I currently work part time at a daycare, taking care of kids at the end of the day. Earlier this week, I got my hair cut, shearing the shaggy, untamed curls for a sleeker, shorter look. When I showed up at the day care, a small girl who has grown quite attached me to me, looked up, noticed the haircut, and shouted, “Miss Dianna! You look like a boy!”
Last week, I was talking with another little girl at the daycare, and she mumbled something about being a “bad girl.” I thought maybe she had done something at the daycare, so I asked her, “Why do you think you’re a bad girl?” And she replied, “Because I like to play football. And girls don’t play football.”
These children are preschoolers. Some of them still cry for their mommies at the end of the day. And already, they’ve taken in and internalized stereotypes about their genders. And I, as one of their teachers, have to be very careful not to accidentally reinforce these visions of themselves in how I respond to their troubles and their hurt.
Yesterday, one of the little boys tripped over the edge of the playground and took a dive into the wood chips. I could see that he wasn’t in pain – he had just gotten his hands dirty – and as he lifted them up to me and started crying, I cut him off with, “Oh little man, you’re a tough guy! You can get up!” And then I caught myself, a little surprised I’d said that myself.
The thing is, our cultural conditioning surrounding gender is so ingrained, so built into us that it is a daily, continual task to fight that conditioning in ourselves. And with small children, we often impart that conditioning in any number of unconscious, unrealized ways. But a feminist, Christian praxis means we need to be aware of that conditioning in every little thing we do – how we react to and perceive varying responses and actions.
When a cisgender straight white man has an angry reaction, how does our cultural conditioning demand that we react? How do we rebel against that?
When a queer black woman disagrees with me as a white woman, how does my cultural conditioning demand that I react? How do I rebel against that?
When we see our three-year-old nieces and nephews, how does our cultural conditioning demand we react? How do we rebel against that?
I have to mentally, consciously force myself to compliment the girls in my daycare on how smart they are, how good they are at solving problems. I have to mentally, consciously force myself to respond to the little boys in my daycare without sending the message that “that’s how boys are.” I’ve got the “no hitting, no touching without consent, stop when they say stop” stuff down pat. I am the “you will respect it when they say no” police. But I’m still, unconsciously, slipping into gendered stereotypes, especially when the girls separate into playing house and the boys are wrestling on the lawn.
The good news is that these children are still children – they can still learn that it’s okay for little boys to play house and it’s okay for little girls to play sports. I can be a conscious force for good in that situation. And I can do the same for people my own age. Rebelling against my own cultural conditioning needs to be a conscious, important part of my praxis.