Recently all faculty and staff attended a professional development session with certified human sexuality educator of 30 years, Deborah Roffman. We discussed the spiral curriculum that takes place over many years, and how it begins with our youngest students as they start to learn about their own bodies. Elyse was inspired to reflect on one lesson she’s encountered in the Beginners bathroom of interest to teachers, parents, and caregivers alike: how the language we use begins to shape toddlers’ understanding of their bodies and their place in the world.
In high school English class, I remember receiving a writing prompt something along the lines of, “What would you do if you could be the opposite sex for a day?”
Full of confidence that there was nothing of significance boys could do that we couldn’t, most of the girls wrote something like, “I don’t know, pee standing up maybe…?” It was a cliché example of inherent male privilege; and as young writers, we reluctantly offered it up as the one thing that would maybe interest us. Half a decade (and several harsh reality checks) later, the subject returned when I took on the task of potty-training my young students as a new toddler teacher.
Toilet learning in the classroom environment is an open, fun, and social experience. This age group has a limited notion of privacy and they all share a bathroom, so they are free to learn from each other. Often it is by watching another child that the process first clicks for the younger ones, and they climb onto the potty and pee on purpose for the first time. The Toddler Montessori environment greatly emphasizes learning from modeling. Because of this, I should have been more prepared for the first time one of my young female-bodied learners—after watching one of her male classmates—hopped off the potty, turned around and, wobbling, leaned forward to grasp the edge of the raised toilet seat. Unfortunately I wasn’t prepared, and I stuttered out, “Girls can’t pee standing up.” While this was mostly accurate and rather inconsequential in the scheme of things, how sad that a child’s first observations of the differences between sexes should be accompanied by a “girl’s can’t” statement?
Over the years, this episode has been repeated with most of my female students as they first begin toilet learning with various levels of adamance. Some girls step up to the toilet with wavering unsureness, while others do so with an absolute confidence that, “I’m sorry, girls can’t pee standing up” would never deter. It no longer catches me off guard when this happens, and I’ve refined my explanation to be accurate and to-the-point: “When Jack goes pee, it goes out from his body; but when you do, it goes down—so it would get on the floor instead of in the potty if you are standing up.” I like this explanation the best because it doesn’t base any limitations on gender. It doesn’t even attribute the difference to gender, or bring up specific anatomy—though I’m always prepared to answer the little ones’ questions. Rather, it illustrates a cause-and-effect without making any value judgement. There’s no “you can’t do that” or “you have to do this.” It’s just different and, yes, slightly less convenient.
As a school we are examining our Health and Wellness Curriculum and how we want to help children learn about their bodies—and with toddlers, it’s really all about the fundamentals. We want to make sure, like with all of our curriculum, that the lessons children learn in our care are in line with Montessori standards. This means giving children information that is accurate, useful, and non-discriminatory. As toddler teachers, we want children to learn this information in such a way that helps them to internalize the order of the world. There’s no reason for or hope of concealing the differences in humans to children; but in an educational method that always strives toward equity, there are plenty of ways within the microcosm of the classroom to instill a worldview free of “because girls can’t.”