Since I last wrote to you I ‘ve been really busy creating things for my Etsy shop and for an upcoming market. I have also been busy connecting with the Waldorf (or Vrije School, as it is in Dutch) community. I ‘ve joined a few facebook groups where many teachers seem to be part of as well and many interesting discussions unfold there. Today I want to share my reflections on such a discussion with you.
Why does diversity and representation matter?
Here is how it all started: a mom made a post mentioning that her daughter misses female lead characters and heroines in Waldorf storytelling. Many parents and teachers agreed with her while others shared what they do to change this in their classes or home schools. Someone asked if it’s her daughter that misses the heroines or the mother herself. That’s an interesting point. Some children often don’t focus on the sex or gender of a character. And some times parents try a tad too hard to raise their children without preconceptions about sex and gender. I find it an amazing way to raise a more kind and inclusive generation but sometimes we need to give children time to explore things on their own. Maybe in the mind of a 3 year-old it doesn’t matter if the princess is “just” pretty and it’s the night who is “brave”. She or he might enjoy the beauty of the dress and admire it and that makes her dream. That -on its own- is not bad. What is bad is the limiting belief that girls can be ONE thing and boys ANOTHER. Girl = princess. Boy = dragon.
That’s why diversity in storytelling matters for both girls and boys. So they all understand that you can be whatever you choose to and that is totally fine. And it is not just about a boy feeling it is okay to want to be a ballerina. It is also about a boy feeling it’s totally normal for a girl to be a firefighter or dragon slayer. And the other way around.
Of course these thoughts are not applicable only in Waldorf schools. But there is even more emphasis there because so much of the learning happens through story telling, especially during the formative years of 3-7 (and far beyond that too).
Before going further to give a few ideas (mine and coming from the group discussion) about heroines and stories with powerful, smart, important, resourceful women, I want to mention a few other interesting things that came up in the group.
What is the role of archetypes?
A few teachers took the time to point out and explain in detail that fairy tales are about archetypes. That they speak to the archetypes in us all. We are the princess, we are the dragon, we are the witch, we are the knight. We are all light and darkness and we choose what we want to nourish in us, what we want to express. But it’s all in there, “good” and “bad”. In that sense children and adult alike should identify with all of the heroes.
Of course, depending on what’s going on in your life at a specific moment, you tend to bond with one character more than we the other. For example, if you read a novel about divorce and there is also a man with an ice-cream parlor involved and a bunch of high school kids too, if you are a teen you will most likely connect with the kids. If you’ve just broken up, you will feel more connected with the divorce described and so on. That’s also why it is interesting to re-watch a movie many years later or re-read a book you loved. Our perspective changes as we grow and evolve.
I like the idea of the archetypes. I love it, actually. But it is still true that representation is important. Many many kids feel excluded because they don’t see a hero that looks like them in the books. All knights are boys. Or princesses are blond. And so on. Even though in Waldorf education teachers are encouraged to learn stories by heart instead of reading from picture books, so that the children are free to imagine the characters as they please, many times the descriptions are rather specific. And more often than not, children can’t really grasp the concept of “the good and evil live in us all”.
Can we help the teachers?
The other point made in the group was that parents need to trust teachers. Hmmm. That’s a tough one. But in general, I agree with it. Very much Waldorf-style, I ‘ll tell you a story. When I was 6 and really stoked I would start primary school in Greece (back in 1991 if you must know) I fell in love with my first teacher. I thought she was sooo pretty and so kind and lovely. She was NOT. She was completely ignorant, doing religious indoctrination in the class, totally racist with kids coming from other countries and she occasionally slapped us. Yup. Were my parents happy? Absolutely not. Was it an option to change schools? Neeeh, not really easy back then. And I think it’s still complicated now. My parents never said a bad word about my teacher, till I was older. They only made it clear to me it is completely not okay to be racist. But they let many things slip. Why? Because a kid spends such a big part of their day with the teacher. If the kid doesn’t trust the teacher, it’s is not easy to form a bond. And also, if children lose respect for the teacher, then very quickly the class becomes a chaos. That’s not good for anyone involved. Did my elementary school teacher deserve respect? Hell to the no. But I think that it was good that the parents (pretended to) trust her. Kids look to their parents to understand if a place is safe and good for them or not. And I think that my teacher back then would be much worse if she felt heavily criticised by the parents and ignored by the teachers. And she would take it out on us. Reading this in 2019 you might be wondering “was there no other option? Sure you are not supposed to stay with a crappy teacher?! Didn’t your parents give you a false idea of what is good and right, if they didn’t speak against the teacher”. Well, no. Because I had my core values from home. I was being taught what is wrong and right at home, I was told that my teacher, miss G., might have had different ideas but OUR values and ideas are important to us. That doesn’t mean I should be rude to her. I learned to deal with different kinds of people. Now, back to the present, when my daughter went to a school I really felt was clashing with our own values and ideas, we took her out of that school. But it was easy, we had the option. We have friends who live in a much bigger city where that is not an option because the waiting lists at the schools are huge and you basically just have to wait it out and hope for a better teacher next year. Or move. Circumstances. Life in complicated.
I think that teachers, that have to deal with 30 kids, need the trust of the parents in order to operate in their full capacity. Here in the Netherlands they are already stretched thin. If we, as parents, want to be involved in our children’s education and feel that things are done in the wrong way, we can do two things: let things slip OR offer a concrete solution and alternative. Going to your child’s teacher and saying “My little Janneke here is offended because there are no female dragons involved in the story of Saint George” you are not being helpful. You are being an ass. There, I said it. What you can do instead is send the teacher an e-mail, ’cause the end of the day is a super busy time and she/he has no time for that discussion. And in that e-mail you write something along the lines of “Lovely how you say all those stories about (insert time of the year). I think it would be wonderful if you can also tell the story of (insert heroine of choice). Here is a link with the story”. Do some work for them. Make it easy for them and things will change. Don’t whine. No one likes whiners (I DON’T like MY kids when they whine). Do something, be proactive in a positive way.
Okay. That got intense. Moving on.
Where do I find heroines?
Here are some ideas about positive female role models for girls and boys alike:
- Pippi Longstocking, obviously! And Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter. In general, you can’t go wrong with Astrid Lindgren. And her books have been translated in so many languages that you can most likely find one translated in your mother tongue.
- Ancient Greek legends are for us a must (if you are new here, we are Greek, living in the Netherlands for the past 10 years). From the 12 Olympian gods, half were mighty women. From amazingly kind to evil. You know, a good balance of light and dark in there.
- Witches. I always talk about witches to my daughters with love. I present them as wise women and explain they got chased because people were afraid of their power and knowledge. I focus on their empirical research skills and botanical knowledge rather than spells and mystical powers. I emphasize that the dark representation of witches in fairy tales has to do with the fact that people are scared of the unknown.
- Folklore legends and historical figures from all around the world. Jean d’ Arc, Saint Brigid, Sacagawea, Ahmose-Nefertari, Indian goddesses, Anne Bonny… You get what I mean.
- Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, for older children from about 7-8 years old.
- Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World, from age 5
- The stories of Klara and her brother. I couldn’t find an English version, unfortunately, but there is a German one (and a beloved Greek one too!)
- Little People, Big Dreams. A series with both important women and men. Suitable for very young kids as well.
The Mighty Girl page has many great book suggestions for different ages and with different focus, so I highly recommend you check it out. Please feel free to add any more ideas that you have in the comments. How should schools in general and Waldorf schools more specifically go about female representation in story-telling?
Till next time, tah-dah!