The Storypark blog shares diverse opinions from educators and parents all over the world. Today our guest blog post is from the author of ‘Uplifting Early Childhood‘. What are your thoughts? Share them below in the comments, we’d love to hear from you!
At one point or another, we’ve all been there, or most of us have. Either as teachers or parents, there has been that moment where for the first time, our sons have slid their feet into a high-heeled shoe or lifted the strap of a handbag over their shoulder. Or of course, tried on their very first dress or tutu. Now for some of us, that moment can be as positive and as affirming of a child’s innate curiosity, limitless imagination, of their natural sense of exploration as watching them discover a bug for the first time.
For others though, it can be a time of great anxiety. Where parents see their son being covered by a frilly pink skirt it leads them to have one of two responses – either they instruct their child to remove it completely, or they strain a smile and make a mental note to remove all signs of feminine looking dress-ups and costumes in their house.
The problem though is that the home isn’t where our children have access to things that might make us a little uncomfortable and ask ourselves that question. You know the one I’m talking about. That one question that we ask ourselves the moment our sons begin parading around the room wearing a dress and proclaiming themselves to be the prettiest princess of them all!
Does this mean they’ll turn out gay?
To pause from the purpose of this for a moment, and to answer that question directly and as simply as I can…..no, it doesn’t mean they are going to turn out gay. There is no conclusive evidence that I am aware of to suggest that a child dressing up in clothing designed for the opposite gender in any way suggests their sexual orientation later in life. And so what if it did? You’d then have a son who is happy AND gay and would at least have parents who he knows accepts him for who he is.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. A lot of parents work, and so this usually means that children end up in early childhood services like full-day childcare centres, home-based childcare services etc. And yes, if all centres promote an equitable and inclusive programme, there will definitely be dress-ups and there will almost certainly be dresses, tutus, and handbags amongst the superhero and ‘real world hero’ attire we see in most early childhood centres.
Now my advice to parents who do become anxious when their sons try on dresses and other items geared toward “girls” is either one of two options:
Discuss your concerns with your child’s teachers – This is a topic that all early childhood teachers either are or should be familiar with. So when you express your concerns or trepidations with the teacher, they should be able to provide an informative explanation to you about imaginative play, emotional intelligence, gender equity and social justice. Maybe even something akin to ‘they’re just exploring and getting a better sense of the world around them, and their role within it.’
Leave them alone – And understand that your son is using props to engage in play to ‘figure it out.’ He is probably linking his play at the centre to what he sees at home and the person that he has a close connection with which for a lot of boys is….his mother.
For children in early childhood, play is learning to them. What they understand about the world they gain from the experiences they have and while they are awake, most of their experiences come from play. A large part of that play is imaginative or dramatic play. They see, they replicate. We need to start viewing this as a boy using dress-ups as a means to understand his world a bit better, and of course connect with others.
Now, here is my advice for teachers who have parents expressing these concerns to them. And this comes as two parts as well:
Share knowledge – You role isn’t only to support the development of children through play, but it’s also to provide information and share knowledge with parents and caregivers. You’ve been studying toward your Diploma or your Bachelor’s Degree for this very moment. The moment you get to utilise your knowledge to add to the community of learners within your centre. So go for it! Don’t hold back, unload as much information and advice as you can and I can guarantee, most times parents will appreciate it. Though while sharing this knowledge, we always have to maintain our professional standards and do so respectfully.
Advocate for what you know is right – I’m not asking you to judge parents, I’m not asking you to talk down to them. What I am asking for though is for you to plant your feet firmly in the sand and stand for what you know is right. If a parent were to say “I don’t want my son putting on girls dresses.” Then your reply should not be to say “Oh yes, I’ll make sure he doesn’t put on those dresses anymore.” It should be something along the lines of “I understand you have reservations, but we have a gender equity and child-led play-based policy here. That means that we do not tell children what they can and can’t play with or what experiences to engage in.”
An anti-bias approach to early childhood education and care should mean a curriculum free from bias. It should mean teachers advocating for the rights of children to engage in play and learning free from restrictions and discrimination and to support their sense of agency.
This feeds into the broader narrative of gender equity, gender neutrality and becoming more inclusive of the thoughts, feelings, and identities children develop that we often consider outside the norm or that don’t fit in with the views we hold of what gender roles are, or should be. The key is to support our children to express themselves and explore what makes us different, but they can only explore that if we give them the freedom to.
As the father of a son, who has worn his sisters dresses since the age of two and still wants nothing more than to be a dinosaur hunting ninja turtle, I can without reservation say that supporting and encouraging them to dress in whatever they choose to, to play with whatever they want to will bring far more reward for not only them but for you as parents than trying to limit them ever will. The choice is yours.