Last week, one of my preschoolers wanted to tell me a funny story. She dragged me over to the lunchbox cubbies, and grabbed a pink water bottle out of one of the other kid’s cubbies. She said, “Johnny brought a girl’s water bottle to school today. That’s so funny.” She smiled at me, impressed with her witty observation. Meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out how to tell her that she’s wrong.
Maybe other teachers might hear her comment and shrug it off as not-a-big-deal. But I am not that kind of teacher. I think it’s a big deal because the same logic that tells kids that “pink is a girl’s color” is also telling them girls can’t be good at math or science. And I don’t want any of my kids to think they can’t do something because they’re a girl, or because they’re a boy, or they don’t fit the gender binary. I want Johnny to proudly and confidently drink from a pink water bottle if he wants to, and I don’t want any of my kids to be confined to gender stereotypes.
I don’t want Susie to walk away, thinking Johnny’s pink water bottle is a laughing matter. But I can’t just say “Susie, pink is for everyone. The idea that pink is for girls is a gender stereotype. And I don’t want you to be trapped by stereotypes because I want you to grow up to be your own authentic self.” First of all, she’s four and she won’t understand what a gender stereotype is. And second, she perceives that the fact that pink is for girls is an indisputable truth. She’s observed our cultures and listened to adults in her life and now she believes that pink is for girls. I can’t argue against a whole lifetime of her experiences that imply pink is for girls. There’s no real reason behind it. And how do you argue against a fact that has no reason behind it? You don’t. You challenge it. So I asked her a question.
I asked her, “Why is it a girl’s water bottle?”
Susie stared at me, thrown off. Finally she responded, “Because it’s pink. And pink is a girl’s color.” She’s happy she got the question correct.
And I ask her another question: “Why is pink a girl’s color?”
Susie was silent. Most of the time, I ask the kids questions I already know the answer to, and there’s only one correct response. This time, I asked her a question with no correct answer.
Finally she said, “I don’t know.”
She looked to me for the answer, and I said, “Then why can’t Johnny have a pink bottle?” I don’t answer her question. I let her sit with the uncertainty. Maybe that uncertainty will make her hesitate the next time she assumes. Maybe the uncertainty will challenge future patterns she observes, leaving her instead wondering why.
I put the water bottle back in Johnny’s cubbie and smiled at Susie. She smiled back at me, uncomfortable with my unanswered question. Soon, she was distracted by a trampoline, the pink bottle quickly forgotten. Or maybe not. I don’t know if what I said made an impact on her. All I can do is try to make a teaching moment out of the experience.
But often times, a teaching moment for the kids is also a teaching moment for me. Because I also live in a culture that has implicitly shaped my views and I have “truths” that I’ve just accepted as fact. And all I can hope is someone will come and ask me why, because that’s where the conversation starts.