An initiative of the National Women’s Council of Ireland


“Can we play boys against girls?”

October 17, 2014 at 10:30

I may not be the most maternal of individuals, but I’m a firm believer in letting kids be kids.  There’s a lot more to that somewhat tired expression than you might first think.  It’s not exactly insightful of me to say it, but between the increased sexualisation of children from a young age and the gender roles they’re pushed in to from the moment they’re born (“It’s a boy!  It’s a girl!”), there seems to be less and less time and space for them to be children.
I’m in Barcelona this year to take time out and get some sun on my pasty face.  In between times, I’m teaching English to adults, teens and…children. 

“Can we play boys against girls?”

The question that I sensed would be asked at one point or another finally happened last Wednesday.  My internal reaction was something close to and possibly more colourful than NOT BLOODY LIKELY.  However, such language is not appropriate with nine year olds.  It is also somewhat lacking in explanatory value.  In light of these considerations, I tried this instead:



“Never.  I don’t like to put boys against girls.  Boys and girls aren’t really that different.  I like boys and girls to work together and be friends instead.”

Bear in mind that they are nine and that English is not their first language.  This was the best I could do at short notice.   They don’t do “rejection of prescribed gender roles”, “heteronormativity” and “Take that, patriarchy!” until next term.

Even before I knew I’d be teaching children this year, I knew I wanted to do as much as I could to make my teaching gender-sensitive, as well as sexuality/race/ethnicity/ability/age/physical appearance/mental health/socioeconomic status/ I-am-probably-leaving-something-out-here-but-hopefully-not-in-my-lessons-sensitive.  This means no lessons on what ‘men’ and ‘women’ ‘are’ (I’m going to run out of scare quotes in a minute), no saying, “OK now, boys and girls!”, and challenging stereotypes where I can in small but hopefully still somewhat significant ways.  Which brings me to clip art, Shutterstock and Google Images.  Oh, boy – I mean oh, person.

Indulge me: open a new tab and go to Google Images.  Search ‘manager.’  Look at the first picture.  What gender is that person?  What ethnicity?  What age?  Now do the same with ‘nurse.’  Search ‘couple.’  How many same-sex couples can you find?  How about mixed-race couples?  Yeeeah.  Not so representative of diversity, is it?

Ironically, in a bid to not be racist or sexist or otherwise perpetuate tired tropes and stereotypes, I have to be creepily specific in my searches: ‘African-American female dentist’, ‘Paralympian volleyball team’, ‘Asian children listening to music’…Being non-racist, non-sexist and non-ableist looks worryingly racist, sexist and ableist to me.

At any rate, when teaching jobs and hobbies with the aid of these carefully-selected pictures the students’ reactions are telling.  Any woman in scrubs or medical garb of any kind is automatically a ‘nurse.’  One of the boys is a big basketball fan and as he craned his neck to see what team was playing in the photo, he exclaimed, “Oh it’s girls!”  Not because there’s anything wrong with girls playing basketball – he certainly doesn’t think so, thankfully – but because he couldn’t recognise the team.  That in itself opens up a whole can of worms, in particular the can about the lack of recognition and funding for women in sports.

So yes, there are many, many challenges to breaking down the seemingly endless and rock-solid received notions about the way the world is and should be.  And teaching children really throws into sharp relief how bad these restrictive gender roles are for boys and girls alike: there’s no boys going to dance classes or doing anything else that might compromise their nascent masculinity, but there’s a few girls taking part in traditionally ‘masculine’ hobbies like drumming and any manner of sports.

I only see these children twice a week for an hour and a half.  I don’t know what messages they’re getting at home, at school and everywhere else they go.  For the hour and a half they’re in my classroom though, I try make sure that they aren’t defined by their chromosomes - and that they say please and thank you.


Rebecca Smyth is on The Y Factor Steering Group and is currently living in Barcelona. See other blogs from her in the opinion section.