“Miss Stephanie, did you know that she wants to be a boy?” When Youth Challenge Gender Norms

“Miss Stephanie, did you know that’s a girl?”

“Miss Stephanie, she wants to be boy!”

What would you do if you had 4th, 5th, and 6th graders coming up to you frantically telling you this? What I find frustrating with many education reformers, policy makers, and even society in general, is their refusal to acknowledge how complex the environment of a classroom is. Even though this incident has occurred at a summer camp, it’s still a location with youth who are looking to the adults for answers when all that they’ve believed to be right from wrong becomes questionable.

Positively going against society norms has been something I’ve been increasingly exposed to in both my education courses and personal engagements. One article that sticks in my mind from my Intro to Education course is “Beyond Pink and Blue – Fourth Graders Get Fired Up About Pottery Barn’s Gender Stereotypes.” The link may be unavailable since it’s from Rutgers Libraries, so I’ll give a quick summary. Basically, students in a fourth grade class realized that Pottery Barn’s catalog filled girl rooms with all pink, and boys with all blue. Dolls in the girls’ room, trucks and such in the boys’ rooms. Some students questioned why it couldn’t be the other way around. Why can’t girls like toy cars and the color blue? Why can’t boys play with dolls? In other words, who set these stereotypes and what makes them obligated to follow them?

This article sticks out in my mind because this was the first time I was ever forced to challenge something that seemed as natural as having a right and left hand. This article along with, “When Gender Boxes Don’t Fit.” Which discusses similar gender issues faced by students in school environments.

I’m writing about this because this is an important topic I find is rarely discussed. One of my best friends said, “You’re painting your room blue? Why? That’s a boy color, you’re not a boy.” Teachers saying, “Well boys, I know you won’t be needing the cursive stencils, that’s too girly for you.” In my humble opinion, we should not be forcing and raising children to commit to the social norms just because of what some people claim is “supposed” to be right. I will never, ever forget in first grade when one of my friends was wearing a “Boys Rule” sticker on her shirt and starting dressing like a boy, she called herself a tom-boy. She told me she wanted to be a boy and I was beside myself. I ran and told my teacher (Mrs. Cook), that she wanted to be a boy, as it was the most absurd thing I have ever heard. She looked at me with the most calm expression on her face and said, “She can be whatever she wants, and that’s okay. She’s your friend isn’t she? You liked her before she said that, didn’t you?” She was right. And honestly, I think she was a huge reason I grew up so accepting of others.

The incident with my students was almost identical. One of the 6th grade students whispered, “Did you know she wants to be a boy?” And I said, “Yea, and that’s okay! She can be whatever she wants.” And the girl responded, “See! I told you! He doesn’t think it’s okay!” Ah, she is adorable and so brave to stay true to what she believes in. Definitely one of the most memorable moments of my life–I wonder if my first grade teacher felt that way too. Following that, another boy, I believe he is going into 5th grade said to me, “Miss Stephanie, she’s a tom boy!” I just responded, “I know, and I think that’s pretty awesome!” And the little boy looked at me in silence for a good 10 seconds then said, “Me too!”

But of course, this isn’t all happy-gushy stuff. In one situation, we were at the pool and had to split up into groups of boys and girls due to the locker rooms. It was evident the little girl was hesitant on deciding to what line to go into–this situation isn’t rare. The article mentioned above discusses how common  it is for students to feel uncomfortable entering bathrooms because of the label. Even further, I took a couple students to the bathroom, and one boy waited to see what bathroom the little girl would go into! I couldn’t believe it (cue the, “kids can be so mean!”). He started teasing her, “What bathroom are you going to go into? What are you waiting for?” I told him to go to the bathroom and told the girl I would get the tissues for her (all she needed were tissues for her nose), but she followed me in. I let her know that if she needed to talk, or if she needed me to seriously pull him aside to tell him to stop (they’re friends…yes, kids can also be so confusing) to let me know.

I think it’s important that everyone considers what it is like to be in the shoes of this fourth grade girl I am talking about–or every person who feels uncomfortable in the skin they’re in. I say it often, but no one chooses to be born the way they are, the situation they are forced into. Maybe not as extreme, but consider if you were born with a slow metabolism and being “bigger” than the “ideal” size. Even with skin color, it’s on the news, over the internet, people dying their skin to be lighter–hell, when I was in middle school I’d avoid the sun because I wanted to be white, I’d open my eyes as wide as can be so I didn’t look Asian, I yelled at my mom when she tried to teach me her native language because I just wanted to be a white person (now I regret it terribly because I am so distant from own culture and lost the opportunity to be bilingual!)–we are set in a society that forces us to hate what we are unless we are in that group setting the rules. We’re surrounded by these high expectations of what is “normal,” or “pretty,” or all those high standards set by…well, who? Mainstream society? Why does that make it right? I don’t know, maybe human nature, but it’s time to challenge mainstream society and start fighting for what is right.

One thought on ““Miss Stephanie, did you know that she wants to be a boy?” When Youth Challenge Gender Norms

  1. Great commentary! I’ve always felt like a pioneer in challenging gender norms, as I was a tomboy, friends with boys, great at math, smart, and now I’m the breadwinner and finance whiz in my marriage, although I’m happy in my female skin. Still, there’s so much stigma and stereotype, and it does start as children, and so much of it is as subtle as the pink and blue, that we need to be aware of these things. Glad you are getting a chance to share that with kids! As a side note, I was a Girl Scout camp counselor, and one of my former campers and co-counselors is now a man, and that’s fine by me, but I remember when she was the girl in super short hair who got picked on. This can only get better if we keep pushing against the stereotypes, so thanks for this!

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