Preschool in Sweden Strives to be Neutral About Gender

By Julie Rasicot — November 14, 2012 2 min read
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I’m all for gender equality in the classroom, but is it possible to go too far when trying to provide kids with a gender-neutral learning environment?

That may be the case with a preschool in Stockholm, Sweden, which has dropped the use of personal pronouns, such as “he” and “she,” when teachers are referring to the children, according to a recent New York Times story. Instead, teachers may refer to the children by their first names and use the word “friends” instead of girls and boys.

“Masculine and feminine references are taboo, often replaced by the pronoun ‘hen,’ an artificial and genderless word that most Swedes avoid but is popular in some gay and feminist circles,” the newspaper reported.


It’s easy to applaud some of the other steps that the school has taken: Girls and boys aren’t directed to play specifically with traditional toys of their genders, such as toy kitchens and Legos. “And when boys hurt themselves, teachers are taught to give them every bit as much comforting as they would girls. Everyone gets to play with dolls; most are anatomically correct, and some are also black,” the Times reported.

And it’s not a bad idea to exchange classic fairy tales such as Cinderella and Snow White for books about nontraditional families—although that begs the question of whether it might be better to expose kids to all kinds of stories. As a young girl, I reveled in the romance of those fairy tales with their happy endings provided by a noble and handsome prince. But it wasn’t long before I was old enough to distinguish fantasy from reality—to question why Cinderella and Snow White relied on men to save them and to ultimately decide that was not what I would choose to do.

According to the news story, the school’s teachers made the changes after filming themselves interacting with the babies and preschoolers in their care. Their actions were spurred by the country’s 1998 law requiring that schools and day-care centers “assure equal opportunities for girls and boys.”

“We could see lots of differences, for example, in the handling of boys and girls,” school director Lotta Rajalin told the newspaper. “If a boy was crying because he hurt himself, he was consoled, but for a shorter time, while girls were held and soothed much longer. With a boy it was, ‘Go on, it’s not so bad!’ ”

The model, which does have its critics, proved so successful that a couple of teachers opened another school with the same philosophy.

Trying to avoid stereotypes when caring for and teaching children seems a worthwhile goal, especially if it helps children to learn that certain skills and attributes aren’t isolated to one gender or the other. But to eliminate personal pronouns, especially in favor of a word that refers to a female chicken, all in the name of equality? How does that prepare kids to function in the real world?

That one’s for the birds.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.