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Wanderlust: Norway's gender-bending kindergartners

Why does Norway have the smallest gap between genders? Ask a toddler.

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Illustration by Antler. (Sharron Lovell/GlobalPost)

OSLO, Norway – The children’s book “King & King” starts out like many other classic fairy tales.

Once upon a time, on the tallest hill above the town lived a queen, who decided it was time for her prince to marry. But the prince didn’t like any of the princesses paraded in front of him. And that’s when things got off the beaten path, so to speak.

The prince fell in love with a brother of one of the princesses and although the whole thing created a bit of a royal scandal at first, the queen — single mother by the sound of things — ultimately came to the conclusion the prince’s happiness is of utmost importance and encouraged him to follow his heart. The two princes became king & king and lived happily ever after.

When this book — translated from Dutch — was read to second graders in Massachusetts as a part of a “diverse wedding” theme day at school, it caused a national uproar. So much so that in 2006, concerned parents filed a federal lawsuit against the school district of Estabrook Elementary School in Lexington, claiming the school gave “sexual education without parental notification” and romanticized homosexual relationships.

Not so in Norway.

Here, the book has been widely endorsed by teachers and parents ever since it became recommended reading in kindergartens last year, along with other titles, such as “Malin’s Mother Gets Married to Lisa.” Other non-traditional stories have been introduced as well. The book “Snill” talks about a girl so nice she blends in with the tapestry. Another one tells a story about a boy frightened of his aggressive father.

These book suggestions are a part of an instructional manual, “Toolbox for Gender-Conscious and Equitable Early Childhood Education Centers,” that was distributed to kindergartens in Norway by an organization called Reform, Resource Center for Men, and funded by the European Commission.

The kit includes methods on how to implement gender equality into the curriculum of kindergartens and trains teachers to “push out the stereotypical, restrictive gender images” that children acquire from a very young age from the media, their families and general society.

The authors write in the manual that one of those methods is to change the roles in traditional fairy tales, where “the wolves and dragons are bad, princes are brave and princesses wait passively to be rescued,” and to let children react to the different scenarios, be it gay princes or princess warriors.

“It is the job of qualified teachers to support the children’s thirst for knowledge and eagerness to learn. Restrictive gender stereotypes, however, lead children to give up on certain journeys of discovery, actions and experiments at an early stage or prevent them from even trying these out at all,” they write.

Aside from case studies and question/answer sessions — such as how to react when children insist that they wanted the prince to marry a princess, not her brother – the kit covers all points of gender inequity that children at this age are beginning to be exposed to: stereotypical gender images and gender role “traps,” homophobia, lack of male role models in care-giving, and so on.

According to Ole Bredesen Nordfjell, an advisor at the Reform center, it’s been a very successful project so far.

“We’ve had positive feedback from teachers, as well as parents,” Bredesen Nordfjell said. The only pushback to date was from the Norwegian Christian newspaper, which raised a debate about whether kindergartens should tell same-sex fairytales and talk about same-sex parents with children, as if it was completely normal.

A small minority in Norway is still opposed to same-sex marriage — which is legal here — and representatives of this minority also responded skeptically toward the toolbox and the government's support of it, Bredesen Nordfjell said.

“But overall, the public debate mirrored a broad consensus within the Norwegian public, which is, ‘of course kindergartens must mirror and talk about same-sex parenting to children, it is a part of our society,’” he said.

Unlike many other countries where people roll their eyes at the mention of a gender quota, Norway is in a unique position because gender policies are widely popular here, Bredesen Nordfjell said.

“There’s broad public support for using money to create new policies. And there’s informed public debate in the mass media,” he said.

According to experts, political will to implement policy is one of the main reasons why Nordic countries routinely top different “best place to be a woman" lists as well as various “quality of life” lists.

Last year, Norway ranked first on the U.N. Human Development Index. It also made the top of the U.N. Gender Inequality Index as the country with the smallest gender gap. In a World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report published last year, Norway scored second, behind Iceland. In the same report, by comparison, the United States broke into the top 20 countries for the first time, but just barely. It scored 19th, penalized on categories such as “Years of Female Head of State,” as well as healthcare.

But it’s not just women in power that make Norway one of the world’s best places to be a female.

The commitment to dismantling gender stereotypes shows up throughought popular culture. In the Norwegian Airline in-flight magazine, for example, safety instructions show a man, not a woman, placing a mask over a baby’s mouth.

So how exactly has Norway become the place of utopia for gender equality?

Bredesen Nordfjell says society has a responsibility to take action. The process of achieving gender equality, he says, is no longer a woman’s crusade. “It’s a process shared by women and men,” he says.

Case in point, he himself is a heterosexual man, a husband and a father, working in a gender organization to improve gender equality, which he defines as “broadening identities” and improving resources, rather than fighting the differences between genders.

The idea that children have a diverse set of options in life and should be raised in an environment that reflects gender equality from day one is the basic concept behind the gender-conscious kindergarten plan.

Still, even in Norway, gender equality isn't easy.

So Norway’s Ministry of Children and Equality — yes, they have one — is committed to actively recruiting more men to work in kindergartens.

In 1990, only 5 percent of kindergarten employees were men. As a result of active recruitment, that ratio increased to 10 percent, the highest in Europe. Norway's goal is 20 percent.

“It is not an objective as such to have equal numbers of men and women in all professions, but to break with the visible and invisible barriers that stop girls and boys from taking untraditional choices,” wrote education minister Bård Vegar Solhjell in a government report.

“Gender equality is as important for boys as for girls, and measures must be aimed at both groups. Children and young people need both male and female role models.”

In addition to projects aimed at schools, Norway also has universal child care and — by American standards, at least — extremely generous parental leave benefits, both for mothers and fathers. Aside from 46 weeks of fully-paid parental leave, which either parent can take, fathers get an additional 10 weeks of paternal leave to encourage them to take an active role in childcare.

Anette Hoel, gender studies expert at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, said that the “daddy quota” has resulted in an increased number of men staying home with their children.

“This indicates, and research shows, that the hegemonic ideal of fatherhood is one of presence and care,” she said.

In order to prevent a massive and immediate exodus of American women to Norway, it should also be mentioned that Scandinavia has some of the highest taxes in the world to pay for these benefits.

According to 2009 OECD survey, Norway’s tax revenue as a percentage of gross domestic product was 41 percent, compared with 24 percent in the United States.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/offbeat/110525/wanderlust-sexual-equality-norwegian-kindergartens