Teaching Social Norms, Part 2
This is the second in a series of posts where I will explore the interesting phenomenon that is teaching social norms. As an early childhood educator, I am tasked with far more than teaching kids their ABCs and how to share. As children move from 4 to 5 to 6 (the age range I teach), they can reasonably be expected to begin learning and following many social norms. As a teacher in an independent school, I am tasked with striking a balance between promoting my own norms and values, those of the school, and those of the parents, which do not always line up quite so neatly. In Part 1, I discussed a situation where I was confident in the norm and values I wanted to instill in my students, how I wanted to go about doing so, and how to respond to parents who sought a different norm and values for their child. Here, I will discuss a situation in which I am far less confident.
If you’ve spent any time around little girls, and those little girls are wearing little girl skirts, odds are you’ve seen your share of little girl underpants. Deliberately or not, 4- and 5-year-old girls have a unique ability to contort themselves in ways to make even floor length dresses cover little more than their navel. It is a usually combination of young bodies’ innate elasticity, how they naturally or are expected to handle themselves physically in the classroom, and a general lack of understanding of what we might call modesty. The trouble is, our society demands that private parts remain just that: private. My problem is that I have not yet arrived at a method of communicating this norm to young children that rises above, “BECAUSE I SAID SO,” which is a sometimes-necessary-but-incredibly-frustrating rationale to fall back on.
The privatization of certain body parts is not a universal norm. There are many cultures where adults and children alike regularly expose breasts, buttocks, vaginas, and penises. These are cultures that most of us will probably never interact with directly, but they do exist. And the people in these cultures, to my understanding, seem to get along just fine, at least with regards to their handling of clothing and body covering. This means that it is difficult to point to an objective rationale for the existence of this norm. Which doesn’t mean rationales don’t exist; they do. But as I understand them, they are largely steeped in religious, cultural, practical, or aesthetic preferences that are hard to make meaningful to young children. And, as I see it, are devoid of any moral imperative that is universally accepted.
So, what do we do when little Susie or De’Onna end up with their skirts over their heads, as they so often do? I really don’t know. At most, I might say something to the effect of, “It is important to keep our private parts private,” and pray that they don’t ask me why. But I hate this offering. I hate the phrase “private parts”. As I touched on in Part 1, I believe that each individual’s body is his or her own. And they should have final authority over which parts they deem public and private. But, unfortunately, that is simply not a battle I can fight. Far be it from me to be the male preschool teacher advocating that little girls should be free to walk around with exposed vaginas. For some reason, I doubt that would go over well.
But while I struggle with my own response to this question, my assistant teacher is far more confident in her own. She is older (mid-40s) and both religiously and politically conservative. We have very different philosophies on a number of things related to education, which sometimes come into conflict. Her response? “Little ladies don’t show their underwear.” And it sends a shudder down my spine each and every time she says it. There is so much loaded into a very short statement that it makes me want to scream. It implies a very specific and narrow definition of what it means to be a “lady”. It seems unnecessarily sex/gender specific, implying a unique set of rules and expectations for females. Most importantly, it offers the children little reason as to why this rule or norm is what it is, only that it exists and is something they are expected to follow.
That question of “why” is an important one. My general feeling is that if I can’t offer a damned good reason why a rule does exist to a young child, it is probably a bad rule. Not always. Some rules are quite necessary and justified but which are difficult or inappropriate to explain to young children. But far too many revert back to Because-I-Said-So logic, which are typically grounded more in adults attempting to exert control than actually looking out for the best interests of the child. When we make rules in my classroom, the students are involved. Ultimately, all rules stem from three basic principles: care for yourself; care for others; care for our environment (with “environment” meaning the various inanimate objects we interact with in our classroom and school). Why can’t you run down the hall, Bobby? Because you can easily trip on the hard surface or careen around a blind curve and knock someone else over. Why can’t you throw blocks, Dahsir? Because you might hit someone and hurt them or break/lose classroom materials. Why must you keep your skirt down, Jenny? Errrr… ummm…
So what do I do? I often say nothing. The exposure of underwear in a PreK classroom is harmless and accidental the vast majority of the time. Hell, the way we ask the kids to sit on the ground (Criss-cross-apple-sauce… no more of that racist Indian-style bullshit) actually REQUIRES girls in skirts to expose their underwear! And I think it far more important for the children to develop a healthy sense and appreciation for their body than to further a Puritanical sense that reproductive organs are shameful pathways to hell that must be hidden at all costs. I realize this runs afoul of a number of things. But I also believe that appealing to Because-I-Say-So logic or archaic notions of what a lady is or ought to be is ultimately more detrimental.
So, should you ever end up with your daughter in my class (or a skirt-wearing son, which I would welcome but fear my current school would not)… please don’t send them to school in a skirt, at least not while I’m their teacher. And, if you must, at least sew some weights into the hem, would ya?