'Pink', 'dollhouses', 'tea-sets' - what did you think of when you read these words? 'Blue', 'cars', 'building blocks' - what about these? Because of years of societal conditioning, most of us would have automatically associated the former with girls, and the latter with boys. The classroom is often an unintentional breeding ground for biases like these. Delving into this issue, Vrinda Varnekar writes about the proactive efforts teachers and parents must take to create a safe, gender-neutral environment for children.
"Awake, arise, and educate, smash traditions – liberate." The late Savitribai Phule's fearless words are as relevant today as when they were first uttered. On the occasion of Teachers' Day, let this be our battle cry as we learn and unlearn the many rights and wrongs in society- beginning with gender sensitivity- or the lack thereof.
Think about it - how many times have we assumed that girls would choose art as an extracurricular, while boys would pick a sport? Or venturing deeper, how many times have we expected girls to stop participating in extracurriculars because it hampered their contribution towards household work, while we didn't expect anything from boys? At first blush, it's hard to hear. But it's also the truth.
Gender sensitization changes behaviors and instills empathy in our personal views about the world and other genders. It helps us think, understand, and question the realities and prejudices that we harbor.
While there are initiatives by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) to help teachers ensure that their classrooms are gender-sensitive, as a generation with the power to shape and mold the next one, it continues to be an aspect of education which we need to focus more on.
With this in mind, we reached out to teachers teaching different age groups to understand how parents and mentors can understand, include, and encourage the idea of gender sensitivity in and out of the classroom.
Samantha, a 20-something teacher, feels that gender sensitivity can be introduced to children in their initial schooling years. Teaching children as young as three and four years, she feels kids that age are more open to empathy and understanding because they are yet to be burdened with biases. "These are the formative years of their schooling, and life, to be honest. A lot of emphases are placed on personal, social, and emotional development at this age, and there is a lot of curiosity too. And this is a great opportunity to introduce gender sensitivity and help children be who they want to be and be okay with that," she says.
Her classrooms are usually full of play - where she sees biases generate. It's subtle, but it can stick. It generally is what they see or hear at home, and that influences their actions greatly. She says, "You see children gravitate towards toys they are 'supposed' to play with- girls will stick to dolls, while the boys will play with blocks. When they're play-acting games, you can see subtle gender biases sneaking in, too. It is crucial for adults to notice this and tackle it head-on. Encourage girls to play with blocks and make buildings. Encourage boys to explore toys and games that are otherwise 'girly'."
The trick here is to be a good role model- and this can be difficult because adults have to consciously unlearn a lot. "Kids are very impressionable, and they will imitate everything they see adults around them do. We try to emphasize breaking these biases that if you're a girl, you have to be more inclined towards cooking, or if you're a boy, you're going to be the 'head' of the household. But ultimately, no matter what you tell your children - if they don't see you walk the talk, they're not going to do it either." Samantha adds. "Teach them how cooking is a life skill, not a gender role. Help them understand why cleaning up after yourself is necessary and why you are not entitled to have someone do things for you. Make life tasks gender-neutral. Kids get that."
Samantha feels it is imperative to make a conscious effort to keep the sensitivity lens on while approaching every seemingly small situation. For example, one of her three-year-old students was facing a delicate dilemma. His height didn't allow him to use the bathroom conventionally. He started to avoid using it altogether, which was affecting his health. Samantha gently helped him realize it was okay even if he didn't do it the way other boys did it. There was some backlash from his family, but eventually, they came around. "Parents and teachers need to find a way to be on the same page. If the child learns one thing in school but then sees the opposite of that at home, they're not going to know which school of thought to follow. Voice your concerns and fears to the teacher. Let the teacher help you understand any doubts or conflicts you may have. Together you can find a way to solve such dilemmas in a way that doesn't establish any biases in the child's mind." she concludes.
As children get older, they are more exposed to the world and are at a point when they are eager to form their own opinions. Umme Mehr Hazarika, a Teach For India alumna, shares her thoughts on gender sensitization amongst older children. "I taught children from various backgrounds, from ages 11-13, which is a defining time in their lives," she says. As it takes children time to trust adults at that age, she spent a whole year fostering an environment where they felt safe exploring the different sides of gender sensitivity.
For her, this began with encouraging boys and girls to stop sitting on different sides of the classroom. "The pronounced distance between both genders does more harm than good in the long run because children grow up feeling awkward about even basic social interaction," she explains.
Her students were exposed to daily conversations about their feelings and concerns. Both girls and boys were encouraged to talk about their feelings and fears. This helped her create a more inclusive environment where students felt safe, just being themselves and where their emotions are acknowledged. "I spent a lot of time researching ways to make my classroom more gender-neutral. And a great way to encourage that was using gender-neutral language. For example, we often say 'guys' when we want to address a group. Instead, let's focus on using 'everybody or everyone' to address a mixed group. Let's concentrate on admitting our own biases and correcting them, so children automatically follow suit." she explains.
She used numerous other tangible strategies to encourage gender sensitivity amongst her students- like asking girls, too, along with boys to help with tasks that require physical strength. This helped establish in the children's minds that everyone is capable, regardless of gender.
What can parents, role models, and teachers do to encourage gender sensitivity amongst kids of that age, we ask her.
"At some point, the child is going to come and ask you why you haven't allowed her or him to do a certain thing- when their peer is allowed to do the same. Understand that your approach is going to make or break this conversation- the child needs to know that your biases aren't affecting their life choices. Try to be gender-neutral as the child is at a turning point in their life - use this opportunity to change the conversation. Show them how their gender has nothing to do with their dreams and their capabilities. Use examples, but not of celebrities. Instead, talk about people they know because that is how you establish relevance." she affirms.
For parents and teachers, every moment with your child is a potential teaching moment - for both you and your kid. We must prepare ourselves - and there are some great resources available online to understand gender sensitivity better. Let Savitribai Phule's words ring in our ears as we embark upon a new journey with our children - one that makes the world a better, more inclusive place.