Whether a child is a boy or a girl doesn’t really matter when it comes to being allowed to join in — what really counts, apparently, is his or her haircut, clothes, and how much he or she fits into gender norms.

This is according to a thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, that examined how gender is created during everyday life at preschool. The study also shows that stereotypical perceptions about gender are allowed to steer the planning of preschool activities.

Pink Batman Halloween costume - preschool gender normsAnette Hellman has looked into how gender is created among young preschool children, with the starting point that gender derives from social processes.

Her study shows how different gender norms and markers can gradually become a part of physical gender identity. She has also investigated what behaviors are feasible for boys and girls in relation to norms for boyishness.

Comprehensible and visible

The thesis shows that some of the children’s many behaviors are categorized as being either “typical girl” or “typical boy,” and are considered to be more appropriate than others. When children adopt the positions of “typical girl” or “typical boy,” they become comprehensible and visible as a gender subject.

“Ideas about natural gender differences are often unintentionally taken into routine and everyday preschool situations,” says Hellman. “The stereotypes of boyishness and girlishness are often compounded in stressful situations such as mealtimes and assemblies.”

This is not to say that the position of “typical boy” is desirable, though, or that it is given high status at preschool.

Desirable and competent

During everyday activities with large groups of children in a time of libertarian ideas on self-regulation, responsibility, freedom and flexibility, the desirable and competent preschool child is instead empathetic, democratic and self-regulating.

Hellman shows how those boys who do not conform to the norm of the “typical boy” – aggressive, dominant and lacking in self-control – become invisible at preschool. This is the case, for example, for boys who do not enter into conflict, who have both girls and boys as friends, and who can play with objects and in spaces that are considered to be girlish. It also applies to quiet and reserved boys.

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Girls who adopt the position of “troublesome” are, in turn, neither noticed nor understood in the same way as boys who do so.

Preschool gender norms: Can Batman wear pink?

When norms about gender differences are made relevant, they mostly appear in signifiers that are considered specific to a certain gender — such as voices, movements, types of haircuts, colors worn, and toys played with.

The negotiations did usually not concern if a boy or girl could be part of a play, but if the appropriate gender signifiers were used. For instance, the issue was not whether a girl could play Batman, but if the Batman character could wear pink or not.

Stereotypical patterns

The study shows that “typical boys” are always taken into account in teachers’ planning — the way the educators divide up groups and in their conversations with the children and each other. The focus is on getting them to “calm down” by splitting up groups, introducing massage into quiet times, and avoiding activities such as music and movement and art and design.

“Preschool has the specific mandate of countering stereotypical gender patterns,” says Hellman. “Children test, replicate and question the norms that are repeatedly presented to them. But this doesn’t mean that it is the norms that differentiate the genders that are the most important for the children.”

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