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Mom worries about sexism when preschool teaches boys to be 'gentlemen'

Jan. 15, 2013 at 12:17 PM ET

We all want to teach our kids good manners. But these days, we don’t necessarily agree on what good manners are.  One mom recently found out that her 4-year-old son’s preschool teacher was expecting “gentlemanly” behavior from the little boys, like letting the girls use the potty first before nap. She worried that while courteous, it was also sexist.

“This adorable little boy, who is only beginning to learn the ways of the world, just got his first lesson in sexism — and from a teacher who, I don’t doubt, believes she’s doing something wonderful for womankind,” wrote Lynn Messina for The New York Times.

Chivalry isn't dead, at least not in preschool. But should it be?
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Chivalry isn't dead, at least not in preschool. But should it be?

We teach our children that girls can do everything boys can do. We know that girls can play football and are good at math. We believe in equality. But, does that mean that “gentlemanly” and “ladylike” behavior is outdated? This mom believes it is, especially for the preschool set.

“…he’s actively being taught to treat girls differently,  something I thought we all agreed to stop doing, like, three decades ago,” Messina writes. “Forty years after the tender, sweet, young thing in 'Free to Be You and Me' gets eaten by a pack of hungry tigers after asserting that ladies should go first, we are still insisting on empty courtesies that instill in women a sense of entitlement for meaningless things.”

Messina worries that women will never really be treated (or paid) as equals as long as we live in a world where boys and men are expected to hold the door open for girls and women -- and not the other way around -- simply because of their gender. 

However, not everyone agrees. A commenter on The New York Times site, Dutchman61, wrote:

 “I find this to be a pathetic and strange opening into the feminist world. Does Ms Messina teach her son to be rude? Does she like rude men? Manners are the grease that allows society to function and using manners is a sign of respect for people. I also think she is in for a rude shock when she discovers her son is at a huge disadvantage in life thanks to her ideology.”

Over time, etiquette standards come and go. Where some standards have given way, new expectations of etiquette arise. Our generation has developed codes of etiquette to adapt to our new, digital lives – for instance, our grandparents would have no idea when to properly use a “reply all” email.

Knowing that ideas of etiquette fluctuate, is it time to adapt our expectations for “gentlemanly” and “ladylike” behavior? One commenter writes that parents and preschools should simply teach manners, regardless of gender: 

Kids should be taught to share and take turns with equals, to observe and help those in need, and to respect elders. In this context, door holding, insistence on "you first" and such gestures are a critical part of the social curriculum. Gender is irrelevant

Of course, still others believe that when it comes to preschool, basic biology should reign – biology of the bladder, that is. 

Letting the girls go to the potty first in preschool is a very bad idea. Let the kids who are holding their crotches go first, I say. For goodness sakes, they're not even 5! The spirit may be willing but the bladder is probably not terribly strong at that age.” 

What do you think? Are “gentlemanly” and “ladylike” types of behavior outdated? Should we just be focusing on general consideration towards others or are these still nice and worthwhile traditions to hold onto?

Related story: Gender-neutral preschool bans "he" and "she"

Dana Macario is a Seattle-area mom whose focus on etiquette has primarily been focused on getting her kids not to talk with their mouths full – baby steps.

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