By Lydia Bowers, author of We Listen to Our Bodies
“Ok, line up . . . boys in one line, girls in the other!” How many times have we heard statements like that in a classroom? Yet we live in a beautiful, colorful, diverse world and we get the chance to embrace more than just two options.
When we use gendered terms, we’re often boxing children (and ourselves!) in. We may add to stereotypes about gender, and invalidate many people’s personal experiences. As the adults, we are sending children messages about gender, about who is accepted and who is not. We may not realize we have gender expansive children in our classrooms, and although we (and our activities and environments) do not determine a child’s gender, we do influence children’s emotional health and well-being.
More than two genders exist in the world! So instead of “boys and girls,” “ladies and gentlemen,” or other similar terms, try addressing children in non-gendered ways. You can use terminology based on the activity happening: “Attention, scientists!” “Ok, readers,” “Alright hikers, let’s head out!” You can also use general and inclusive terms like children, people, folks, friends, and everyone.
Another way to move away from gendered language is by getting creative in the ways you divide up a group of children. Instead of “boys and girls,” line up by even or odd birthdays or by shirt or shoe colors. Come up with groups ahead of time and name them: Tigers here, Lions there! Or ask a question such as, “Do you prefer cats or dogs?” and group according to their answer.
Consider also the expectations we put on or associate with gender. Boys are more likely to receive compliments about how tough, strong, or cool they are. Girls tend to get more praise for being pretty, kind, or sweet. Every child has times when they are kind! Every child has moments when they are strong. So instead of asking for a “strong boy” to help you move chairs, ask for some friends with strong muscles to help.
Sometimes being inclusive with our language means pushing back on stereotypes already learned by children. How do we talk about community workers? Firefighters, mail carriers, construction workers, and so on all can be different genders, and you can model this in your classroom. When you hear, “pink is for girls!” ask some questions: “Why do you say that? What makes pink a girl color to you? I think pink is for everyone!” Same goes for toys, hairstyles, clothing, and dramatic play roles. Any child can enjoy sparkly shoes that make a fun “tap-tap-tap” noise on the ground.
By changing how we use language in the classroom, we communicate a sense of safety and inclusion to all children and families. We have the chance to let children be free to be who they are, and to show them how big and varied our world is. So, friends, what’s your favorite new term to use?
Check out genderjusticeinearlychildhood.com for great resources on supporting gender development in young children and their tips on changing how we talk about gender in classrooms.
Gender Spectrum also has resources on making our language more inclusive of all genders.
In addition to language, Afsaneh Moradian offers ideas on creating a gender-inclusive environment.
Lydia Bowers is a speaker, consultant, and trainer who happily exists in the Venn diagram overlap between early childhood and sex education. After spending almost two decades working directly with children as a classroom teacher and a parent, she is passionate about reframing sexuality conversations. Lydia now teaches families and educators how to talk to children about subjects like gender, reproduction, and abuse. When she’s not traveling around the country for conferences and speaking engagements, she lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two children and adds to her growing collection of children’s book character tattoos as often as she can. Follow her on TikTok @lydiatalksconsent and Instagram @lydiambowers.
Lydia is the author of We Listen to Our Bodies.
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