by Ashley McLean
Connecting the two concepts of gender creativity and following the child should come easily to us as Montessorians. For me, it took my born-male-child asking to wear a skirt to jump start my journey of understanding the link.
The Gender Journey
My gender education started when Ben (name has been changed for privacy) was two years old and desperately wanted to wear a skirt. A friend gave us one, and it was so worn out by the time we had to say goodbye to it, all the sparkly purple polka dots had been washed away. We started calling Ben gender non-conforming and went on with our lives, occasionally receiving gifts of hand me down dresses and skirts that would become Ben’s trademark looks.
However, that first skirt made me realize that while I considered myself openminded and happy to let Ben wear what was comfortable, I was woefully undereducated in terms of gender. So, I aspired to be better. I read books, went to seminars, and talked to gender non-conforming adults. I learned, and I became an avid advocate for Ben and others like them.
Needless to say, I came to the conclusion that it makes sense for children to express themselves through their clothing just as much as through colored pencils. I wrote a post for my school’s blog about how following my child’s interest in certain clothing has led to them being comfortable in their own skin. So comfortable, in fact, that they came out nonchalantly as non-binary to our family at dinner one night when they were five years old (Follow the Child: Navigating Gender Expression Through Montessori Philosophy). This led me to a follow up post about pronouns since I was attempting to educate others to use the correct ones for Ben (What’s With the Pronouns?).
Let’s Get Some Definitions
Searching for definitions about gender on the internet can be daunting. Everyone has an opinion, and when you’re unfamiliar with the words it can be tough to distinguish between them. Here are a few words that I have come across in my years of reading and researching that I have summarized:
- gender – a social/cultural construct that includes norms related to being male, female, non-binary, and beyond
- gender identity – an internal sense of one’s gender, what a person calls themself (for example, I identify as a woman)
- gender expression – the way a person communicates their gender (for example, when Ben first wanted to wear a skirt, they identified as a boy who liked wearing skirts)
- gender roles – socially expected behaviors (common stereotypes would be men wear suits to go to work while women take care of the home)
Here’s the most important definition I want you to take away: gender creativity. I first heard this term when I read a book called The Gender Creative Child: Pathways for Nurturing and Supporting Children Who Live Outside Gender Boxes by Diane Ehrensaft. The term gender creativity, as defined on the back of the book, is used “to describe children whose unique gender expression or sense of identity is not defined by a checkbox on their birth certificate.” This creativity is how children use their imagination to make sense of and incorporate their own gender into the greater world around them.
After I read this book, it became clear to me that the phrase I was looking for to describe Ben was not gender non-conforming but gender creative. For they are one of the most creative people I know, from fashion to story writing to art projects to LEGO constructions and more.
Following the Child
When someone asks me what Montessori education is all about, the first thing I mention is following the child. This is Maria Montessori’s idea that children will show us their way of learning if we only observe them. Observation, other than preparing the environment, is the biggest part of my job as an educator. I have to see the children before I can teach the children. It’s not just about sitting and watching; you are seeing where they go, who they talk to, and how they talk to their peers. As Montessori herself writes in The Discovery of the Child, “Every child reveals himself, and it is remarkable how clearly individual differences stand out if we follow this procedure” (p.55). Though, admittedly, the translation lacks inclusive pronouns, this quotation brings us to the connection between following the child and gender creativity.
As I mentioned earlier, gender is a social creation. Babies are told right from the moment they are born (and even before in many cases—think about gender reveal parties) how they are supposed to be.
But what happens when we follow the children? What happens when boys want the “girl” things and girls want the “boy” things? You will most likely find that those children are happier because gender creativity is more than just clothing and toys. It is interests and lifestyles and books. It is any choice that you make that goes against the norm, though there are an increasing number of educators and parents working to change this and make it the norm to be yourself and not what society tells you to be.
Maria Montessori herself was a gender norm groundbreaker. She was born in 1870, a time in which most professions were not open to women. Her parents suggested she take up teaching because that was a woman’s career, and legend has it that she responded with “anything but a teacher!” Montessori was a woman of many interests, and against all odds she began attending medical school at the University of Rome. She persevered through prejudice and became one of the first female doctors in Italy.
When all was said and done, Montessori was a scientist. Through her observations of the children who would come to be the students in her first Children’s House, she saw what they needed. She was not thinking about their gender. She tried a few colors before deciding on pink for the Pink Tower because she noticed that pink was much more alluring to everyone. Montessori filled the room with colors because they made it beautiful and intriguing to all children.
We as teachers follow our students’ interests as well as their needs. Sometimes it is trucks, sometimes it is animals, and sometimes it is sparkly. But it isn’t just the boys who go to the Parts of a Truck work. Everyone loves to work with a basket of animals from whichever continent we happen to be studying. And to be honest, when I put sparkling gems in a pouring work, you better believe that children of all genders flock to it because it is shiny.
What YOU can do
So how can you teach children that it’s ok to choose what they want when they live in a world where everyone seems to see them through two lenses—boy or girl?
- Books. I love reading books to my students that tear down the social norms and expose them to new ideas. I have a veritable library of books that I bring in from home, and the school library caught up by ordering new books (list of books).
- Watch what you say. We tell girls they can be strong, independent women, they can like science, they can play sports, and they can be and do whatever they set their minds to. And that is all true and great! However, we sometimes do a disservice to boys by not telling them it’s ok to be sad and cry. It’s ok to want to dance. It’s ok to be sensitive and caring.
- Normalize sharing your pronouns and asking others theirs. You can start by adding them to your email signature. When you introduce yourself to new people, say something like, “My name is Ashley, and my pronouns are she/her/hers.” You can also re-introduce yourself to people you already know; this will help others feel safe doing so.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. And make the children feel comfortable asking them, too! When you read a book that is new to the group, such as It Feels Good To Be Yourself by Theresa Thorn, it’s imperative to ask questions. This particular book has captivating illustrations to support the important message that there are more than two genders. Some questions you might ask are ‘who feels like a girl?’ ‘Who feels like a boy?’ ‘Who isn’t sure?’ If they stop to think for a second, that is a good thing! It means their little wheels are turning, and isn’t that what we are supposed to do as educators, even to those as young as 3?
- Let the children lead you. Sometimes they will surprise you by proving that they do indeed listen to what you have to say. I have been teaching this subject in my classroom for a few years now, and last year I had a second year boy who LOVED to color with pink and purple. They were his often self-proclaimed favorite colors. A first year came over to him one day and said, “You can’t use those! Those are girl colors!” And, being sensitive to this kind of talk, I was about to go and intervene when a second year girl rushed over and said, quite loudly, “THERE ARE NO BOY AND GIRL COLORS! ONLY EVERYONE COLORS!”
If you are a teacher, take care in making sure that you know your school’s policy on the subject of gender and sexuality. If you read a story about gender (or any “taboo” subject) to your class, be prepared for possibly negative responses. We all hope for the positive, but you need to know how your school will support you should you receive unpleasant reactions. When Ben came out as non-binary and began using new pronouns, our school was very supportive. Early on they sent out an email to Ben’s primary classroom saying that there would be a child who identifies as non-binary in the classroom and to please honor their pronouns.
You should also think about whether there are any known transgender or non-binary children, or same sex families at your school. I say “known” because they are there whether you know about them or not. It’s important to read these books before someone confides in you that they are non-binary, transgender, or whatever it is. They will feel seen in a way that maybe they never have before. And what a gift to give them, right? That this can also be the norm? We’re reading about you! And in any case, it is also important to give children who identify as male or female a window into other gender identities.
Following your children—both as a parent and a teacher—helps them learn about themselves, which is as important as learning to add or read. Much of the work children need to do is figuring out the world and where they fit into it.
I know that it can be hard to change how we think about gender. It is even harder to imagine how to incorporate it into our classrooms in a world that seems unsure of how to handle children who are different. We all have biases within us, not because we are consciously sexist or genderist, but because it is how we were raised in a world with a very distinct binary system of male and female. The fact that we are aware of these biases and are actively trying to change them means we are making progress. And this progress includes using our philosophy as Montessorians to help the children of today become the inclusive, diverse adults of tomorrow.
About Ashley McLean
Ashley McLean is a Primary certified Montessori educator who taught for 12 years at Wellan Montessori School in Newton, MA before deciding to homeschool her two elementary-aged children. Ashley has presented on several topics at the annual Montessori Schools of Massachusetts conference and has written various posts for the Wellan Montessori School blog. Ashley loves hiking, reading, and writing, as well as spending most of her time exploring Acadia National Park in Maine with her family.