At Storypark we like to share diverse opinions on our blog. This is a guest post from Garrett Kett who is an early childhood educator from Auckland New Zealand.

Things were fairly simple back when men and women were only one step past the primate on the evolutionary chain. Men were the hunters, and women were the gatherers. That kind of mentality persisted for thousands of years, up until the first half of the 20th century when there was a movement, a movement called Feminism.

With that movement came a realigning of the roles girls and women play in both social contexts and economic contexts. Women gained the ability to vote, they gained the ability to complete higher learning and then enter the workforce instead of taking their degree straight to the kitchen. Perhaps the most significant outcome of the feminist movement has been that we are now relooking at the types of environments we are providing in our early childhood centres. We are challenging our ideas and the ideas of others as to what our environment looks like and whether or not we are re-enforcing particular stereotypes, particular drivers that lean toward one gender more than others – the family play area being an obvious area of contention.

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All of this has been extremely progressive and extremely important for taking away gender barriers in the early years and eliminating stereotypes later on in life. What we have yet to consider however, to any great extent is where this is leaving our boys in early childhood and about the stereotypes and roles they are destined to fulfil later in life. Whereas this movement primarily cultivated by the place of women in societal contexts has been fruitful in providing progressive discourse extending down to the early years, can the same then be said about the place of men and how relevant we perceive the play, actions, and emotional responses of boys and how we in turn respond to them influencing their growth and outlook into adulthood?

As a teacher I have often found myself in the predicament of being in a situation where a boy has fallen and hurt himself or has been excluded from playing with a group of other boys, crying or with a sullen look on his face and my response has ultimately been ‘You’re alright. Chin up. Brush it off. Don’t worry about it.’ Does that kind of predicament sound familiar to you as well? Would the language I have found myself using have an inevitable impact on how that boy feels about himself? If the rest of the adults who interact with him throughout his youth and into his teens respond in the exact same way, would that have an impact of how he feels about himself and how he views others as an adult?

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In a recent discussion on a social media platform, I posed the question ‘Do we respond to boys different than we do girls when they are hurt or have their emotional well-being jeopardized?’ or something to that effect. The response was extremely positive with the majority of early childhood teachers expressing that they respond to children’s emotional and psychological needs the same irrespective of gender. By far the most common comment was that teachers respond to the type of emotional need and the extremity of the circumstance rather than deciding on the response based on gender. This approach appeared to be the consensus, with the stop, observe, act process being advocated for the most. In this approach the teachers mentioned that if an incident were to occur such as falling off a bike, they would stop and appraise the situation and decide whether or not the child is emotionally capable of ‘brushing it off’ or whether they need a more emotional, affirming response. That type of response from a teacher is in line with common thought around self-regulation, and allowing children the time and space to be able to cope with stress or in that particular case, physical harm without having to rush to their aid automatically and assume we know what is best for children, which tends to happen more often than not.

The general consensus on the question was refreshing, but is that really the actual picture? Have we progressed as far as a profession and as a society where gender bias is no longer a problem and we have stopped basing our practice on traditional gender ideology? I would challenge that it has not. In fact I would go as far as to say that where emotional well-being for boys and later men are concerned, the current line of thought is similar to our Neanderthal ancestors. Consider this:

Our more primitive brothers and sisters are thought of as having two distinct groups – the hunters and gatherers. At an early age, the strong were separated from the not so strong and conditioned to have a particular way of thinking, of acting, of feeling. Their future role considerably influenced how they were responded to by their peers and also, by their leaders and teachers. Cultural groups throughout history have also had similar practices e.g. Scavenging/foraging food, storytellers, warriors etc. A form of conditioning necessary to maintain a way of life.

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Fast forward through the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the Industrial Revolution, and the World Wars, to today’s business and economic climate. There is no perceived room for suffering, for human emotion, for having an ‘empathetic character.’ And all of this still heavily considered to be a man’s world. So with all of that having happened over the last couple of thousand years is it possible to think that in the last 20 years where early childhood has made such significant progress that the emotional well-being of boys and its impact on their emotional intelligence as men has improved to a point where we are fostering an emotionally inclusive environment? I would argue not.

I would contend that at a certain level we are still continuing a traditionalist mind-set where we are setting boys up to grow into emotionally bankrupt men for the sole purpose of becoming better business men, better bankers, better builders and so on. I would argue that we still equate an emotionless man to being a successful man, a good salt of the earth type guy. The Marlboro Man is an icon of the idealized rugged real man – masculine, rough, emotionless. The reason Marlboro Man was as successful of an advertising campaign as it was, was because people identified with him as the personification of what people saw as the epitome of what men should be. That was only 17 years ago.

 Inclusion is more than just diversity, equity is more than simply advocating for the rights of different cultures, different religions, and ways of life. Equity is about recognising differences, embracing them, learning from them, and using them to support learning. Self-image, self-efficacy, and identity are some of those differences and boys deserve to be included when we look at ensuring we as teachers support the development of all three.
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The implication of gender based responses need to be researched further. As it stands there is a lot of information regarding the use of praise words like good girl and good boy, around the use of girl specific toys and materials and what that could mean for the aspirations of girls as they move into womanhood. And don’t get me wrong, I am a proud feminist with two daughters of my own. I want everything for my daughters, and want them to experience a world free of sexism and social gender expectations. But I also have a son, a son who I want to eventually become a sensitive, inclusive human being. Without others, particularly adults who he respects and loves offering him a hug when he is hurt or comfort when his feelings are compromised, how is he going to form an appreciation for the feelings and emotional well-being of others?

A document published by the Australian Ministry of Education on brain development in under threes titled Engaging Families in the Early Childhood Development Story (Winter, 2010) suggested that empathy is something that children maybe born with, but it takes others displaying empathy for children to learn the context of it and how to make sense of it.

The conversation I was part of on social media had some very honest responses and gave a very promising outlook. However, until we bring this kind of discussion into popular early childhood discourse, we will never make ground on the issue of supporting boys emotional well-being and we will never move away from those old, very outdated methods of practice – Boys will be boys, he’s a boy so he can handle a few cuts and scratches, pick yourself up and brush yourself off, you’re a brave boy……you’re alright. Gender equity affects everyone, and to change how we respond to boys and promoting their self-worth and sense of empathy we need to stop considering their potential of becoming a builder, a police man, a corporate giant and just consider their potential.

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“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes.  Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.” – Daniel H Pink.

Garrett Kett lives in Auckland, New Zealand. He has been involved in Early Childhood Education for 9 years and is especially passionate about innovative approaches to early childhood, social justice, leadership in early childhood, and inclusive practices. He is hoping to open dialogue amongst those in early childhood and touch on often controversial, edgy topics. If you are interested in reading more please visit his blog “Education Breakdown” and post a comment.

Posted by Guest Contributor


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4 Comments

  1. I want to pose a question for early childhood teachers… hmmm to stop and think, before they stop boys from rough house play – Why are you stopping this play? It is through running, chasing and playing rough, where boys have learned empathy for thousands of years.When we as women teachers respond before understanding boys learning styles we may be stunting their ability to learn empathy through their play. I have raised three sons and and have recently graduated as an Early Childhood Teacher who strongly advocates for boys rights to physical play.

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  2. I am an Early Childhood Teacher and I allow for rough and tumble play, I wholeheartedly support it as a matter of fact. I am a huge fan of Dan Hodgin’s and his approach to boys and their play. I’m sure we are small breed of teachers but I know in my heart I do right by them!!

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  3. Thanks for this thoughtful post. A positive problem solving approach to relationships is important for everyone and building empathy supports all children. You remind us to value each child for their own unique self. Empathy is so important for us as educators. Empathy does not mean passive/ weak/wimpy. We need to develop an understanding of children’s needs. Reading Maggie Dent and other writers about boys is good especially for the women among us. Re R & T, all children should be offered rough and tumble as part of many varying opportunities for active play. So all children can be given a chance to be motor bike riders doing jumps into big soft blocks outside, or all included in footy ball handling as well as other ball handling eg basketball, simple throw and catch, etc. I wonder how much little girls may not assert their need for active play because they are expected to be quiet and passive, and how often little boys are left in the block corner instead of trying to link blocks with language, maths, literacy, science etc. A simple strategy is to just get more men into their world, especially if they don’t have many or even any, already in their families – both as educators and visitors offering a range of learning opportunities. The whole conversation is different when there is a mix of genders, but your message about exMining and aligning what we say we do and what we do is as timely as ever.

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  4. The difficulty with discussion around “rough and tumble” is ensuring that everyone on the discussion has the same understanding about what it means and what is acceptable. Play that has the possession of a ball as the focus is different from wrestling. Wrestling between children who have a friendship and a equal in age, size and understanding of the play intention may be fine but needs to be observed and may need to be discussed if occurring in a Centre setting as it is being seen by other children who may not have the same understanding or experience. E.g child who experiences family violence. Think about the impact og these experiences.

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