The XX Factor

Elementary School Gender Wars

For the past month, I’ve been teaching summer school to third- and fourth-graders, which is enlightening work, full of insights into how children think and relate to one another. They are insights that, as a young adult with no children, I don’t often get. It’s especially made me think about what we teach young children about gender and how thoroughly they’ve internalized those lessons by the time they turn 8 or 9.

What I found especially surprising was the degree to which my students already seem to have internalized a kind of “battle of the sexes” mentality that goes beyond “Ew, cooties!” and encourages girls and boys to see each other as enemies. The best example of this was the T-shirt that stared back at me from the front row a few weeks ago: On its front, there was a cartoon picture of a building, above which were the words, “The stupid factory … Where boys are made.” Goodbye, little hope bubble.

The T-shirt is made by the clothing line David and Goliath, which was at the center of a ” war on boys” controversy five years ago, thanks to T-shirts like this one. It’s one thing to split boys and girls into two distinct blue and pink camps, using clothing as a highly visible marker of who belongs where. (Though, of course, that practice is questionable , too.) It’s quite another to urge those two camps to disdain and fight each other. Which, one could argue, is exactly what is being urged by a similar shirt, also made by David and Goliath, which reads “Boys are stupid. Throw rocks at them.”

I look at these children, these skinny girls and gangly boys on the precipice of pre-adolescence, and I can’t help but imagine that their futures will bring years of seemingly inevitable gender warfare. Some of it will be subtle, some of it overt and genuinely upsetting. There are the women’s magazine articles about how to trick your man into proposing and the pick-up artists teaching men to “neg” women , not to mention the low rates of women entering traditionally masculine fields and the sexism and exclusion that contribute to those low rates. In short, the world in which these children will become adults is already rife with conflict between the genders. In the meantime, let’s not send our kids into battle any earlier than we have to.

Photograph of American Eagle’s “Boys R Stupid” t-shirt by Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images.