Children replicate and challenge heteronormativity
Rainbow families and everyone’s right to love whomever they please are givens in many children’s perceptions of the world. Preschool policy documents also clearly state that children are to learn about different family structures. However, parallel to this, the games children play at preschool are still strongly characterised by heterosexual norms. These findings are described in a new thesis.
“The critical analysis of norms is both desired and questioned within preschool and children’s culture. There is a demand for preschools that actively work with the critical analysis of norms, and in children’s books addressing issues such as same-sex love. On the other hand, this approach is questioned by people who believe they are protecting children, on the basis of the idea of childhood innocence. I wanted to study these issues from a child’s perspective,” says Lena Sotevik, the author of the thesis.
Sotevik has conducted an ethnographic study at a preschool where she has observed the children at play to see how they replicate and challenge heterosexual norms. She could see that the games often replicate norms. For example, conflicts could arise when someone wanted two mums when playing mummy and daddy. Another example is the problem encountered when the children wanted to play weddings with Barbie dolls and discovered that there was only one Ken doll. The solution was that the single Ken doll had to be rotated around the many Barbie dolls. No one came up with the idea that the Barbie dolls could marry each other.
“Games often have a built-in narrative that is repeated. This is why norms can become more clearly and strongly established in them. But then again, when I spoke directly with the children about these matters, they said that a family could include two mums. This shows that just because they play in a particular way, it doesn’t mean that they think things have to be that way, or that they aren’t aware of other ways of being,” says Sotevik.
Reactive rather than proactive critical analysis of norms
In her thesis, Sotevik has also analysed policy documents in the form of the equality plans of 30 preschools. These plans clearly state that children are to learn about different family structures. The approach, however, is reactive rather than proactive.
“The preschools don’t plan activities to introduce different family structures in the children’s games. Instead, they intend to answer the children’s questions and deal with the matter when confronted with spontaneous situations.”
Sotevik has also studied reactions to a storyline in the Swedish cartoon Bamse depicting same-sex love and interviewed staff at an LGBTQ-certified preschool.
“This is clearly a highly charged issue. I’d like the study to result in continued discussions on how to understand queerness from a child’s perspective and for everyone to consider how they themselves highlight different norms concerning family, love and the future.”
Lena Sotevik’s disputation will take place at 1 pm on 5 February. The title of her thesis is Barbie weddings & Gay dogs. Children and Childhoods in relation to queerness and (hetero)normative life courses.