Gendered Ideas in the Classroom

We like to think of education as something that doesn’t fall prey to gendered ideas about kids.  As opposed to the toys and stores that cater differently to “girls” and “boys”, the classroom is supposed to be different.  Children are supposed to learn and it shouldn’t matter what sex they happen to be.  Right?

Unfortunately this isn’t always what happens and this can be particularly problematic.  As our society has preconceived notions of what young girls and boys are supposed to behave like, it can be difficult for teachers to separate out what society thinks kids should act like to look at the individual child in question.

“Boys Will Be Boys” and “Girls Will Be Girls”

Our gendered ideas about boys start young and persevere throughout development.  Generally the idea is that boys will be more rambunctious, cannot control themselves as well, will “joke” more, and we should be willing to let more “slide” because, put quite simply, we can’t expect as much from them.  Our ideas about girls are almost illogically opposite.  We both expect more and less of them than we do our boys.  In the classroom, we expect them to show greater self-restraint and yet also often expect less of them academically, especially in certain subjects, despite their proficiency being demonstrated time and again in studies and now in the number of students off to university.

In the younger years, it is expected that boys will be active, won’t sit still long, speak out, and so on.  Girls, on the other hand, are expected to be quieter, sit still, pay attention, and so on.  Except at young ages, both sexes should be active and exploring their environment with differences having more to do with individual personality than sex.  That is, there will be young girls and boys who sit still and are not as active and young girls and boys who will be running around and acting, well, like a kid.  The fact that we don’t see this as frequently in girls has a lot to do with how early we start socializing this behaviour.  The problem is that when a girl acts this way, it can be seen as far more problematic than when the same behaviour comes from a boy.  Teachers may end up scolding the girl more, trying to get her to act more like her female peers who are quieter and easier to manage.  She may be more likely to be seen as defiant or rude.  Yet really she is simply being a child.

In the older years, this attitude is used to dismiss behaviours that are clearly problematic, such as sexual harassment that is actually sadly common in high schools today.  Many high school girls face being told that the bra pulling or cat-calling is all normal and should just be expected because “that’s how boys act”.  This not only reinforces to girls that there is no one supporting their feelings, but it is utterly disrespectful to our boys.  To believe that they are not capable of keeping their hands to themselves or from being rude to the females in their life is to assume they are somehow less than their female counterparts.  The more we assume that, the more we set up an environment where that type of behaviour is not only acceptable, but expected and it is highly insulting to all parties involved.

For our girls, we expect catty, cruel behaviour in the teenage years, yet parents report being called in for any perceived “rude” or “mean” behaviour when the girls are young.  When girls simply speak up and say they don’t want to play with someone, they are labelled “mean” and told they have to include everyone.  The ideas here are that someone else’s feelings are more valid than one’s own.  Likely in part because of this, girls find ways to be subtly mean in order to avoid getting themselves in trouble, leading us down the path towards Mean Girls (which in all fairness is an *awesome* movie).  Girls are seen as untrustworthy and catty, despite female relationships holding an integral role in women’s lives and they can be a source of immense support and care.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I can say that when it comes to consideration and treating others with respect, I don’t have different gendered expectations for my kids.  We can raise children – yes, children – who are caring, compassionate, active, thoughtful, and engaged without worrying about what chromosomes they have.  The classroom is one of the main tools we have to help make this change.  It means we have to focus on honesty with kindness, valuing others, and recognizing the unique temperaments and variables that will influence each child’s behaviour.  Most of all, remember that they are kids and the way we treat them when they are young will shape the way they view the world and those in it when they are older.  Boys and girls don’t have to be thought of as “the same”, but we certainly have no basis to be treating them as differently as we do now.


By Tracy Cassels

November 30, 2015