Why you should care
One school’s fight for gender equality means going gender-neutral with some of the youngest among us — forbidding pink, blue, Sleeping Beauty and more.
What’s the difference between boys and girls? Boys play with building blocks and girls play with dolls; boys are boisterous and loud, girls are quieter and more reserved; boys wear blue and girls wear pink. Or so you thought.
The team behind Egalia preschool in Stockholm believes that these differences are not only artificial, but that they are also quite sinister and perpetuate gender inequality later in life. As a result, they have pioneered a “gender neutral preschool.”
Classics like ’Snow White’ and ’Sleeping Beauty’ — are forbidden, and the words ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ are never used.
At Egalia — which has a very long waiting list — all toys are placed side by side, and every child is encouraged to play with any or all of them. Stories emphasizing traditional gender stereotypes — including classics like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty — are forbidden, and the words “boy” and “girl” are never used. Instead, teachers refer to their pupils as “friends” or use the gender-neutral Swedish pronoun “hen.” The school’s aim is to expose children to the full spectrum of human experience from a young age, rather than just the half assigned to their gender.
Unsurprisingly, Egalia has been heavily criticized worldwide. The concept is described as feminist extremism, gender madness and even brainwashing. But the most prevalent criticism is that children who attend the school will be confused, because they are being forced to ignore innate gender differences.
Lise Eliot, associate professor of neuroscience at Rosalind Franklin University and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, disagrees with the critics and supports the gender-free preschool model. She questions the widely held belief that girls and boys are neurologically or behaviourally different from birth, pointing out that science has yet to identify any clear differences between the brains of newborn boys and girls, apart from their size.
Eliot suggest that while differences between the genders do exist, “there is much more overlap than difference between boys and girls on any given measure of behavior or brain anatomy/physiology.” The problem, she says, is that cultural expectations and experience teach drive the differences further apart as children grow and learn.
Her research in neuroplasticity indicates that infants’ brains are in fact so malleable that they actually develop differently as a result of gender stereotypes enforced by parents, teachers and peers.
By allowing young children to explore a wide range of paths, we could actually make their brains stronger and more flexible.
Eliot strongly believes that gender-neutral preschools can have a positive effect on brain development, arguing that “the longer during childhood that boys and girls are unconstrained by gender stereotypes, the longer they will exercise a wide range of neural circuits and build the foundations for diverse skills.” In other words, by allowing young children to explore a wide range of paths, rather than the well-worn trails of gender norms, we could actually make their brains stronger and more flexible.
At present, gender-based problems are generally recognized later in life — when young men behave with dangerous aggression or when women fall behind in math and science. Unfortunately, by the time such problems emerge, our brains and behaviour are largely fixed, making change very difficult. By reducing the gender expectations placed upon our youngest citizens, through preschools that de-emphasize gender, could we create a more equal society 20 years down the line?
While the idea is being road-tested in Sweden, it may be many years before any equivalent project arrives in the U.S. and other nations. In the meantime, what can parents do to help their children develop outside the boundaries of gender? Eliot suggests that you should “work deliberately to expose your son or daughter to the ’opposite’ forms of play — sports and building play for girls, verbal and relational play for boys.”
“Most importantly, try to think of your child as a little person, instead of a little boy or little girl,” she argues. ”These terms have so many built-in assumptions and implicit biases.”