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Study finds Ontario schoolchildren highly attuned to gender issues


Identity can be fragile, says researcher, but most yearn for acceptance

OTTAWA, May 31, 2015 — An Ontario researcher says schoolchildren she’s studied are highly attuned to, and care deeply about, gender issues. And as Ontario prepares to roll out its new sex education curriculum that will include discussion of gender and gender issues, she says her work may help teachers deal with those issues in class.

Karleen Pendleton Jimenez is an associate professor in the School of Education at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. She recently completed a study of 600 schoolchildren, most of them from rural Ontario. She will be presenting the results of the study at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa.

Jimenez gathered information for the study by conducting workshops in schools. The workshops began by asking students to watch a 14-minute cartoon video in which Jimenez tells her own story about being a tomboy. Students were then asked to anonymously submit their ideas about gender. The ideas were used to start a class discussion, which was generally followed by other activities such as story-writing, drawing and theatre.

Jimenez wanted to know how children perceived their own gender—and also what it was like in their communities when someone broke a gender “rule”. What she found from those workshops is that schoolchildren have actually thought a lot about gender issues, and have a lot to say about them. For some, gender is a burden they carry; for others, it’s a source of joy. And for many, it’s a bit of each. Some children embrace their individuality. One Grade 4 student drew a picture with a huge smiling face – it wasn’t clear if it was of a doll or of himself—and captioned it with “I love Barbies: I am a boy.”

Along with pride, there was fear. She had one Grade 11 boy say he didn’t know whether he felt like a boy or a girl and it terrified him because kids had started to call him gay, and he didn’t know what to do. He hoped the problem would go away. “There’s a lot of fear about doing something wrong,” she says. And sometimes, even the most confident young person hides feelings of uncertainty. Jimenez speaks of one boy who wrote about athletics, saying athletic activities are what make him feel like a boy. But then he added, poignantly, “if I lost that, I wouldn’t have anything at all, because that is what makes me feel tough.” “I was struck by the degree to which the kids were clinging onto something in order to feel OK,” says Jimenez. “But it was so fragile!”

She also found that some children were very accepting of gender differences or non-conformity, such as a girl playing on a boys’ hockey team. In fact, certain children were more accepting of these things than adults. However, others faced taunts.

She says the children also expressed a strong desire for their parents to accept them as they are—a feeling that came through clearly in an exercise in which they were asked to describe what message they would like to give their parents about gender. “I’m a girl who likes to play with boys,” one girl wrote. “You need to accept me, and you need to be OK with who I am.”

Karleen Pendleton Jimenez will be presenting this research on June 2 at the 2015 Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa. This presentation is called “I Love Barbies/I am a Boy: Gender Joy for Social Justice Education” and will take place at 8:30 am on the University of Ottawa campus in the LMX building, room 243.

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