Boys, girls, purple penguins: What we call our kids matters

A school district in Nebraska is trying a new tactic when it comes to talking to their students. Lincoln public schools have offered training and guidelines for teachers in how to make their classroom spaces more gender inclusive. Instead of saying “boys and girls,” or “ladies and gentleman,” they suggest going with a classroom name, perhaps something like “purple penguins.”

At first glance this might seem a bit ridiculous, and even some parents in Lincoln thought so, worrying that the district is pushing some sort of social agenda. And in fact, many outlets that have been reporting on this story are hyper-focused on the concept of calling kids “purple penguins,” as if it’s the most absurd thing in the world. But the school district insists they’re doing all that they can to help all kids succeed, according to Brenda Leggiardo, who told the Lincoln Journal Star, “We have kids who come to us with a whole variety of circumstances, and we need to equitably serve all kids.” The district offered gender inclusivity training to teachers in an effort to help all students feel welcome in the classroom, particularly transgender and genderqueer ones. School administrators noted that the teacher training was important, especially in the face of the higher risk LGBT students are at for bullying, mental health issues and committing suicide.

It’s easy to mock a step like this, especially when the stories being written about it all focus on the “purple penguin” part. But at the root of it is something important — words are important and have impact. The way we talk to our children matters. My son is currently in second grade, and I’ve noticed on more than one occasion his teacher calling them to morning meeting or to line up at the door by saying, “OK, kids, let’s get moving,” or something similar. If that minor word change — using an inclusive “kids” instead of gendering the students as “boys and girls,” makes a young child feel more welcome within the classroom, then I’m all for it.

Using gender-inclusive language doesn’t step on anyone’s freedom, and it’s not denying the existence of gender. Boys and girls aren’t being erased. They’re still there. But now everyone in the classroom, regardless of where they find themselves on the gender spectrum feels a part of the group. Kids can pick up on these things as well, and perhaps will be more likely to use gender inclusive language themselves, which could have an impact on bullying.

Taking this extra step in figuring out how to address students without defaulting to boys and girls can also help in the classroom setting beyond LGBT concerns. There’s ongoing debate about how boys and girls are treated differently within classrooms from elementary to high school. Perhaps changing the way we refer to students might shift how we look at them as well, and applying erroneous academic stereotypes based on gender might slowly fade away.

Will guiding teachers to think about how they address their students in order to include everyone be a bit of a change? Sure. Will it be the downfall of social norms and structure? Not at all. This inclusiveness training might just help more students succeed academically… one purple penguin at a time.

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