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What happens when you ask a class of first graders their thoughts on gender stereotypes?

I am the mother of a 4 year old girl and a teacher at an elementary school in a working class district of Marseille, France. For several years, I have been able to hold open exchanges with my first grade classes to discuss and debate the topic of gender stereotypes. The discussions have been remarkable.   

Last year, we held a class discussion after reading the book Neither doll, nor superhero! My first anti-sexist manifesto. This book breaks down traditional gender clichés around colors of clothes, careers, and toys typically deemed for girls or for boys in order to make these things available for everyone, both girls and boys alike.

My first grade students (who were for the most part 6 years old at the beginning of the school year) actively embraced the discussion, taking it into their own hands. 

Before we got started, we did a little test in observation. We decided to look at the colors of the students’ clothing, and the results did not disappoint: 100% of the boys dressed in blue/gray/red/black, and 80% of the girls were in pink/white/sparkles.

But these observations spurred opposition from the girls:

"I hate pink, teacher. My mother makes me wear it!"

"Yeah, I don’t care about pink. My favorite color is multicolored like a rainbow.”

"Every time my parents buy me clothes, it’s always shiny, shiny, shiny, but I actually prefer black."

A wind of revolt rose in the class . . . None of the girls came to the defense of pink or sparkles, maybe out of shyness, because there were surely some girls who did like them.

On my side as a teacher, I remained neutral throughout the discussion asking open-ended questions and letting the students exchange freely.  And trust me these 6 year olds had many things to say about the topic.

"I don’t think there are toys for girls or for boys, but toys for all kids. I like playing with a ball and a jump rope." said one little girl.

"Sometimes, I play with my sister’s doll in secret." admitted one boy.  

“You don’t need to play with the doll in hiding. It doesn’t bother us girls! We could even play with the doll together,” responded several girls.

Practically the whole class thought it was normal that the household chores were shared by their parents. But when pressed further on how things actually happened at home, we learned that primarily moms took care of the straightening up and cleaning and an even greater percentage of the mothers exclusively prepared all of the family meals.

Globally, the girls had more to say during this discussion than the boys. Could it be that they were re-asserting their rights, and, finally finding the place to do it, they didn’t hesitate? The boys remained quiet and were more inclined to maintain stereotypes. “It’s weird to see a girl with short hair,” one boy said.

All ideas for future debates to have with my class next year . . . .

As for my daughter, when I asked her at 2 years old what her favorite color was, her response was blue. Now at 4, it’s shiny gold. And inevitably when I ask her what’s her favorite character, even though her bedroom has a library full of books—because yeah, she’s the daughter of a teacher of course!!!—what is her response?

Elsa from Frozen!  NO COMMENT!

Amélie Désigaux is the mother to a 4 year old girl and has been a first grade teacher in a working class neighborhood of Marseille for over 10 years.

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