Last week the Herald Sun newspaper published two consecutive articles criticising the Victorian Government’s Respectful Relationships teaching aid that aims to show young pupils how to identify and analyse gender roles in popular children’s fiction.
These articles voiced concerns that encouraging inquisitiveness and evaluation of concepts such as gender is not age-appropriate, nor is the school room the place for such critical analysis.
Empirical evidence however, would suggest otherwise; peer-reviewed research published - and there is quite a lot of it - has found that the age period between 3-9 years are developmentally critical to the cognitive formation of gender differentiation, gender constancy and gender discrimination (Boston & Levy, 1991, p. 417-432; Yee & Brown, 1994, p. 183-196; Zosuls, Ruble, Tamis-LeMonda, Shrout, Bornstein, & Greulich 2009, p. 688-701; Zosuls, Andrews, Martin, England, & Field, 2016, p. 243-256).
It is during these formative years that young minds begin to learn what kind of behaviours and attitudes are socially and culturally expected of females and males (Levy & Carter, 1989, p. 444-449; Patterson, 2012, p. 442-434).
Far from being inappropriate, this is the ideal time to begin educating individuals on gender. Furthermore, research suggest that this period of development should be harnessed as an opportunity in the classroom to prevent the formation of maladaptive attitudes and beliefs that are associated with discrimination, oppression and violence towards women and children.
The research report Reducing Violence Against Women and Their Children commissioned by the Australian Government found that excusing disrespectful and aggressive behaviours towards girls and women is learned from an early childhood. Age-appropriate strategies that do not have a particular focus on violence against women but address the underlying causes, such as gender inequality and rigid gender roles, have been an important target for the primary prevention of violence against women and children in Australia (VicHealth, 2007).
The subjective and unsubstantiated arguments put forward in the Herald Sun articles serve to highlight a lack of education and understanding of what gender is, its outcomes and its wide-spread impact on every member of our community. The requirement for impartial, evidence-based gender literacy education has never been more apparent.