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Gender Blender


Judith Costello contends that blurred gender lines create classroom management problems. And she asks whether denying the physical and emotional differences between boys and girls is "the right direction for our society."

What do you think? Do blurred gender lines among your students disturb your classroom equilibrium? Should gender differences among students be encouraged or discouraged?


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Girls and boys both need to learn to be protective of themselves and others, not abusive. This is not a matter of "chivalry" and it is not a role exclusive to males.

When I hear about teachers inculcating "beauty" as a goal for young girls (in the context of behavior!) I feel very discouraged. I am teaching teenagers; by the time they are fifteen, girls are staggering under the burden of beauty expectations. They know these expectations come from family and school, not just media.

Gender is a set of cultural norms that overlays basic physical sex differences. Students - and every person - should have the freedom to conform to those norms OR NOT, to the extent that they feel comfortable. If a boy wants to play with dolls, wear pink and be a nurse when he grows up, whose right is it to say he should not?

I am dismayed to read of children being taught to emulate the social structures of our medieval forebears. We have sufficiently fantasized the medieval period to create a certain nostalgia of a time when things were simpler, more clear cut, and roles were defined. Let us not forget that class and religion lines were also more clear cut-- would any of us recommend that we also teach the Christians in our schools to persecute Jews? That certain students have more privileges than others because of their birthright? Why, then, would we even imagine encouraging girls to rely on beauty and boys on brawn? While simpler, these roles are ultimately constrictive and do not allow for the girl who just doesn't care about beauty but wants to fight, and the boy who would rather not.

Let's face it; things were never really all that perfect. Sure, society is complicated, but I'd rather any day that a classmate punch my little girl than put her on a pedestal and admire her for her looks alone. She can hold her own in a fight, but social stereotyping would render her powerless for life.

Instead of addressing the real problem, the writer is stepping backward into an imaginary comfort zone. It is no more appropriate for a boy to mistreat another boy than to mistreat a girl. Respect for ALL people, regardless of gender, should be a given in our schools and in our society. Gender-based activities such as "knights and ladies" limit the creativity and development of both girls and boys. It's one thing to acknowledge the variety of interests and learning styles among students; it's quite another to cram students into boxes based on stereotypes. Let's hope this approach is an aberration, not a trend.

It is sad that there is such acceptance of violence in our society and especially our schools. I agree that all children, and adults, need outlets for energy and stress, but new research is showing that indulging aggression in any form merely increases the impulse. People from Eastern cultures have long understood that we learn to control our aggressive and angry impulses through calming activities like meditation, massage, breathing, etc. These do not take the place of other kinds of physical activity, but rather, are practices taught as coping mechanisms. Whenever we teach our children to "take out" or "express" their feelings on something, even a pillow, we are actually increasing aggression and raising blood pressure and stress levels. By teaching our children, and ourselves, to stop and practice some form of de-escalating and calming activity, we provide them with tools that help them to live up to our society's stated, if not modeled, expectation of respect and "getting along."

Some schools have had great success with having a 10 minute breathing/ meditative time for all students each morning. It has decreased violence and increased attention and concentration. We truly do a disservice to our children and our future when we fall back on the values of a violent and discriminatory period instead of learning new ways to relate as equals.

My jaw dropped open, literally, as I read this opinion piece. How many decades are we going to step back by teaching our young girls to strive for "beauty" and our young boys to "battle"? I am already confronting gender issues with my son, and he is only 5 years old. The last thing I'm going to do is tell him that as a boy, it's his duty to fight or battle, nor will I teach him that girls are only valuable for their ability to make a headdress and look pretty.

I must also comment on the alarm I felt when the author chose to discuss a student's behavior in front of other students. Holy cow. The other students had no right to be privy to that conversation: imagine how that boy felt when all of his classmates heard what he had done! The author soon realized she did not have the full story -- her duaghter had been engaging in physical play with that boy and got hurt as a result, right or wrong. Of course no one should fear being hurt while at school (or anywhere else for that matter). But I fear more damage was done to that boy when the parent chose to air the dirty laundry to the entire classroom. That poor kid: if that's the low level of respect for others that is displayed at that school, no wonder he's been having troubles.

Judith Costello's "solution" is just plain full of malarky! We want children to respect each other and learn to solve differences with words, but teaching girls to be "nurturers" and boys to be the protectors is sending us back to another century in a bad way. Girls and boys can be either role quite successfully. And "beauty" as a goal of girls is just plain sickening. What a fake lifestyle she is promoting. I can't believe that teacher went along with that!!

Would it be more appropriate to rephrase, "Should gender differences among students be encouraged or discouraged" to read, "Should gender differences among students be recognized or ignored." Insinuating encouraging or discouraging spins the copasetic. The aesthetic logic in the first phrasing presumes an outcome preferential. The second phrasing more accurately, but more callously, directs the question. Who are we accommodating; the student, society, or ourselves?

All students, regardless of gender, need to be recognized and encouraged in who they are. Gender identity has been shown to not be perfectly biologically detailed. Teachers must be willing to address students in accord with the student’s individual nuance. This does not mean that teachers need to accommodate or take on beliefs that are outside of their schematic preference, it only means that teachers are in a position that necessitates comprehension inherent power and nature of diversity. The trick is to leverage the diversity (natural power) into a common expression of humanity, nationality, and spirituality. Of course we agree in terms of humanity, but recoil from nationality and spirituality.

The reasoning behind recoiling from nationality and spirituality is the same reasoning that cloaked the first phrasing of the question in soft opaque colorings. We are not clear on our own identity - male or female - democratic or socialist - Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hebraic, Pantheist, ad infinitum; but curiously we do not dispute our humanity - and yet humanity is what is direly in need of definition - - - so the beginning point is to define ourselves, identify our identity and when we do these things we will be more comfortable appreciating other people for who they are and the question we originally presupposed will self-truncate the gender ambivalence we hold against ourselves and others. We will intuitively comprehend that our goal is to be in alignment with who we are and respect others for who they are and that in and out of the classroom our common reward is to recognize and encourage.

I am amazed that many who are responding to this article seem to miss the bigger point. The point is not that the medieval times were so wonderful or that girls should pursue outward beauty. As I read the author, she seems to be stating that we need to recognize and value the innate differences between genders; that there are ways to express this value that generally speak more loudly to one gender than to another. We need to find those "voices" and use them. If you have been in a classroom more than a week or have been around kids at all, you know that there are innate differences between the genders that are more than "plumbing" differences. Take a moment to watch kids across different cultures from around the world. As a general rule, boys will pretend to be soldiers, knights, superheroes, warriors, etc. while girls are drawn to relational play such as dolls, jewelry, princesses, etc. Look beyond our U.S. culture and notions of children being born as "tabula rosa". Why is it that most fairy tales, fables, etc. that we identify with portray life like this? For this very reason: this is what we do indeed identify with. They are descriptive, not prescriptive. I am not disagreeing with all the statements about mutual respect and boundaries and other related concepts. Might I suggest a couple of books that will cause us to think further about this subject and possibly shed light on what the author was touching on (whether she was correct or not)? They are: "Wild At Heart" and "Captivating" both by John Eldridge & "Love and Respect" by Emmerson Eggerich.

I'm horrified to think that we are going back to promoting traditional stereotypes in our classrooms. What happened to appreciating diversity and inclusive classrooms where children, no matter their racial or economic background, their religion, beliefs, culture or gender identification, are made to feel they are welcomed and appreciated? What if girls don't identify with the traditional role of women? What if boys don't identify with the traditional role of men? I don't see how going back to the age of medieval chivalry is going to help the issue of children coming home with welts on their arms. Is the issue that a boy hurt a girl; or is the issue that one child hit another child, and the child doing the hitting needs to learn that it isn't ok, no matter the gender. Is it ok for boys to hit boys? It is historically true that male personalities are more physical and female personalities are more sensitive and emotional. That doesn't mean that we need to teach children these stereotypes. What we do need to teach children is how to respect all beings and why to do so. Perhaps the child who was doing the hitting in this situation needs a team to sit down and figure out what will help him stop doing these things. There is an amazing program of training and books available, called Positive Discipline. It is a collection of techniques to use to teach children social skills and higher order thinking skills at the same time. Children learn to be "helpful not hurtful", respect and understand differences, and to work together to come up with solutions for problems that meet everyone's needs. Check it out.

Might I suggest, rather, the book *Reviving Ophelia*?

I have a few comments...In my article I mentioned the word "beauty" but not in reference to physical beauty. Certainly, the focus on appearance is manipulated by the media which portrays anorexic girls in skimpy clothing. That’s another issue. But there are qualities of beauty worth nurturing don’t you think? How about aesthetics, nature and creativity?

If you go to any playground, you will see boys acting in very physical ways while the girls are more included to be social. Yet, many of you are saying that what comes natural to us, as human beings, should be drummed out of us. What I’m saying is that that notion may have scary consequences.

In our program, the Ladies really enjoyed the opportunity to be healers, gardeners and caretakers of the castle and the animals. They didn't feel they were missing out on anything even though they didn't do the same thing the boys did.

Many of those girls have never had the opportunity to see these service roles as valuable and important. In fact, I heard a young boy recently ask if using the words “community servant” wasn’t being derogatory. He thought the word “servant” (which means to offer service) was a bad word.

In response to the mom with the son who is already being physical, I felt the same way when my son was five. I wanted him to stop jumping and tussling and picking up sticks to use them like weapons. It seemed too aggressive. But I learned, with support from my husband, that boys need opportunities to channel all of those natural inclinations. It was good for our boy to think of himself as a leader and a defender—a hero. He didn’t need to get rid of those urges; he just needed to know how to focus them and use them for the betterment of society.

If one looks at it scientifically, there are neurological differences. The corpus collosum in boys has less connecting fibers. There are obvious physical differences in terms of strength and bone structure and of course genitalia. AND every cell in our bodies is different in that the XX or XY component is there. Why shouldn't there be differences? I don't mean treat one badly and one as superior. Just different. My strengths are different than a man's due to my brain makeup. Doesn't make me better or worse. Just different. Our whole society could take a lesson in chivalry. Even women can hold a door open for someone in need! I teach all the kids to look behind them when entering to be sure that they don't close the door on someone's face. We all need to be more polite, kind and chivalrous. Being a gentleman creates more self respect for themselves and for females. I have seen horrible behavior that is just accepted because she is "his girlfriend". There is far too little self respect.

The idea that "ladies" are "nurturers and caretakers of all that is good, true and right" was often used in past societies to keep women from being educated and therefore corrupted. Women were too "virtuous" to do things like vote. Idealizing a past that was based on oppression is dangerous. Gender limitations affect men as much as women - why are there so few male elementary or preschool teachers? My son loves to "play" at fighting and aggression but I am teaching him that hurting people is never okay. There have got to be more positive, non-gendered ways of teaching respect.

Thank you for publishing this article and to the author for not only identifying a challenge, but offering a solution. We can use these ideas as a launching pad to promote characteristics that will benefit all of our culture. Surely we do need to see better manners, respect for each other and an understanding of how to interact in ways that build on each other's strengths.

Too many entries in this blog seem to assume that I think a woman’s place is simply “hanging lace curtains.” I don’t. But a better answer to assuring gender equality, has to begin with understanding differences. We need to make our daughters stronger (in self-awareness and personal identity) rather than seeking to feminize our sons. To that end some might be interested in Dr. Meg Meeker’s book Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters which outlines the role fathers can play in raising daughters that are ready to take on any challenge the world offers or that they may seek to engage.

“More than a code of manners in war and love, chivalry was a moral system, governing the whole of noble life.” (Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror). While many of you have pointed out the negatives that existed in medieval times, let us not forget that which was positive. As humans we seem to have trouble discerning what was desirable from that which was not. It's OK to look to the past for an image of good things, if that might help us in the present.

"But there are qualities of beauty worth nurturing don’t you think? How about aesthetics, nature and creativity?"
Judith- I totally agree. But, isn't important that we nurture these qualities of beauty in both boys and girls. I believe children should be able to pursue both physical actions and hero-play as well as the opportunity to be healers, gardeners and caretakers, regardless of gender.

Although there are parts of the largely teacher (rather than student) directed medieval play I disagree with, would giving the option of which role to play to the children be harmful? Or giving the flexibility of moving between or combining the roles? What was the goal in assigning boys only to one and girls to another? In the "real world" males and females play both roles.

You also say that "they didn't feel they were missing out on anything even though they didn't do the same thing the boys did." True they may have had a good time, but a student who already feels uncomfortable with "traditional" gender roles is not going to speak out for fear they may be ridiculed or seen as abnormal.

Kudos to Michelle Crawford, you said it best: "It is no more appropriate for a boy to mistreat another boy than to mistreat a girl. Respect for ALL people, regardless of gender, should be a given in our schools and in our society."

I'm sorry, Judith, but I don't believe this model is accepting to all, nor supportive to actually building "stronger" girls. What's wrong with telling girls they can accomplish anything their male counterparts do? You believe they can, right?

To readers, check out the current issue of Teaching Tolerance, which gives a healthy look at gender issues in the classroom in an article called, "Gender Doesn't Limit You." If you've read it, I bet you can imagine how those kids would react to being put in this situation. I think they'd provide a real learning experience for the author.

So it would have been OK if this had been a boy injuring another boy? And what about the BOY that would rather make headdresses than slay dragons? And what about the girls who grow up to be women who are trained to feel that they must give men permission to defend them, to go to war for them, rather than be the woman president who can nurture a whole country? I'm sorry, but I think this article is way off mark, and as a woman, I find it personally offensive. As the best friend of a gay man, I find it offensive to anyone who does not fit into the traditional gender category.

Thank you, Holly and juju. As a boy who was often not interested in the "boy things", I might have been rather put out by such a program. I remember being told in health class in high school that boys cut their fingernails one way and girl cut theirs another. As far as I know, I was the only one who questioned it.

The real issue is not the sexes of the children. It's respect and recognizing differences, which may or may not have anything to do with their sexes. A solidly built girl may be able to roughhouse with boys with no problems, while a slightly built boy would indeed have problems -- and probably be told to suck it up or some such nonsense.

I was initially intrigued by the program, but the idea of forcing these black-and-white gender roles -- you have one or the other, and no choice about where you fit in -- made me shudder. Most of them may have enjoyed it, but you don't know how deep you may be cutting.

Isn’t it amazing how far we have gone to twist what is normal, what is traditional and what is natural, and turn it into something perverse? The majority of comments here are in a rush to condemn the whole idea of Knights and Ladies. It is an experiment in giving children the opportunity to explore a historical time period and learn the values of courage, nobility, healing and respect. Yet from the responses you would think I had proposed torture!

Our society tends to go from one extreme to the next and the current extreme is to say that anything traditional is “bad.” Textbooks no longer show women as mothers, teachers or nurses. Ever. Home life is never portrayed as a place for mom, dad and the kids. Children don’t see motherhood portrayed as something valued by society. Boys are encouraged to give up all “toughness.” They are told that there is something wrong with being physical, even if it’s trying to defend someone in need.

So what happens when we need a strong soldier, a policeman able to stare down a gang, or someone with courage enough to stop a bully, a robber, etc.? Certainly there are some women who aspire to those roles. And they have the opportunity to do that. But most of us can't do it all—-become physically strong enough to ward off someone larger; while also being a mother; having a profession; being involved in the community, involved in blogging, etc. etc.!

When girls feel they have to do it all, they often fail or feel inadequate. And when boys never have opportunities to develop strength of character, they are lost. There is a need for some tradition. And there’s a need for “tolerance” of those who want to be ladies and gentleman.

"It was good for our boy to think of himself as a leader and a defender—a hero." (10/25 reply from Judith Costello)

Why shouldn't girls get to be heroes and protectors, too? The last thing I want for my two daughters is for them to think they are helpless unless there's a man around.

I can not believe this article was offered in the first place. How demeaning! The author tries to back-step in her follow-up comments, but if we follow the article, the author and school’s response to the fighting between boys and girls was to teach them to be knights and maidens....And about the author’s own son: "He didn’t need to get rid of those urges;..." Her son didn't need to rid himself of those fighting urges, but daughters do?

It's not just that boys and girls are different, but we're all different from each other (and the neurological studies support this). We must all show respect for each other; all help each other when the other is in need. A woman who is tied to a jerk just never learned to stand up for herself (it's not that she just never knew a knight). And I don’t mean physically. I see too many students in junior high and high school who get tied to the wrong person or group simply because they never learned to respect themselves as well as each other. THIS is what we should be offering our students. Certainly, teach about the middle ages, but if you’re teaching about dragons, and knight-of-the-round-table, let’s makes sure the children know this is and was fiction. If we’re teaching about respect, teach about respect for all, not just boys for girls.

I support Judith Costello in her effort to help children retain their gender identities. People who criticize her should inquire into the origin of the unigender movement, aka feminism. They may not like what they discover. They can begin here

Society can paper over gender differences but the result is only confusion and chaos. Our identity is based on our gender and an attack on gender is an attack on identity.

Dr Makow,

I think it's great that you support Ms Costello -- but the effort appears less about helping children retain their (I will add, personal) gender identities than reinforcing gender stereotypes. Stereotypes often do come from somewhere, they aren't created in a vacuum; however, real damage is done to at least some children when people insist those stereotypes be followed.

I see no attacks on gender, only on what is assumed to be required of us, based on our gender. "Our identity is based on our gender" -- yes, partly so. And some aspects of our identities are based on how we do not conform to gender stereotypes. I enjoyed cooking as a child but, because I was a boy, I was pushed, and not very subtly, to abandon this thing that I enjoyed. That was an attack on *my* identity, based entirely about erroneous assumptions of what gender must entail.

REAL differences based on sex (not gender) are one thing. Gender is a social construct, and the sex of a child does not necessarily dictate to what extent and in what ways the child relates to assumed gender characteristics. I have to wonder, did any girl suggest she wanted to be a knight? What if a boy simply did not relate to being a knight? If you can do so with an open mind, I suggest you watch the movie, "Ma Vie en Rose" -- My Life in Pink. (The 1997 movie, not the more recent biopic about Edith Piaf, "La Vie en Rose".)

I think the author is missing everyone else's point. The fact is, very little of what we know and learn about gender is natural. Sure, there are biological differences. But the fact is, women are not "naturally" nurturers, healers and caretakers. Nor are men "naturally" braver, stronger (in character, not physically) or defenders. So the problem lies in that you are reinforcing norms and ideals that are not at all natural, but like many have said, are rooted in oppression and narrow-mindedness. The fact that most girls like to play with dolls, and boys with swords is not a reflection of their natural inclinations, but rather a reflection of societal values and learned SOCIAL behavior. No one is waging war against nature, but against suffocating social stereotypes.

How can it be that very little of what we "know" about gender is made up? How many young children have you watched on playgrounds lately? Are you assuming that a parent or the media is pushing those little boys to wrestle, while someone is pushing the little girls to sit talking? As one of the mothers said in an earlier comment, it is IN SPITE of all her efforts to make sure her son is passive, that he continues to make weapons out of sticks. Why do we feel the need to drum out of them what is natural? Is the assumption that we will never need soldiers?
The media no longer protrays men as strong and women as nurturers so the so-called stereotypes aren't being reinforced.
When my son was little I felt the same way you do. I wasn't trying to make him be a strong Knight. At that time, I was actively taking away all sticks, telling him that his efforts to practice toughness were wrong. Yet he persisted. Naturally.

If 90% of sons want to make weapons out of sticks and 90% girls want to sit and talk, more power to them. My problem is with assuming that these things are true for 100% of children. By doing this, you automatically disregard the children who want to be different or, worse yet, force them to be something they don't want to be. That's what bothers me about your all or nothing way of thinking.

I have two observations:
1) Our culture is producing more and more men every year who are either passive or overly aggressive.
2) Our public education system does not train boys to channel their agressive energy in positive ways- instead, mostly female principles and female teachers are apalled at the immature masculinity of boys and continually correct it in exasperation... This results in passive boys succeeding in the system and aggressive boys giving up on the system.

Aggressive behavior is not always wrong. The difference between a boy and a man is learning to control yourself and use your aggression productively.

Children should be who they regardless of what social structure a teacher deems to be appropriate. How children going to be able to think, create, invent if they are preoccupied by conforming to social norms dictated by their school.

Go to www.bkfk.com and read about children who are themselves and are making a difference on this world and in their communities.

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