A friend of a friend recently contacted me to ask for my thoughts on helping children to embrace diversity among their peers. Because her starting-point had been gender expression, my responses to her - seen in edited form below - focused on that aspect of celebrating diversity.
I think all kids struggle to some extent, some more than others, with wanting to blend with their peers. It can be a normal and healthy thing, but parents often notice, it can also undermine self-expression. My 8 year-old son Griffin sometimes feels more bold and sometimes makes the "safe" choices. He and I talk about how it's ok to make either choice, so long as you are aware of what you're doing and why you're doing it. Even we adults choose times to let our freak flags fly and other times to be a little more understated.
When thinking about diversity and the gender conformity issue, I think perhaps the core concept is self-expression. Children should be free to make choices about their appearances and behaviors. Of course, personal expression that hurts another person (like hate speech or sexist imagery on a shirt) is something that parents absolutely should limit, while discussing why those particular forms of self-expression are harmful. But something like hair color, nail polish, the color of your shirt or lunchbox, whether you like to play with the girls or the boys, what kinds of activities you enjoy doing with your friends...all of those are healthy forms of self-expression for children and, in my opinion, schools have an obligation to provide a safe environment within which a child can continue to build and express his or her self-identity.
In recent years, there has been a lot of media attention on bullying in schools. Gender policing - when children pick on others' choices because they fall outside the stereotypical roles assigned to that child's biological sex - is a type of bullying. How can schools support creative, authentic self-expression and discourage bullying? Here are some the things that come to mind:
Education: eradicating the ignorance that feeds fear
Schools can provide education to both children and adults about gender expression. Many parents are concerned that crossing stereotypical gender lines reflects something negative about their child's emotional health, puts them in danger of future of gender identity/expressions that the parents find to be concerning or immoral, or puts them in danger of bullying from other children.
Regarding gender and orientation, it's important that parents understand that gender identity, gender expression, physical sex (chromosomal makeup, which organs you have), and sexual orientation are separate concepts. We tend to lump them all together and many families don't understand anything beyond gay/straight. Learning about these different aspects of who a person is can be very helpful in parenting a particular child. Understanding gender and sexuality can also help us to reduce fear by understanding that their choices reflect who they are rather than determining who they are, and by removing the fear that comes from ignorance of human diversity.
Children and adults can also both benefit from education about standing up for one's own choices. Knowing how to talk to others about your choices can reduce avoidance of self-expression out of fear of bullying. Furthermore, both adults and children can benefit from education regarding bullying prevention. Too much time is spent, in my opinion, dealing with the after-effects of bullying rather than modeling acceptance of others and teaching children how to communicate respectfully. (See Marshall Rosenberg's NonViolent Communication)
Modeling: be the change you wish to see
It's not enough for the adults to say "we accept diversity." Children must see that adult behavior corresponds to that claim.
Teachers can be aware of how their classroom choices reflect their own assumptions about gender and how those assumptions affect their students. This could include (but is not limited to) providing gender-neutral choices or choices that are open to all children regardless of gender (e.g., not assigning boys to bold colors and the girls to pastel colors), thinking about creative ways to divide into teams rather than boys vs. girls, and being conscious of the way men/boys and women/girls are shown in classroom materials.
Parents and teachers can both serve as models of acceptance of other people's self-expression by providing open options to all children, not making a big deal out of gender non-conforming behaviors, and showing a willingness to question assumptions about self-expression. Adults can also notice whether their own behaviors - especially their comments to children - serve to reinforce gender stereotypes.
Collaboration: adults as children's allies
Children sometimes need assistance in gently confronting gender-policing behavior. This could take the form of saying "is that true?" and "let's think about that" when children say that "this is for girls" or "that is for boys". Comments like these, or something like "Pink is Griffin's favorite color, what's your favorite color?" can start discussion about the assumptions children make and free all children to make their own choices while derailing gender-policing behaviors. Adults can also address other adults who are policing gender by offering their own family's experiences with self-expression. Sometimes knowing that an acquaintance's child also likes nail polish or playing with fairy dolls is reassuring, and sometimes hearing another adult say "you know, I struggled with that worry, too, and realized that there was no actual threat, and that I was squashing my kid's self-expression" can open up avenues to new ways of thinking about and viewing children.
Truly embracing diversity would have to address education for adults and children, adults modeling what they say, children being empowered to express themselves, thoughtful selection of classroom/school materials and methods, and all people having access to communication skills such as Rosenberg's nonviolent communication.
I'd like to live in a world in which I never overhear a father say "you can't have the Diego [toys], they're for boys" in a store, or a mother say "I hope you haven't had a pedicure, I'd have to worry about you" to her son. That's a world in which kids are a little more free to be themselves and celebrate who they are and what they like, where they don't learn from us how to shame and bully each other, and in which, because they can accept themselves, they can also accept each other.