I recently read Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (2011) by Peggy Orenstein. While hospitals don’t hand out manuals to parents who leave with a newborn, this book is the closest thing I’ve found to a manual on how I want to raise my daughter. (As for a manual on how to raise my child, regardless of gender, I’m going with The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel.) It’s a book I know I will come back to again and again as I guide my daughter through life.
There is a passage in the chapter “What Makes Girls Girls?” that resonated with the educator in me. The passage deals with the benefits of mixed-sex play, which is something that doesn’t happen often enough in classrooms. The passage was so long that I contacted Peggy Orenstein to garner permission to share it on Two Writing Teachers since I thought it was worthy of teachers reading. She granted me permission to share an excerpt from her book in this forum. I’ll discuss my thoughts about it at the end of the quotation.
Years of same-sex play leave kids less able to relate to the other sex — and can set the stage for hostile attitudes and interactions in adolescence and adulthood. “This is a public health issue,” Fabes proclaimed. “It becomes detrimental to relationships, to psychological health and well-being, when boys and girls don’t learn how to talk to one another. That divergence of behavior and communication skills in childhood becomes the building blocks for later issues. Part of the reason we have the divorce rates we do, domestic violence, stalking behaviors, sexual harassment, is lack of ability to communicate between men and women (69).
That’s a pretty heavy assertion that Dr. Rick Fabes of the Sanford Harmony Program, made. As a parent and educator, I immediately wanted to know what I could do to help boys and girls to understand one another better after reading that. Thankfully, Orenstein laid that out in the next few paragraphs of her book. Here’s what follows:
Eliminating divorce or domestic violence may be an ambitious mandate for a preschool curriculum, but it’s not without basis: young children who have friends of the other sex have a more positive transition into dating as teenagers and sustain their romantic relationships better. But how does one go about changing behavior that is not merely entrenched but, apparently, inborn? Sometimes, Martin explained, it is easier than one might imagine. Take the case of the boy and girl watering the plants: an alert teacher just needs to mention how the kids are helping each other. “When teachers comment on mixed-sex or crossed-sex play, the likelihood it will happen increases. When they stop commenting, it stops happening. So they need to reinforce it.” Although the curriculum is still in its earliest phases of development, Martin said, it will focus on creating “a higher sense of unity” as a classroom rather than as girls and boys — by choosing a group mascot together, for example. Teachers will be advised not to divide children by gender when lining them up to go outside; there might be “buddy days” or other cooperative learning opportunities during which boys and girls work together. Teachers can integrate discussions of similarities into classroom activities (“Lots of kids like pizza: some are girls and some are boys”). There will also be a series of lessons about exclusion and inclusion involving “Z,” a genderless cartoon alien who is trying to figure out the world. Kids may still largely stick with their own sex, Martin acknowledged, and that’s fine, but maybe they will play more together as well.
Consciously encouraging cross-sex play clearly runs counter to toy marketers’ goals. It also defies a hot trend in education reform: using brain research to justify single-sex classrooms in public schools. Proponents such as Leonard Sax, the author of Why Gender Matters and president of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, claim that the differences between boys and girls are so profound, so determinative, so immutable that coeducation actually does kids a disservice. Among the assertions: boys hear less well than girls (and thus need louder teachers), see action better, and are most alert when taught while standing up in a chilly room. Girls, by contrast, like it hot — their classrooms should be around 75 degrees and decorated in warm hues — prefer sitting in a circle, and excel at seeing colors and nuances. Even if all that were true (a dubious assumption: multiple studies have, for instance, shown that sex-based hearing and vision differences are so negligible as to be irrelevant), presumably, segregation would only deepen those divides, increasing the distance between boys and girls and making them strangers to each other (69-71).
The most important points I think we, as educators, can remember are:
- Comment on mixed-sex play when you notice it.
- Create a classroom community where boys and girls do things together.
- Foster an environment where boys and girls learn cooperatively.
When I had my own classroom, there were times when I would have boys working with boys and girls working with girls. Sometimes it was just due to the sheer numbers of each sex in my class. However, when I had classes with a balanced ratio of boys to girls, I made an effort to make sure book clubs had both boys and girls and that writing partners were one boy and one girl working together. It takes a lot more time and awareness to do this. However, if you go by the research that’s coming out of the Sanford Harmony Project, having boys and girls play and work together will help them have healthier relationships as they mature. To that end, if you believe that the social curriculum is just as important as the academic curriculum, then I’m sure you’ll agree that having healthy mixed-sex relationships is something we want to nurture amongst our students at all grade levels.
If you’d like to learn more about this book, you can read my review of Cinderella Ate My Daughter over at Raising a Literate Human.
Many for thanks to HarperCollins Publishers for sponsoring a giveaway of five copies of Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein. To enter for a chance to win a copy one of the copies, each reader may leave one comment about this post in the comments section of this post. Feel free to share your thoughts about mixed-sex play, Cinderella Ate My Daughter (if you’ve read it), or about raising strong girls in the 21st century. All comments left on or before Tuesday, June 26th at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time will be entered into a random drawing. I will announce the winners’ names at the bottom of this post by June 28th. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address and have my contact at HarperCollins send the book out to you. Please note: Your e-mail address will not be published online.
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Thank you to everyone who left a comment about Peggy Orenstein’s book. Congratulations to Mary Gunn, Pamela Hodges, Maureen Ingram, Lori, and Melanie Meehan, whose comment numbers were picked using the random number generator.
I’m a kindergarten teacher and I pull name sticks randomly for free choice time. As I pull a name the child tells me where he or she is going to play and leaves the circle. I do this child by child. Using this method friends may find their “best” friend at a spot that is now full. I find that allowing child by child make their play choices I don’t see all the girls in one spot with the boys in another, it also mixes up the play groups each day.
The 1st and 2nd grade kids that I teach mix very well. I consciously don’t separate boys and girls except for bathroom lines! I raised 3 daughters and have become sensitive to kids thinking that certain jobs are just for boys or girls…would love to win this book!
Thank you for this. As mother to 3 sons and the lone female in my house, I have worried about their lack of experience with females. It is essential that classrooms provide mixed-gender opportunities. I weave in partnering opportunities throughout my preschool day, including their classroom jobs and lining up. These are, preferably, boy/girl pairs, however, I often don’t have the same number of boys and girls. I have not read Peggy Orenstein’s book and I must!
Since I have four daughters, I may have to buy this book rather than wait to see if I win. This is such a thought provoking post! My oldest daughter went to a single sex school for her first year of high school and one of the reasons that we sent her back to our town high school was that I missed her interacting with boys in meaningful ways. A great book to read when girls are young is Little Girls Can Be Mean by Michelle Anthony and Reyna Lindert. I haven’t read The Blessing of a Skinned Knee but I’m putting it in my Amazon cart. Thank you for sharing another amazing post.
Cinderella did not eat my daughter. My daughter likes to play baseball and catch frogs. However, I received a lot of negative comments from other parents. They told me something was wrong with my child because she was not “girly”. They wanted to “Cinderella” my daughter.
I would love to read this book.
I am a literacy consultant who has spent over a decade working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grade K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.
I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).