This morning the children from my class rushed in full of energy. Harry wanted to know what we were doing today, and Thomas P had lost a tooth. But one little girl hung back at the door sobbing. ‘What’s the matter Katie?’ I asked; she could barely answer me through the tears. ‘Can you tell me a little bit louder?’
‘I’m wearing trousers!’
‘They’re very nice…’
‘But Princesses don’t w-w-w-wear trousers!’
I looked around the classroom for another five-year-old female trouser wearer but all I could see was this dress in several different colours. Poor Katie, she was the odd one out.
For a moment I was outraged. How dare Katie be made to feel like this? How do children of this age have such imbedded ideas of gender stereotypes? What’s wrong with a Princess wearing trousers? And why can’t Asda design dresses that don’t look like something sported by Betty Draper from Mad Men.
But then a feeling of guilt began to descend. I flashed back to a moment a few weeks before on the carpet. It was golden time and the whole class was watching The Jungle Book. ‘Is it a girl?’ Katie had asked, pointing at Mowgli. I told her it wasn’t. ‘But he’s got long hair!’
‘They don’t have hairdressers in the jungle’ I’d said, proud of my joke. But Katie had looked at me sceptically, she was genuinely confused. Was it really so strange then that Katie had decided that girls should only wear dresses to school, just as they should prize the pink piece of paper and admire silky, long hair.
It suddenly dawned on me that gender is something a lot more complex for children than we often are prepared to accept. How many times a week do we as adults ask the children to get into gendered pairs, hand out pink pieces of paper to the girls and blue pieces to the boys, or encourage children to pursue gendered activities?
Katie has shown me it is important not to oversimplify gender to children. Until we begin to challenge notions of gender everyday in our classrooms we run the risk of girls deciding what they can and can’t do before they’ve left primary school. We need to remind Katie that girls can do anything, whether that’s science, business or running the kingdom.