How Learning a New Language led to a Lesson in Equality

How learning a new language led to a lesson in equality

Teachable moments about girls, boys and equality are important in any language.

This year, my youngest started full-time French Immersion kindergarten. The first months have flown by and I’m already impressed. Her enthusiasm for school and learning a second language is what any parent wishes for, and I find myself in awe of how much she is absorbing.

But recently, that bubble burst a little bit.

Several weeks ago, my daughter was proudly telling us that she had learned the French words for boy and girl. “Garçon” she said with a beautiful accent, flexing both her biceps in front of her with her fists up by her chest. “Fille” she said next, while tracing a lock of imaginary long hair by her face, and finishing with her hand cupped under her chin, a look of accomplishment on her little face.

The moment passed.

Snacks were eaten, homework was done, dinner was served and we were out the door for various evening activities. But over the next few days, the image of my little girl earnestly using those two actions to differentiate les garçons from les filles was playing on repeat in my mind, and an uneasy feeling taking root in my consciousness.

On one level, I didn’t want to overreact and contradict her teachers. I get that finding an action to go with “garçon” and “fille” is challenging at best. And I know it’s only two words out of hundreds she’s going to learn in the next few years.

I also know my family is not living in a perfectly balanced, gender-neutral household either: our home can sometimes be divided by pink and dolls versus blue and foam swords, despite my efforts to level the playing field. And in the grandest view of parenting, with all the micro-matters we have on our daily plates at home, and all the big, scary problems we have to navigate our children around to make sense of the real world, two little words seemed like a very small thing to ruffle my feathers over.

And yet.

And yet, a roomful of impressionable and open-minded 4- and 5-year-old kids just learned that the defining feature of being a boy is being strong, and being a girl is having long pretty hair. Not reacting to this one seemed like just the kind of path that reinforces a whole boatload of systemic, ingrained and unjust barriers for everyone.

So, I’ve been making time to talk with my young daughter about all the things that girls and boys are. We talk about how les filles are strong (we flex our muscles), and that plenty of les garçons have long hair (we trace imaginary ponytails). I tell her that girls and boys are also smart (we tap our temples with our pointer fingers), brave (we thump our chests) and creative (we wave a pretend paintbrush through the air). And I gently remind her that when she practices garçon and fille at school, she can use any of these actions (and tell her teachers about them if they ask).

Not surprisingly, these discussions have actually been fruitful “teachable moments” for my whole family. All of us have benefited from more thoughtful conversations about what defines a girl and a boy, what’s fair or unfair about those ideas, and all the different qualities we see in people all around us.

But that’s the easy part. The next step is sharing my thoughts with my daughter’s teachers. Being a non-confrontational sort of person, this is the parenting job I’m dreading the most. I really don’t want to criticize the work of these dedicated, phenomenal women or any aspect of the terrific job they are doing every day with my kid.

But then I think of the nearly 30 young kids in that classroom, and the message being reinforced every time they use those two words and those two actions to define themselves and everyone around them. Particularly in the wake of the US presidential election, it seems like this is exactly the kind of thing we should be talking more about with our kids and each other.

So, I’ll make time for that difficult conversation too. I’ll be brave and strong, and polite and friendly, and yes, maybe I’ll even have my long hair in a ponytail down the side. I’ll be a mom, and a grown-up fille, in all the wonderful complexities those little words can mean.



Carmen Kinniburgh

Carmen Kinniburgh is a freelance writer and editor exploring topics and ideas about parenting and families, Canadian science and research, health and medicine, as well as travel and lifestyle. Born and raised in Alberta, Carmen has also lived in Southern Ontario and Manitoba, where she worked in professional communications for a university and a national health charity. Currently living in Thunder Bay, Ontario, she gets all her best ideas and insights for Parentwise from her own three delightfully precocious children.

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