I read an interesting article out of Stockholm, Sweden, about a preschool which has one fundamental purpose: to break down gender roles and gender bias. Some might say it goes too far. Let me tell you about this school, and you can be the judge.
Egalia, a preschool/kindergarten located in the Sodermalm district of Stockholm, is a taxpayer-funded school which opened last year and is one of the most radical examples of the efforts Sweden is making to encourage equality between the sexes from childhood on up. This effort reflects Sweden’s concern that society gives boys an unfair advantage over girls, which is why the national curriculum for preschools includes breaking down gender roles as one of their core missions.
Jenny Johnsson, a teacher at Egalia explained, “Society expects girls to be girlie, nice and pretty and boys to be manly, rough and outgoing. Egalia gives them a fantastic opportunity to be whoever they want to be.”
How is this accomplished? The 33 children who attend, from ages 1 to 6, are called “friends” by the staff instead of “han” (him) or “hon” (her). When visitors come to the school, the staff refers to them as “hen.”
Every detail at the school, from the color and placement of the toys they play with to the kinds of books they can read, is carefully planned to avoid the students falling into gender stereotypes. The children play together in the kitchen center but can move right over to the Legos and building blocks which are right next to the kitchen so that children don’t draw mental barriers between the two activities: cooking and construction.
The director of the school, Lotta Rajalin explained, “What matters is that children understand that their biological differences don’t mean boys and girls have different interests and abilities. This is about democracy. About human equality.”
Egalia acknowledges the biological differences between the sexes by making sure that the dolls the children play with are anatomically correct.
This school is not only trying to tear down gender bias, it also creates an environment which is tolerant of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals. Almost all of the books which the children can read deal with homosexual couples, single parents, or adopted children. For example, one book is a story of two male giraffes who are sad because they have no children, but the story ends happily when they find an abandoned crocodile egg. Search the bookshelves all you want, you won’t find any of the classic fairy tales since they feel that they reinforce stereotypes.
And Rajalin explained that the staff works with the children to help them discover new ideas when they play. “A concrete example could be when they’re playing ‘house’ and the role of the mom already is taken and they start to squabble. Then we suggest two moms or three moms and so on.”
According to Rajalin, the school has a long waiting list and only one student has ever been pulled from the school. Jukka Korpi says he and his wife chose Egalia “to give our children all the possibilities based on who they are and not on their gender.”
But some parents worry that obliterating gender roles entirely might confuse children making them unprepared to face the real world outside of Egalia.
Tanja Bergkvist, a blogger and a leading voice against what she has dubbed “gender madness” in Sweden said, “Different gender roles aren’t problematic as long as they are equally valued. Those bent on shattering gender roles say there’s a hierarchy where everything that boys do is given higher value, but I wonder who decides that it has higher value. Why is there higher value in playing with cars?”
Others feel that the methods utilized by the staff at Egalia are a form of mind control. Director Rajalin even reported that some of the staff had received threats from racists who were angry that black dolls were being used in the preschool as well as white ones.
Sweden is known for their staunch support of women’s rights, allowing gay and lesbian couples to both legalize their union and adopt children, and their gender studies which permeate academic life. But this school is unique, even in Sweden, and one can’t help but wonder: have they gone too far?
Planting the seed at an early age that being male or female does not have to dominate their life choices, especially in terms of their interests and eventual career, is an awesome thing. Do I think you have to make kids a “hen” to accomplish that? No, I don’t. I think they are going from one extreme to another: gender bias to no gender at all.
In my experience, extremes can be hazardous. I believe that they can use their toys, stories, role playing, etc. to teach them that their maleness or femaleness does not have to define who or what they will be without stripping them of their maleness or femaleness, as if it is something bad.
Jay Belsky, a child psychologist at the University of California, voiced his concern over the fundamental principles of this school saying, “The kind of things that boys like to do — run around and turn sticks into swords — will soon be disapproved of. So gender neutrality at its worst is emasculating maleness.”
And while I don’t disagree with the concept of broadening a child’s view of the world to extend beyond the traditional family, with a father and mother both present in the household raising their children together, I am bothered again by the extreme to which that alternative is being emphasized. When I read that almost all of the books in the classroom are about homosexual couples, single parents, or adopted children, it has me questioning the school’s motivation. If you want children to feel comfortable in their own families, whatever those families look like, and with their future life choices you had better expose them to all of those choices as opposed to only the less traditional ones. Otherwise, aren’t you guilty of instilling a bias of your own?
It seems to me that Egalia, a title which connotes equality, is not as free of gender and sexual bias as it would like to think it is. I fear that they have traded one extreme for another, and neither extreme is an equal message for kids.
What do you think? Please take a minute and share your opinion.