During her years as a teacher and mother, Ms. Meyers discovered that not all praise was equal and some kinds were even deleterious to kids.
Sexist Practices in Education Start at Preschool
There's a lot for parents to contemplate when choosing a preschool for their child. Of course, they should seek one with a low student-to-teacher ratio so their youngster is kept safe and gets personal attention. They should search for one that's child-centered with an emphasis on play and exploration. They should avoid those that are teacher-centered with too many structured activities such as long circle times and tedious calendar activities.
If parents have a daughter, though, they also need to consider how boys and girls are treated differently in subtle and not so subtle ways. They need to think about how these practices promote sexism at a young age and put their youngsters at a distinct disadvantage in the future. This discriminatory treatment hurts both genders but especially girls as they are too often put in the role of observers rather than doers.
Some Preschools Promote Sexism Without Realizing It
As both an early childhood educator and the mother of two boys, I've seen firsthand how some preschools address the issue of sexism head-on, some are blind to it, and some actually promote it. My older son attended a nonprofit co-op that followed the practices of the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children). His highly-qualified teacher did an incredible job of making sure all the kids—boys and girls alike—were engaged in a wide-variety of activities with the same opportunities for play and exploration.
My younger son, though, attended a private preschool where boys and girls were treated quite differently. While the teachers there were kind and hardworking, they unwittingly engaged in sexist practices every single day that were clearly to the long-term detriment of girls. Therefore, if parents are picking a preschool for their daughters, they need to be aware of these 6 ways that sexism still permeates early childhood education.
1. The Teacher's Greeting Focuses on the Children's Appearance
Kids are comforted when they're greeted warmly upon their arrival at preschool. A friendly hello makes them feel special, calms their nerves, reassures them that they're safe, and gets them excited about being there. My older son's teacher would recognize each child individually, asking questions in her kind, calm voice: “What do you want to do today? With whom do you want to play? Will you do this inside or out?" The overall message was an empowering one: This is your time to explore and have fun. You're in charge, but I'm here if you need me.
The teachers at my younger son's school, though, had a radically different approach that thrilled many mothers but was quite sexist. When entering the classroom, they greeted the children with loud, over-the-top comments that focused on their appearance. These superficial accolades were typically targeted at the girls and centered on their clothes and hairstyles. They would proclaim enthusiastically: “You look so cute today with your hair in pigtails...I love your pink dress. You look just like a princess...I wish I had a pair of those adorable sandals!” There was no mistaking that girls were getting the message that looks matter most and preschool was more of a fashion show than anything else.
2. There's No Dress Code, Turning Girls Into Observers Instead of Doers
A dress code reflects a preschool's overall philosophy and values. At my older son's co-op, the kids were required to wear old play clothes that could get dirty and tennis shoes for running and climbing.The teacher was adamant about this policy and unapologetic when an outfit got dirty or stained with mud, paint, or clay. That's because she prized preschool as a place for children to be messy, creative, active, and adventurous. It was where they explored and expressed themselves with art materials and spent as much time as possible outdoors in nature.
At my younger son's preschool, though, there were no such guidelines for appropriate attire. With no policy in place, parents let their girls arrive in dresses, skirts, sandals, heels, boots, and and even Disney princess gowns.These fashions greatly limited their ability to participate in the day's activities, turning them into observers rather than doers.
The boys got the full benefit of being at preschool: working together in the sandbox to build moats and bridges, improving their fine motor skills by painting at the easels, developing their strength and coordination by tearing around the playground on tricycles, and so on. The girls in their fancy duds, however, stood on the sidelines. They looked gorgeous but weren't involved.
3. The Princess Culture Is Given Free Reign
The princess culture reigns at many preschools today with girls coming to class in tiaras, gowns, and heels. Some teachers don't bother to fight this craze even though they know it promotes sexism. Others see it as cute and innocuous, unaware of its long-range harmful effects.
If you're the parent of a daughter, I highly recommend the eye-opening book on today's princess culture entitled, Cinderella: Ate My Daughter. The author, Peggy Orenstein, goes into great depth and specificity about its dangers: how it makes girls grow up too fast, sexualizes them at a young age, and leads them to believe that beauty is the surest path to success.
At my younger son's preschool, the teachers let the princess culture reign supreme.They did craft projects that celebrated it: making royal wands, decorating crowns, and stocking the dress-up corner with princess gowns. They let commercial products infiltrate their classrooms—My Little Pony, Barbie, Polly Pocket, and Disney—that encouraged materialism, promoted sexism, and restricted the children's imaginations. Instead of creating unique scripts in their heads, kids simply duplicated those that they had seen on TV shows and movies.
4. Girls Aren't Encouraged to Play With Blocks
Today, STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) is a new focus at elementary, middle, and high schools. However, it has long been featured in early childhood education through play and exploration. One of the most effective ways to promote STEM is a staple at most preschools: good old-fashioned wooden blocks. Building with them teaches problem solving, balance, measurement, equivalencies, gravity, shapes, and sizes. It boosts communication skills, imagination, and team work.
Since there's an abundance of research that show the benefits of blocks, it's disheartening that so few girls play with them at preschool. When my younger son's classmates had free choice time (an hour when they picked what they wanted to do), the boys would rush over to the carpet and start building towers, freeways, and skyscrapers with blocks. The conversations and camaraderie were impressive as they worked together to create something amazing.
Sadly, it was a rarity when a female classmate would join them. Instead, most of the girls huddled around the teacher to do a craft project. These adult-led copy-my-sample creations did virtually nothing to stimulate their imaginations and independence. Their teacher, not appreciating the enormous value of block play, never encouraged them to engage in it.
5. Teachers Praise Excessively
Giving children too much praise may sound like a first-world problem to some, but it nonetheless contributes to a sexist atmosphere at preschool. Today, parents and teachers pile on the compliments, making kids overly dependent on external reinforcements. This is especially damaging to girls because they're more likely to seek approval from their mothers and teachers and, thus, turn into "praise junkies."
These approval-seeking kids become dependent on validation, craving it like addicts who want their next fix. They don't enjoy an activity for its own sake, whether it's painting at an easel, swinging on the bars, or riding a tricycle around the playground. Instead, they're the ones who are always screaming “look at me, look at me” to their parents and teachers. Tragically, they put an adult's endorsement above having fun and making friends.
My older son's teacher knew the importance of empowering her students and not evaluating them. Instead of throwing out compliments left and right ("your painting is gorgeous...your block castle is amazing...you're so awesome"), she was measured and specific. Looking at a child's drawing, she'd make observations rather than judgments: "You blended the green and blue to make the ocean." Other times she'd ask a question: "What were you feeling when you drew the house and family?" Her technique took more time and thought than an over-the-top compliment but was much more empowering.
6. Dramatic Play Areas Perpetuate Gender Stereotypes
Having dramatic play areas at preschool is a fantastic way to stimulate children's imaginations and promote social skills. It's unfortunate, though, that too many schools limit theirs to just a play kitchen with a sink, a refrigerator, dishes, fake food, and dolls. This pigeonholes kids in stereotypical male/female roles as husband and wife, mother and father. Too often it's only girls using the play kitchen while boys are building with blocks and digging in the sandbox.
Preschools that strive to end sexism have multiple dramatic play areas that inspire kids to try on different roles. My older son's teacher changed it up every month. First, it was the traditional kitchen but then it became a veterinarian clinic followed by an Italian restaurant, a grocery store, an art studio, a publishing company, a shoe store, and a science laboratory. She invited parents with those professions to spend time with the kids in the dramatic play area, introducing them to new roles, new vocabulary, and new skills.
What do you think?
Questions & Answers
Question: The teachers at my daughter's preschool seem to be in competition with one another over who can give the most compliments about clothes, shoes, and hair, what should I do?
Answer: A similar game of one-upmanship broke out among the teachers at my younger son's preschool. It started with one educator's over-the-top praise and quickly spread throughout the building. Unfortunately, it was well-received by parents and so it was allowed to continue. Before I knew it, moms were dressing their daughters in elaborate clothes, fixing their hair in fancy styles, and having them come to class in fashionable (but highly unsuitable) shoes. Our preschool turned into a fashion show!
Sadly, the director was too burned out with her job to put a stop to it. If a parent had expressed disappointment in this behavior, though, she certainly would have taken action. She just needed someone to speak up with their concerns.
While it would be easier for you to say nothing, I hope after reading my article you understand how detrimental this over-the-top praise can be. I hope that you now appreciate how it creates “praise junkies” and promotes a sexist atmosphere. With this in mind, I'd speak to the director and share your worries.
Hopefully, the director will address the matter at a staff meeting. Some of the teachers are probably clueless about the research that shows too much praise can be detrimental. They incorrectly believe that more is always better.
By speaking up, you can bring about positive change. With any luck, the director will give a presentation to the teachers about constructive praise: how it should focus on what a child is doing and not what they're wearing, how it should be specific, how it should be observational and not judgmental, and so on.
I admire you for perceiving this as a problem and wanting to do something about it. I hope a change is made!
© 2017 McKenna Meyers
McKenna Meyers (author) on July 10, 2017:
Thanks, Dora. Since my sons went to different preschools, I got to see how one discouraged gender inequality and the other actually promoted it. At my younger son's preschool, things were a lot more sexist there than when I went to preschool 4o years earlier! It upset me that we were moving backward instead of forward. It really takes a strong leader at a preschool to set guidelines and follow through with them -- rather it involves gender equality or something else.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 10, 2017:
Very insightful.I never gave much thought to gender equality in preschool, but your article is an eye opener. Thanks and I hope those to whom it matters, follows your sensible suggestions.