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Preschool Perspective: Girls have long hair and boys have short hair, right?

Peace at Home September 21, 2019

Concerned mom submitted the following question to Peace At Home:

Feeling super disappointed as I write this… It’s the first week of Pre-K for my almost 5-year-old, and at drop off today, the teacher pulled Todd aside to let him know that our son was being mean to a little boy in his class yesterday. This particular boy has very long hair that he wears in a ponytail. Our son was telling him that he was a girl because he has long hair.

I am feeling so sad about this because we are trying hard to raise our boys to be accepting of others, even if they are different from them. I’m also feeling pretty angry that my kid was being mean. I feel that there is a difference between being curious about differences – which I would think would be a normal thing that is going on at this age – and making fun of those differences.

Cora Megan, MA, Peace At Home teacher offers a response:

Until about age of 6 or 7, children base gender perceptions entirely on broad assumptions of appearance. For example, anyone with short hair must be a boy and anyone with long hair must be a girl. Much of the conversation that happens around these topics in a Pre-K classroom revolve around simply trying to sort this stuff out, while learning how their words influence others.

I would not make a big deal out of this at home. I would focus on the facts: “Your teacher mentioned that you told your classmate with a ponytail that he was a girl. Tell me more about that.” Your child might respond something really innocent like “Yeah, because he has long hair and girls have long hair.” This opens up the opportunity for you to have a conversation about that. “Sometimes girls have short hair and boys have long hair. Sometimes boys wear pink and girls wear blue. It’s OK to be different. Next time you could ask, “are you a boy or a girl?”

You could also pose to your child, “When you said he was a girl, how do you think that made him feel?” This is an opportunity to encourage empathy and explore the cause and effect of your child’s words.

We (parents and teachers) have a tendency to project our own adult emotions and perceptions onto very simple child interactions, when the best response is usually to stay unemotional and matter-of-fact. Be careful not to jump to conclusion that your child was being mean, and assume that he was being a typical 4 year old, trying to figure out how this very interesting world works!

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