PART 2: What are we really saying to our children? – Language Acquisition & Gender

Instilling Skills to Help our Kids Negotiate Oppressive Systems

In PART 1 OF THIS SERIES, I explored how pronouns are one of the first ways children gender themselves and others.

From an early age, many LGBTQI2S+ people understand the power of language and the impact it can have.

This is why in my gender work, the Pronoun Circle is at the center of the Gender Wheel, and why addressing language acquisition is Level One of the Curriculum.

In order to continue fully addressing gender in our current culture, we must establish more and more respectful and inclusive ways of speaking to one another. This means more than saying “the right thing.” It means becoming critically aware of the messages inside of what we’re saying.

Using language as a tool to control behavior cannot be underestimated, as I pointed out in Part 1 of this series.

Language is power. Fundamental change is key.

Without change here, well-intentioned people unconsciously contribute to the very oppression they’re often trying to dismantle. Lifting out of this cultural fog means taking the time to do some structural work.

This includes looking at the big picture and seeing what’s been erased by patriarchal culture through language. For example, many indigenous tribes of the Americas had words for LGBTQI2S+ people and their roles. There were also myths and origin stories, songs and art. Instead of retaining or translating anything, they were intentionally erased and/or replaced with derogatory terms.

What preferences and value judgments were maintained by this erasure. Who did it benefit? Who does it limit and/or control? And most importantly, how does this continue to influence our current culture?

Being able to see like this usually requires stepping outside of the dominant culture and language, and engaging with perspectives and histories that are nonWestern, nonwhite, and/or LGBTQI2S+.

What does all this have to do with our kids?

Changing how we speak to each other and how we engage with media is an important step to support our kids. We can create a more welcoming, inclusive environment and communicate volumes about power and our kids’ ability to speak for themselves.

But if we want to instill the skills our kids need to negotiate an oppressive system, we must also tell them WHY we’re changing the way we speak and changing the words in their books.

For example,

“Our country has a history of bullying. It includes bullying black and brown people. Bullying girls, women and femmes and disabled people. And bullying LGBTQI2S+ people. This bullying pretends some people are better than others, even pretends there is a right or wrong way to be who you are. That’s wrong. Everybody belongs and we want everybody to feel welcome. So we’re changing how we talk, even how we read. Everybody needs to feel free to grow into exactly who they are, like a tree. I want this for you. I want it for all kids!”

Talking like this demonstrates to kids how to continue dismantling the many areas that support gender-based bullying dynamics in our culture.

Children’s books are one of the first places that kids come into contact with the dominant culture, making them a perfect place to seed change and support.

Tree, Free, ABC - Gender Wheel Books & Curriculum

These three books rise from the foundations of the Gender Wheel. There’s no room for assumptions and stereotypes in the imagery or the language because The Gender Wheel Curriculum is rooted in a nature-based, holistic frame.

Nature, history and indigenous cultures show the indomitable presence and value, even the need for inclusion of LGBTQI2S+ people.

Reestablishing that gender diversity is a necessary and intrinsic part of nature is the heart of the matter. This provides an immediate foundation of truth and support, allowing the true self to relax, step forward and feel welcomed.

Everyone wants that. To feel free. To just be.

This is what I want for all children, but particularly for our most marginalized, LGBTQI2S+/IPOC kids. By addressing change here, we impact everybody else.

To understand more about the fundamentals behind these books and how to keep building on them, I’ve begun providing trainings in the SF Bay Area. The first one, Teaching for Gender Inclusivity: Reorienting toward a Holistic Nature-Based Perspective on Gender looks at the basic building blocks of the curriculum, and includes guided hands-on exploration of educational materials, along with reading practice and lots of resources. This helps reorient, inspire and provide initial tools to create inclusive gender practices across multiple disciplines.

I gave a version of this introduction lecture at the NCTE Conference (National Council of Teachers of English) in the Fall of 2018. I was beyond pleased when participants told me their minds were quite literally blown (in a good way!), and one participant told me that it was the most informative session they’d been to in 10 years of conferences. This blew me away! Change is in the air.

The next training on Language Acquisition and Inclusive Practices dives more into Level One of the Curriculum and should be available locally in Fall 2019. This training will focus on a deeper understanding of language and greater proficiency in inclusive practices, and includes longer engagement with hands-on, interactive materials, and exercises for participants to personalize and embody, as well as practice. The materials and focus are on the first 10 years of language acquisition, but the materials are relevant to all ages.

In every gender lecture and workshop I say, “this is not a small thing.” There are small changes that we can make, like pronoun expansion and gender-neutral language. But the truth is, what we’re talking about here, “…is a very large thing.”

Gender oppression is the foundation of the patriarchy. It effects everybody as it stretches across race, ethnicity, even class. Everything is built on it. Science, economics, healthcare, education, and so on.

That’s why it’s so revolutionary to begin by changing the way that we communicate with each other and express who we are in the world. This opens doors of respect within ourselves and between each other that have been aggressively and intentionally sealed shut. This opens up the possibility of creating greater and greater unity among the marginalized.

Children’s books supply a doable step in a long dance of change, especially when it comes to inclusive language.

As a parent, I know we need tools that we can lean on. Not having to change pronouns and chase verbs when I read books to my kid, is a much appreciated break! I am so grateful for all the books we’ve used with our kid that our friends and community have created. They make all the difference in the world.

But of course we need MORE! And we need to continue learning more about what we’re really saying to our kids.

IN PART THREE, I give a real-life example of why it’s so important to pay attention to language in children’s books.

(Missed the first part? View the full 3 part series here)


About Maya:

Maya Gonzalez is a Chicanx, queer femme artist, progressive educator and award-winning children’s book illustrator and author. Her work addresses systemic inequity in relation to race/ethnicity, sexism and cissexism using children’s books as radical agents of change and healing, both personally and culturally. With her partner Matthew, she co-founded Reflection Press, a POC, queer and trans owned independent publishing house that uses holistic, nature-based, and anti-oppression frameworks in their books and materials for kids and grown-ups. She is also the creator of the Gender Wheel, a tool to express the dynamic, infinite and inclusive reality of gender, and provides lectures and workshops to educators, parents and caregivers. www.mayagonzalez.com | www.genderwheel.com | www.reflectionpress.com

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