By Afsaneh Moradian, author of Jamie Is Jamie: A Book About Being Yourself and Playing Your Way
It’s No Name-Calling Week, time for adults to pay special attention to the names kids are calling one another and the different forms bullying can take. Specifically, let’s consider pronouns and how they can be used as name-calling.
Pronouns are simple words we use all the time to talk about people. (She went to school. He will do homework when he gets home. They are playing outside.) They are both generic and personal to each of us, and are tied to our internal sense of being female, male, both, or neither. When misused, they can become a weapon to demean and degrade a person.
When a girl is called he, for example, the intention is to make the child feel bad. But why is it effective?
When someone intentionally calls a girl he, that person is denying who the girl is. A whole set of other traits are being placed on the girl, and she is meant to feel bad about who she is, what she is interested in, or how she looks. Perhaps the girl prefers sports, or some other hobby typically considered to be for boys, over activities that are typically considered to be for girls.
When she is called he, the girl has our ideas of boys and masculinity placed on her, making her feel that she is not really a girl. She is not who she is supposed to be, which means there must be something wrong with her.
Similarly, when a boy is called she, he is being told that who he is does not fit what is considered to be masculine. Calling a boy she can also be used to imply that the boy is gay. The boy is being told that there is something wrong with being a girl and/or with being gay, and that, by extension, there is something wrong with him.
Beyond the gender binary, there are many children who don’t identify as a boy or a girl, and their pronouns need to be included in this discussion. Yet many adults in kids’ lives—at school or even around the Thanksgiving dinner table—refuse to call kids by the singular they when told that they is what the child goes by.
As adults, when we don’t use the singular they (or whatever gender-neutral pronoun the child goes by) for a child who does not identify as a boy or a girl, we deny that child their right to be themselves. We also teach the children around us that they don’t have to respect or accept the child by using the correct pronouns. The same is true of adults who refuse to use a transgender child’s chosen name and pronouns rather than the child’s given name and assigned pronouns.
Using the incorrect pronouns can absolutely affect a child’s self-esteem and sense of identity and self-worth. Intentionally calling someone by the wrong pronouns, or refusing to use the singular they, is a form of harassment and bullying and teaches other kids that it’s okay to use pronouns for cruelty.
Misusing pronouns as an insult is deeply rooted in how we gender our children and the list of traits and interests we assign people based on gender. In order to teach inclusion, respect, and acceptance to the children in our lives, we need to be on the lookout for students using pronouns as a way to be mean to others.
To promote kindness, we must break down our definitions of gender and provide space for kids to just be who they are.
Here are some ways to expand children’s definitions of gender:
- Make sure there are gender-neutral games and activities in play spaces and classrooms.
- Read children books that have characters behaving in ways that challenge gender stereotypes.
- Show children examples of people of different genders and backgrounds participating in all forms of art: dance, music, painting, fashion, and so on.
- Invite people from the community whose occupations defy gender stereotypes (for example, female doctors and firefighters, male nurses and makeup artists) to visit and speak to kids about their work.
- Using images, show children famous people who have blurred gender lines (for example, David Bowie, Billy Porter, Grace Jones, K.D. Lang, RuPaul).
- Encourage children to try different forms of art and to express their creativity in a variety of ways.
- Look for ways to validate children’s creativity and individuality.
This week, the emphasis is on acts of kindness and thinking about the power of our words. Let’s help expand definitions of what it means to go by she or he, let’s include the singular they and teach children how to use it, and let’s respect who children are and what they want to be called.
Afsaneh Moradian has loved writing stories, poetry, and plays since childhood. After receiving her master’s in education, she took her love of writing into the classroom where she began teaching children how to channel their creativity. Her passion for teaching has lasted for over fifteen years. Afsaneh now guides students and teachers (and her young daughter) in the art of writing. She lives in New York City.
Afsaneh is the author of Jamie Is Jamie: A Book About Being Yourself and Playing Your Way
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