A parent recently approached me and said, “So, a few of the other parents and I were talking and I was kind of delegated to come and ask you a question.” I knew almost immediately it was probably a question about my sexual orientation or gender. As a more masculine-presenting queer person, I often get questions like this. “Sure, what’s up?” I said. “I know I should have asked you way earlier, than this… but I didn’t know how… What pronouns do you use?” I smiled and told her that it wasn’t a big deal to ask and that I do prefer they/them pronouns, although this concept has been a difficult one for children to understand. I told her how children will often ask me “Are you a boy or a girl?” and I never quite know what to say. If an adult asked me, I’d say, “Well I’m genderqueer, so I’m a mix!” but that somehow I feel a little shy about talking to kids about the term. She suggested that I do a “unit” on gender where I introduce these terms and explore gender identity with the children.
There are a couple of reasons that I am hesitant to approach teaching about gender from this perspective. We don’t’ really do unit studies in our classroom- not in the way that many traditional preschool teachers do. While we do usually have a theme of some sort, it is completely based on what the children are interested in. “Themes” are often based on something that is happening in the natural world or something that the children are trying to figure out; things like bugs, digging, flowers, birds, new siblings, wrecking balls, tornados or other weather, etc. Gender is a little different than these things because discussions about gender are constant among 2-5 year olds. Gender isn’t something you can talk about for a week and be done with. Just like we adults are constantly sent cultural messages about how we should perform gender, children receive these messages in every single thing that they do. Most families in our school community spend a great deal of time and energy combatting gender stereotypes for their children by making sure that they are permitted to explore and perform their gender in whatever way feels good to them. Boys often come to school wearing dressed and tutus. Girls often come dressed as Spiderman. No one bats an eye at these things.
While children are permitted and encouraged to express their gender in whatever way feels good to them, discussions about how there are many different genders aren’t very common. In fact, it hadn’t even occurred to me to check in with children about what pronouns they prefer to use. I decided to start weaving these check-ins into our daily routines. When singing “Round and round and round she goes, where she stops nobody knows” I quickly say “Do you want me to say, she, him, they, or something else about you?” they answer enthusiastically and I amended the song to fit their answer. At story time, I was reading a book and I was unclear about the gender of the child in the book. There were no pronouns used, so when talking about the book after I finished reading it, I referred to the child using they/them pronouns. One child raised her hand and said “You keep saying “them” but there is only one kid in this story! I said “You’re right! Sometimes if I don’t know someone’s gender, I say “they or them” so that I don’t accidentally get it wrong. Some people, like me, actually prefer to be called they or them instead of he or she!” We continued or discussion of the book and moved on to other activities. That afternoon, as I was putting sunscreen on one child, I said: “Let me do your face, mister.” The child looked up at me and said: “Actually, I prefer to be called ma’am!” I corrected myself and moved on.
I realized that reserving conversations about the complexity of gender for adults is wrong. So often I want to make sure I know everything about a topic before I present it to children, and we adults are all still really confused about gender. Children are so much more adaptive than we are. They easily switch between a million roles in one day- they are Spiderman in the morning, Elsa at lunch, and a pony at afternoon recess. Children understand the fluidity of their own identities. When they accidentally call someone a “he” when that person prefers to be called “she” they adjust without any feelings of conflict or shame. It’s been a while since any children asked me if I am a boy or a girl, but I think that next time they do, I will answer honestly.