Taking a cue from the initiatives undertaken by a Swedish preschool, India’s education system must aim to ingrain gender neutrality in children from the outset
“We are not limiting, we are adding. We are not changing the kids, we are changing our own thoughts,” explains Lotta Rajalin, founder of Egalia (a preschool in Sweden), who is keen on letting the kids be. Egalia encourages kids to explore all aspects of their preferences, likes and emotions.
From wearing the outfit they like to choosing the colour they prefer, having their hair cut to whatever length they want to the pronoun they opt for themselves – kids studying in this preschool are given the freedom to deviate from gender norms and are not put into rigid binaries. Garbage trucks decorated with jewellery, a robot who wears a tutu and a skeleton who does the dishes – this is what kids like at Egalia.
Such liberty to make one’s own choices is a progressive step, which Sweden’s egalitarian society has taken earnestly. So much so that ‘hen’, a gender-neutral pronoun that first came into use in 1960s, was incorporated in the official Swedish dictionary some two years ago, apart from binary counterparts han (he) and hon (she).
This Swedish school and celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who address their female child as ‘he’ (on the kid’s preference), exemplify fluidity that makes way for a true expression of one’s identity.
India too, is trying to keep pace with this gender neutrality. Green-lighting gay rights after years of struggle, demonstrates the country’s growing understanding of gender. With diminishing gender norms, Indian preschools are also striving to make a kid’s first learning experience outside their homes a mindful one, devoid of gender stereotypes.
Menka Sharma, founder of Kangaroo Kids school in New Friends Colony (Delhi), elaborates how knowledge is imparted in her school and the special measures that are taken to introduce ideas without conforming to gender binaries, like the colour or profession defined for each sex.
“Tell me which profession has remained specific to girls or boys?” asks Sharma, adding, “Girls and boys are doing everything now, irrespective of their gender.” Sharma has introduced several classroom activities where kids participate in role play and learn about various professions, keeping themselves open to imbibe any skill set they like.
“Our school has kids from varied economic strata. We also have children with special needs. They all come from a different environment and as they enter the school, we provide a uniform space where they can express themselves. If a kid faces issues, we are supportive and speak to them in private so that they can open up about their issues,” says Sharma.
She believes that the family plays a crucial role in determining how the kid functions in the society. “Families with a stronger financial background tend to be more open towards their child’s preferences, whereas those on the fringes try to suppress their child’s liking as their vulnerability makes them adhere to the societal rules.”
She adds that there is a long way to go for India to implement the right to live in its true sense. While talking, she also reminds us of Bidhisha Mohanta from Kolkata, who considers herself a lesbian and recently participated in India’s Got Talent. “Her journey towards finally being accepted tells us so much about our society. Nobody supported her when she started out,” adds Sharma.
From the minuscule research done on the success of such schooling, a study done by Swedish researchers published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, says that the kids who attended gender-neutral preschool were more likely to play with unfamiliar children of the opposite gender. While these kids were less likely to be influenced by culturally enforced gender stereotypes, compared to children enrolled at other pre-schools, there is little that can be said about such upbringing. However, there is some evidence that shows that evading gender stereotypes makes the kids more open and empathetic towards others and their choices.
Ritu Vaishnav, who authored a book, Pink and Blue, to help parents navigate a conversation with their children about breaking gender binaries. “We are so used to a certain upbringing, it was only when my son started going to school and one day he was bullied for using objects pink in colour.
Pink and Blue is an illustrated ride with stories that act as conversation starters and make the kids aware of how they do not have to conform to any kind of rules.
“We can not change our environment but we can definitely teach our kids how to tackle existential questions for being a certain way,” adds Vaishnav. She encourages her child’s wish to play with a kitchen set for the simple reason that we all must learn how to cook. “I teach my son to deal with gender binaries with a lot of logic.”
She points out to a research that states many values get ingrained in children during the first 10 years of their life. Thus, it is essential to educate kids on such issues from the very beginning, instead of waiting for them to grow up.
Vaishnav also runs a book store called Kool Skool in Gurgaon and makes sure that all books are devoid of any gender stereotypes. Having done several workshops with kids at various schools in Delhi-NCR, Bangalore and Kolkata, she hopes to minimise such gender stereotypes taking over the lives of as many children as she can.
“From the birthday gift to their wrappings, be it colour or what to wear, everything is marketed and tagged in a way that creates a lot of confusion for the young ones. It made me think and the book is the result of me trying to talk about everything our children can do,” adds Vaishnav.
In posters, dump trucks haul around beaded jewellery, a bionic robot wears a tutu, and it’s not a female or male Barbie who does the dishes—that’s left to a skeleton.
A recent Hollywood release, A Kid Like Jake, depicts a couple’s journey of choosing the right school for their child and also coming to terms with his preferences. The child who is a male by birth, likes to play with dolls and wants to dress as Rapunzel for Halloween. Such movies are examples of an evolved society where a family tries to comfort their child without harming his/her natural behaviour. While the conversation in India is still about gender neutral toilets and hostels, we also need to lead parents and schools into creating gender neutral spaces for children.