ms Thomas said, before making a powerful point:
“Adults’ feelings – especially anger or fear – are theirs to examine and deal with, not the child’s.”
Inspiration for the Some Kids series, Ms Thomas said, came from her love of “unusual children”, and the social challenges faced by one of her own awesome (aka different) children.
“When I worked in homeless services, I connected with children coming out of juvenile detention. I don’t think for a minute that they are angels, but I do see their pain and know that when they are treated with respect and kindness, they usually return it.
“In one sense, the books are for those children, and my awesome child, but really, they are for all of us. The message is pretty simple: you’re fine exactly as you are – you should treat others, and be treated, with kindness and respect.”