In Swedish School, Everyone Is A ‘friend’ Swedish School’s Big Lesson Begins With Dropping Personal Pronouns By John Tagliabue
Girls are not urged to play with toy kitchens, and wooden or Lego blocks are not considered toys for boys.
STOCKHOLM – At an ocher-color preschool along a lane in Stockholm’s Old Town, the teachers avoid the pronouns “him” and “her,” instead calling their 115 toddlers simply “friends.” Masculine and feminine references are taboo, often replaced by the pronoun “hen,” an artificial and genderless word that most Swedes avoid but is popular in some gay and feminist circles.
In the little library, with its throw pillows where children sit to be read to, there are few classic fairy tales, like “Cinderella” or “Snow White,” with their heavy male and female stereotypes, but there are many stories that deal with single parents, adopted children or same-sex couples.
Girls are not urged to play with toy kitchens, and wooden or Lego blocks are not considered toys for boys. And when boys hurt themselves, teachers are taught to give them every bit as much comforting as they would girls. Everyone gets to play with dolls, and while most are anatomically correct, some are also black.
Sweden is perhaps as renowned for an egalitarian mind-set as it is for meatballs or Ikea furnishings. But this taxpayer-financed preschool, known as the Nicolaigarden for a saint whose chapel was once in the 300-year-old building that houses it, is perhaps one of the more compelling examples of the country’s efforts to blur gender lines and, theoretically, cement opportunities for both women and men.
What the children are taught, said Malin Engleson, an art gallery employee, as she fetched her 15-month-old daughter Hanna from the school, “shows that girls can cry, but boys too.”
“That’s why we chose it,” she said. “It’s so important to start at an early age.”
The model has been so successful that two years ago three of its teachers opened an offshoot, which now has almost 40 children. That school, named Egalia to suggest equality, is in a 1960s housing project in the Sodermalm neighborhood.
What has become a passionate undertaking for its teachers actually began with a nudge from Swedish legislators, who in 1998 passed a bill requiring that schools, including day care centers, assure equal opportunities for girls and boys.
Spurred by the law, the teachers at Nicolaigarden took the unusual step of filming one another, capturing their behavior while playing with, eating with or just being with the center’s infants to 6-year-olds.
“We could see lots of differences, for example, in the handling of boys and girls,” said Lotta Rajalin, who directs the center and three others, which she visits by bicycle. “If a boy was crying because he hurt himself, he was consoled, but for a shorter time, while girls were held and soothed much longer,” she said. “With a boy it was, ‘Go on, it’s not so bad!’ ”
The filming, she said, also showed that staff members tended to talk more with girls than with boys, perhaps explaining girls’ later superior language skills. If boys were boisterous, that was accepted, Ms. Rajalin said; a girl trying to climb a tree on an outing in the country was stopped.