Gender, it’s more complicated than we think

It’s Real World Wednesday again, and this week we get to learn from and with the awesome Meg Thomas!Slide1

Meg has an undergraduate degree in early childhood education and a masters in Human Development from Pacific Oaks College. She is a research geek who loves unearthing the stories that research has to tell us about our work with young children.  Based on this research and more than 30 years in the field, she feels passionately about providing the support that children need to learn how to live, learn and work in a diverse world where they are exposed to bias and stereotypes every day.  She has worked to teach adults how to do this in a variety of settings.  She is  the early childhood program manager for AMAZE and the lead author for the “Everyone Matters” and “We All Matter”  early childhood anti bias programs and the AMAZE persona doll guide.

This week, we asked Meg, “What do we know about gender in the lives of young children?

Here’s her insightful response:

Gender in early childhood.  It’s complicated.  Too complicated for a short blog post in fact.  But here’s a few things you should know.

Gender happens in lots of parts of us, in our genes, our hormones, our brains, who we know ourselves to be and how we want others to see us.  Even though many of us were taught that gender is a simple matter of boys and girls, human experience and increasingly, medical science, shows us much bigger and more complex picture.

Much like many of you, I was taught in biology that humans have either XX genes (female) or XY genes (male).  No-one ever mentioned any of the other possible gene combinations for gender like XXX or XXY, nor did they tell me that hormones have an enormous influence on how those genes express themselves.  In fact, hormones, rather than genes, determine so much of our gender that the International Olympic committee has found they can’t use genes to determine who gets to compete as a man or woman in Olympic events.  And when it comes to genes, xx and xy don’t tell the whole story.  New research shows that there are at least 50 different genetic strands that shape gender in mouse brains, probably more in human brains.

Science has shown us that gender impacts our brains, and as early childhood educators, we know this to be absolutely true.  Observations and research show us that boys tend to devote more brain power to spatial processing and girls tend to devote more brain power to verbal and emotional process.  The key here is the word tends. Recent research using brain scanning techniques found that while there are many traits which are more common in men or women, very few of us have brains with all female or all male traits.  More than 90% of us have some of both. On top of that, physical sex characteristics develop in baby’s bodies very early on – 6-12 weeks prenatally, while gender in the brain develops relatively late -somewhere between 20 and 40 weeks.  In that development, with gender and physical sex characteristics are impacted by hormones in the mother’s body and the prenatal environment, which means that the gender in our bodies may or may not match the gendered part of our brains. And that’s just the brain and biology part of all this. When you add in the way hormones impact our brains and bodies, cultural and social ideas about what gender is supposed to look like and all the other parts of how gender plays out in human societies –it’s no wonder that children spend a lot of time “playing” with gender to try and figure it all out.

Given the importance of gender in a person’s identity, we need to make sure that our early childhood classrooms are welcoming places for gender diversity.  We need learning environments that work well for all the ways of learning and being across a gender spectrum, and we need teaching practices that don’t label students according to what a boy or a girl should or shouldn’t do.   As educators, we have the freedom and the responsibility to interrupt assumptions about who a child is and who they are going to grow up to be based on gender, and we can let all children know that the gendered expectations they are picking up from the world around them do not control their future.  More than anything, we need to make sure – every day- that no child is ever bullied or left for the way they express their gender.

What I’ve shared here is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we’ve been learning about gender.  If you’d like to know more – come to “Gender- it’s more complicated than we think” which we’ll be presenting at the National Head Start conference, California AEYC, Minnesota AEYC, and hopefully at NAEYC PDI this year.

If you are wishing for concrete tools for discussing the complexities of gender with young children – AMAZE has spent the last year working with a broad coalition of people who understand gender to develop tools for doing this – feel free to e-mail me at megthomas@amazeworks.org if you’d like to know more.

Fantastic!  Thank you so much, Meg!

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