THE SOCIOLOGY OF GENDER IN A
KINDERGARTEN-FIRST GRADE CLASSROOM
BARBARA A. MENDHEIM
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE COUNCIL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE
DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
For Merle, my mother
To the students and teacher of the class I observed, I
extend my sincere thanks. My stay with them was educational and
Friends and teachers have given important advice and encour-
agement during the years I have worked on this dissertation,
among them the members of my doctoral committee. Lyle McAllister
encouraged me to continue to the doctoral level, and I valued his
reassurance. Rodman Webb must also be singled out for special
thanks. His unfailing sense of humor, his intellectual clarity,
and his telling me about persons who carry small rulers up their
sleeves all put me in his debt. I want especially to thank Hal
Lewis, my chairman, for his guidance and generous assistance
throughout my graduate program. He has been supportive and critical
at the right moments and is regarded as a friend.
Gayle Zahos, my sister, helped me over some rough spots, and
without her help I'd probably still be on Chapter VII. Thank you,
Susie Weiss typed the dissertation quickly and carefully
under difficult circumstances, and I appreciate her expert work.
Finally, I want to thank Carl, my companion and teacher, who
helped me live through the Dark Years and still see some light.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS . . . . . . . .
ABSTRACT . . . . . . . . . .
I INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . .
General Objectives of the Dissertation .
The Social Setting and the Participants.
The Methodology and Collection of
Material . . . . . . . .
Definitions of Terms . . . . . .
II REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE . . . . .
Summary . . . . . . . .
Notes . . . . . . . . .
III METHODOLOGY AND PROCEDURE . . . .
Introduction . . . . . ...
Participant Observation Methodology. . .
Validity of the Study . . . . .
Time Span of the Observations . . .
Collection of Material . . . . .
The Concept of Typifications . . . .
Notes . . . . . . . . .
IV THE SOCIAL SETTING . . . . . .
General Information . . . . .
Notes . . . . . . . . .
V "GIRLS ARE LIKE WOMEN" . . . . .
Girls' Knowledge of Women . . . .
Mothers Are Women, Women Are Mothers . .
House: A "Girls' Game". . . . . .
Summary . . . . . .. . .
Notes . . . . . . . . .
TABLE OF CONTENTS--Continued
VI "GIRLS AND WOMEN ARE PRETTY" . . . . .
What Is Pretty? . . . . .
"Pretty Girls" and "Strong Boys". .
Having a Boyfriend Meant a Girl Was
Summary . . . . . . .
Notes . . . . . . . .
VII "GIRLS ARE NICE" . . . . .
. . .
"Nice Girls" and "Mean Boys" . . . .
"Nice Girls" and "Mean Girls" . . . .
"Boys Know How to Fight Better Than Girls".
Niceness, Meanness, Friendship, and Status.
Girls Hitting Boys . . . . . .
"Mean Boys" and "Nice Boys" . . . .
"Mean Boys" or "Strong Boys"? . . . .
The Ways Girls Responded When Boys Were
Mean to Them . . . . . . .
Nancy and Anne . . . . . . .
Summary . . . . . . . . .
Notes . . . . . . . . . .
VIII "BOYS ARE LIKE MEN" . . . . . .
What Are Men Like? Not Like Women . .
What Are Men Like? Men Are Tall, Big, and
Strong . . . . . . . .
What Are Men Like? Men "Do Things," Are
"Brave," and Adventurous . . . .
What Are Men Like? Men "Work" . . . .
Summary . . . . . . . . .
Notes . . . . . . . . . .
IX "BOYS GAMES": PRETENDING TO BE LIKE A MAN.
Common Elements in "Boys' Games" . .
The Development of the Outside Play as
"Boys' Games" . . . . . . .
Boys' Rules for "Boys' Games": "Playing
Right" . . . . . . . .
Girls and the Boys' Rules for "Playing
Right" . . . . . . . .
Summary . . . . . . . . .
Notes . . . . . . . . .
. . 302
. . 307
. . 314
. . 341
. . 346
. . 350
TABLE OF CONTENTS--Continued
X "STRONG BOYS AND TOUGH BOYS": BOYS LIKE US".
Criteria for Toughness: "Beating Up,"
"Winning," and "Losing" . . . . . .
Glenn and Shawn . . . . . . . . .
Summary . . . . . . . . . . .
Notes . . . . . . . . . . .
XI "BOYS ARE BETTER THAN GIRLS". . . . . .
Girls and the Idea that
Girls . . . .
Anne versus Shawn . .
Summary . . . .
Notes . . . . .
Boys Were Better than
XII CONCLUSION AND IMPLICATIONS . . . . . .
Conclusions . . . . . . . . . .
Implications . . . . . . . . .
BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . . . . . . . .
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH . . . . . . . . .
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate
Council of the University of Florida in Partial
Fulfillment of the Requirements for the
Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
THE SOCIOLOGY OF GENDER IN A KINDERGARTEN-
FIRST GRADE CLASSROOM
Barbara A. Mendheim
Chairman: Hal G. Lewis
Major Department: Foundations of Education
This dissertation is a report of a qualitative analysis of the
sociology of gender in a combination kindergarten-first grade
classroom which was part of a laboratory school affiliated with a
large university. The goals of this study were to describe what
gender meant to the children who were observed as they lived their
everyday lives within this particular social setting and to describe
how they used gender meanings to construct an intersubjectively
meaningful social world. Essentially, the purpose was to describe
the social reality of gender as the children subjectively appre-
hended it and objectively constructed it in day-to-day activity.
Participant observation and open-ended interviewing were the
methods used to collect material for analysis. The material was
gathered over a period of ten months from September 1974 to June
1975. Over 600 hours were used for observation. The situation in
the classroom was such that the 30 children were relatively free
from external constraints from adults and were consequently free
to pursue their own projects and construct their own social sys-
tem without immediate or pervasive adult intervention. Most of
the observations, then, were of children in interaction with other
children unmediated by direct adult influence.
In order to adequately represent the subjective experience of
the children a conscientious effort was made to bring as few pre-
conceptions about the nature of the phenomenon of gender as possi-
ble to the research setting, and analytical and phenomenological
categories were not used or constructed prior to the period of
observation. During the period of analysis and writing some
concepts from phenomenological sociology as developed by Alfred
Schutz became useful for understanding the meaning of the material
collected and for organizing it for presentation.
Schutz's theory of typification was especially useful.
Schutz's assumption is that knowledge of the social world is know-
ledge of its typicality and that language provides a unique
vehicle for persons to order their social experience, both as they
apprehend the meaning of events and act in the life-world. The
study was organized by reference to some of the essential typifi-
cations about gender that were shared by all the children of a
gender in the class. For girls, the essential meaning of being a
girl revolved around meanings having to do with personal related-
ness and intimacy with other people. Boys' typifications about
boys revolved around issues of power and competence in the world.
Girls' and boys' typifications about the other gender were dis-
cussed, especially in relation to their ideas about their own
Children's subjective meanings and objective social relations
were described. This study described some of the individually
held variations of meanings about gender, how children's shared
knowledge about gender was reflected in their everyday activity,
patterns of association, and status considerations, and how the
social relations which emerged were then apprehended by the
children as a validation of their essential typifications. The
study showed that the children concretely reproduced the essen-
tial forms of their typification about what same gender adults
were like, including the social distribution of knowledge and
place by gender. A central focus of the study was a description
of how gender and gender meanings were related to the social dis-
tribution of power by gender within this social setting.
General Objectives of the Dissertation
This dissertation is a report of a study in the sociology of
gender among kindergarten and first-grade children in a school
setting. The main goal of the study was to describe how the
children socially constructed gender by describing what they knew
about what it meant to be a girl or a boy, some of the ways that
externalized their knowledge in day-to-day activity, and how the
social relations and products they created and maintained through
their activity in turn influenced their ideas about gender.
The Social Setting and the Participants
The social context of the study was a combination kindergarten-
first grade self-contained classroom which was part of a laboratory
*school of a large southern university. There were 15 girls and 15
boys in the class. The social composition of the parental group
was a socioeconomic and racial mix but with a pronounced middle-
class, academic-professional majority. The children were taught by
a mature white female teacher who was occasionally assisted in a
minor capacity by other adults. In addition, the children
attended special area classes and were instructed by other teachers.
School personnel with whom the students were in daily contact had
no systematic or conscious program to modify the children's ideas
about gender. The students were allowed a great deal of unstruc-
tured time and had the freedom of movement to follow many of their
own impulses and to develop their own social reality without imme-
diate adult supervision.
The Methodology and Collection of Material
The material analyzed for this study was collected through
participant observation and open-ended interviews with each child.
The material was gathered over a period of ten months from Septem-
ber 1974 to June 1975. The general purposes of this study were
known by the teacher but not by the students.
Definitions of Terms
In this study gender refers to the psychological, cultural,
and social aspects of femaleness and maleness. Sex refers to those
aspects of femaleness and maleness that are typically designated as
biological. Gender identity refers to the sense that an individual
has that she/he is of a gender and includes a self-typification
about such an identity. Gender role refers to the expectations one
has for the self and others which are gender based or the result of
being said to be one gender and not the other. The components of
gender role are typified both in terms of types of performances and
types of actors and may include interests, activities, association,
sexual behavior, attitudes, skills, dress, and expressive modes.
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
This section has several interrelated goals. Some of the
most relevant research on the content of young children's ideas
about gender will be reviewed. There will be a limited considera-
tion of research on the school's role in sustaining, creating, or
changing children's ideas about gender. Finally, three studies
which are methodologically and substantively most similar to the
present study will be reviewed and discussed in order to illustrate
how this study is different from previous research on children and
gender within schools.
Sociologists and anthropologists, stimulated by the women's
liberation movement, have recently produced an important body of
theory and empirical research on gender and social organization.
However, this research has focused upon how adults, rather than
children, organize gender and how institutional structures organize
men and women rather than boys and girls. Children are taken into
account in studies of childrearing practices, and the relationship
of such practices to the reproduction of economic, political, and
social structures; but they are rarely studied as world-builders in
their own right, as persons who share knowledge about the social
world and knowingly act to create social reality.
Most research on gender that focuses on very young children's
perceptions of social reality has been by developmental
psychologists rather than by sociologists and anthropologists.
There are three main psychological theories of gender identity and
role development: psychoanalytic theory, social learning theory,
and cognitive developmental theory. Of the three, the cognitive
developmentalists, like the present author, emphasize the ideas
that children have about gender and the active role children take
in creating their reality within a gender-based context. In addi-
tion, the cognitive developmentalists often prefer open-ended
interviewing and a nonquantitative approach to more quantitative,
forced-choice methodology. Open-ended interviewing was one method
used to collect data in the present study.
Of the cognitive developmental psychologists, Lawrence
Kohlberg (1966) has provided the most comprehensive picture of
children's ideas about gender, through his own research and through
his interpretation of other studies which used more quantitative
methods. Consequently, the first part of this review will rely
heavily upon Kohlberg. It will not include, however, his complex
theoretical formulations. For this the reader is referred directly
An assumption of most empirically based research about
children and gender is that children are either male or female and,
above a certain age, know that they are. Though some children as
young as eighteen months can correctly identify their gender, by
the age of three, three-quarters of children.can correctly label
themselves as boy-s or girls (Kohlberg, 1966; Money & Ehrhardt,
1972; Thompson, 1975). According to Kohlberg, many children of
three do not know much of what it means to be a person of a
gender. Their gender label is understood to have the same status
as their names. Most persons of three do not know that everyone
is a gendered person, that gender is dichotomous, that one's
gender does not change, or that gender is essentially assigned
because of one's genitals (Kessler & McKenna, 1978; Kohlberg,
1966). According to phenomenologically based social scientists,
children of three do not know what Harold Garfinkel has identified
as the essential adult "rules" for socially constructing gender
(Kessler & McKenna, 1978).
Because very young children are ignorant of the adult assump-
tions about the nature of gender, children have what are considered
strange ideas about gender. For example, a three-year old might
know that if a man changes from pants to a dress he changes from
being a man to being a woman. A three-year old does not know the
rule that genitals, not dress, are the essential signs for attrib-
uting gender to another or to herself/himself. Similarly, because
young children do not know that one's gender stays the same
throughout life, a child of three, or even four or older, may know
that one's sister may be a daddy when she grows up. Very young
children are unaware that women were once girls and men were once
boys or that men or women are like they, the children, are.
Children know that other children are the same, or different, gender
as they are before they know that adults of the same gender are
like they are (Kohlberg, 1966).
The empirical research by Kohlberg and others showing that
three-year olds apparently do not know the essential rules of
gender construction necessary to stabilize their gender identities
seems to be in conflict with the clinical experience and observa-
tions of John Money and his associates (Money & Ehrhardt, 1972;
Money, Hampson, & Hampson, 1955). Money clinically studied
children who, for a variety of reasons, had developed gender iden-
tities counter to the gender others attributed to them, had ambig-
uous or poorly developed gender identities, or had been assigned
at birth, intentionally or mistakenly, a gender that was counter
to some aspects of their biological statuses as males or females.
Money found that, with proper environmental, surgical, and hormonal
support at puberty, children below the age of 18 months, and as
late as three years, could successfully become either girls or
boys and grow up to be men or women regardless of their biological
status. It was the assignment of gender and commitment to it that
was essential for a child to develop the desired identity and role
behaviors necessary to socially construct herself/himself as a girl
or a boy. However, after the age of three, according to Money, it
is typically easier and better for the child's psychological and
social well-being to allow a child who has an incorrect or socially
ambiguous identity to retain the identity she/he knows herself/
himself to be instead of trying to change the child's sense of
herself/himself as a girl or a boy to fit the child's biological
makeup. Money found that after three, changing a child's body was
easier than changing her/his mind.
Money identified three as the "critical age" to reassign
gender and said that after three the child was'resistent and con-
fused and the process of reassignment is extremely problematical.
Kohlberg (1966) and Kessler and McKenna (1978) contend, however,
that children of three may not even know their gender labels and
are very likely not to know that one's gender does not change
throughout life, the rule of invariance, as well as other rules
for socially constructing a gender identity. The apparent dis-
agreement has not been resolved. It may be that after a certain
period of time it is the significant adults in a child's life who
cannot sustain the reassignment. Kessler and McKenna have sug-
gested that very young children may have some, as yet, unknown way
of perceiving differences and similarities between persons like and
unlike themselves without recourse to notions of gender or cogni-
tion and labeling. Some of the transsexuals whom they interviewed
reported that their attempts to "pass" as their newly assigned
gender are often unsuccessful with very young children while suc-
cessful with older children and adults. Kessler and McKenna sug-
gest that research into this area, and other issues about gender
differences, have been hindered by the taken-for-granted, common
sense assumptions that scientists use to investigate gender.
By the age of five, most individuals have learned to cor-
rectly attribute a gender to themselves and others (Kohlberg,
1966). The cues they use to attribute gender reveal something
of what they know about gender, though not what their knowledge
signifies to them at a meaningful level. Using forced-choice
questionnaires researchers have found that most children know
that males and females have different hair lengths and wear dif-
ferent types of clothing and they use these cues to attribute
gender. Furthermore, these cues have priority for children over
cues that are more meaningful to most adults. In one study
(Thompson & Bentler, 1971), children of four, five, and six who
were asked to determine the gender of plastic dolls when the dolls
had the hair length of one gender and the genitals of the other,
had little trouble labeling the gender of the dolls even when they
were in conflict. Most children know that women have longer hair
then men and most based their choice on hair length regardless of
the genitals. An earlier study (Katcher, 1955) also demonstrated,
by forced-choice methods, the priority for children of hair length
and clothing over genitals to determine gender. In that study,
only 51% of five-year olds could correctly identify gender by gen-
itals. Among the six-year olds, 71% correctly attributed gender
to the pictures with genitals. The study indicates that as
children age they learn that genitals, like hair length and dress,
are generalizable by gender. At that age, biological penises and
vaginas have ceased to be only concrete objects and have assumed
the status of cultural objects with social meanings having to do
Kessler and McKenna (1978) have argued from a phenomenologic-
ally based perspective that attributing gender to oneself and
others is primary to the social construction of the reality of
gender. They write that once a gender attribution has been made in
course of a particular concrete interaction it is no longer neces-
sary for a person to continue to portray a gender for the other
person. The attributor does the rest for her/him. They write:
As a consequence of holding the natural attitude, the
attributor filters all of the actor's behaviors
through the gender attribution that was made, and the
actor's behaviors are made sense of within that con-
text. (p. 160)
Once a gender attribution is made, the dichotomization
process is set into motion. The cues involved in the
schema which led to the attribution are seen as con-
nected with a myriad of other cues which are conse-
quently also attributed to the person. (p. 161)
Once the rules for socially constructing gender have been learned
by children they tend to construct dimorphism where there was
continuity (Kessler & McKenna, 1978). Between the ages of five
and seven, almost all children have learned the adult rules for
constructing and attributing gender. At this age, most children
know that persons are either male or female; that everyone is of a
gender; that one grows up to be the same gender; and that adults
were the same gender when they were children (Kohlberg, 1966).
Research indicates that children have developmentally chang-
ing ways of viewing and interpreting perceived differences between
males and females. Using open-ended interviewing from a cognitive
developmental perspective, Ullian (1976) found that
. with increasing age, there are shifts in the
kinds of interpretations the individual gives to bio-
logical and social differences between males and
females. It is the nature of these interpretations,
rather than of the biological and social differences
per se, which shed light on the psychological
aspects of masculinity and femininity. (p. 25)
According to Ullian, children of six view differences between
males and females as based on size, strength, length of hair,
and voice characteristics and other external physical character-
istics. At this age a child knows that roles and labor are
socially distributed by gender but knows these differences are
derived from the external physical differences. At eight years
children begin to sense that gender exists somewhat independently
of external characteristics and relate, in some aspects, to role
training. Consequently, the social distribution of roles, labor,
and attitudes does not seem as compelling and inevitable as at six.
Ullian found that children often have become more aware of per-
sons' future roles within the social system. Children know that
roles in the economic and social sphere are distributed by gender
and they automatically, she says, begin to distribute the required
characteristics to members of each gender to enable them to ful-
fill their role obligations. In contrast to the tolerance of the
eight-year old, children of ten are quite rigid about conforming
to social expectations. Though the way children view and inter-
pret biological and social factors changes with age, the dichoto-
mized dimensions of power, competence, nurturance, and activity
remain stable throughout the developmental period to adulthood and
are distributed differentially by gender.
According to Kohlberg (1966), by about the age of five, six,
or seven, almost all children have learned that they are like same
gender adults. He contends that because children value things
like themselves, and because they strive for cognitive consistency
and moral and social conformity, they consciously choose behaviors
associated with the idealized adult gender type. They want to be
like same gender adults.
Researchers have found that at the age of four and five
children have some shared typified images of what men and women are
like. Using forced-choice questionnaires, Kagan and Lemkin (1960)
found that when asked direct and indirect questions about who was
"stronger,"3 more punitive, the "boss," "smarter," and of whom the
children were more afraid, a significant majority of children of
both genders answered the father rather than the mother. The ques-
tions about strength, smartness, and being the boss brought
especially high agreement among the boys that it was the father.
When asked which parent was more generous and "nicer," children of
both genders answered the mother, though agreement was not clearly
so high as upon fathers being stronger, smarter, and the boss.
Kagan and Lemkin found that almost all of the children wanted to
grow up "to be" and "to be like" the parent of her/his own gender.
Emmerich, Goldman and Shore (1971), using similar methodology,
found similar results. Hartley (1959) and Kohlberg (1966), using
open-ended interviews, found that children had similar ideas about
girls and boys as Kagan and Lemkin (1960) and Emmerich et al.
(1971) found that they had about adults.
Kindergarten and elementary school teachers have been criti-
cized for having and using stereotypical knowledge of boys/men and
girls/women. In several studies (Feshbach, 1969; Levitin &
Chananie, 1972; Loo & Wenar, 1971), teachers were asked to
describe or rate what their preschool and primary school students
were like along several dimensions. The teachers tended to rate
boys as more active, aggressive, and extroverted than girls.
According to the researchers, the teachers' ratings and descrip-
tions conflicted with systematic observation measurements which
found no gender differences in children's aggression or level of
activity. Their findings, however, are different from those
reported in other studies which found boys to be more physically
aggressive (Knudson, 1973; Spiro, 1958). A systematic observation
study of several cultures found that in each, boys were more likely
to act aggressively; girls were found to be more sociable in all
but one culture studied (Whiting, 1963).
Research based on social learning theory (Serbin, O'Leary,
Kent & Tonick, 1973) found that teachers reinforced, through posi-
tive or negative attention, aggressive behavior by boys but not
dependent behavior. For girls, teachers reinforced dependent
behavior but not aggression. The study did not report teachers'
perceptions of their behavior.
In every known society, primary responsibility for children
and essential social location, domestic or public, are distributed
or assigned by gender in an interrelated manner. Women are home
because they take care of children, men are not because they do
not. Some anthropologists and sociologists suggest that this
asymmetrical distribution of labor and place accounts for women's
powerlessness in relation to men (Chodorow, 1978; Rosaldo, 1974;
Strathern,1976). Polatnick (1973) contends that power is the
reason for the division. She argues that, for a number of reasons,
being at home with children reduces women's power relative to
men's, and that men don't rear children because of the reduced
power connected to childrearing, rather than because of a "natural"
and inevitable biological relationship between women and children.
Kohlberg (1966) has found that children of five and six, and
even younger, articulate these universal divisions of labor,
place, and power when asked open-ended questions. They know that
women are home with children and that men are outside, beyond the
home. Using a combination of interviewing and forced-choice ques-
tionnaires, researchers found similar images of men and women among
five- and eight-year old girls and boys (Hartley, 1959, 1960;
Hartley & Klein, 1959; Schlossberg & Goodman, 1972).
According to Mead (1935), the prestige values of every known
society are always attached to the activities of men and the way
men are thought to be. Women are always accorded an inferior value.
She found this to be the case despite the variability in masculine
and feminine patterns from culture to culture. Open-ended question-
ing of American children has revealed that some children as young
as four are aware of the differential prestige attached to being a
woman or a man (Kohlberg, 1966). Kohlberg suggests that children's
perception of superior male prestige sterns from young children's
attraction to adults who are perceived as competent, in control of
resources, and powerful. Children's perception of men/fathers as
more powerful and more instrumentally competent has been found by
researchers using forced-choice methodology (Kagan & Lemkin,
1960) and open-ended interviewing (Ullian, 1976).
As previously noted, both Kohlberg (1966) and Ullian (1976)
found that children know that masculine power is primarily derived
from men's larger size and strength. Kohlberg suggests that
children perceive this size difference directly, not, for instance,
because it is taught to them directly by others. Both Kohlberg and
Ullian found that children believed that size and strength mediated
other more social factors, such as occupation which children also
knew gave men power.
Schools have been accused of sustaining and even encouraging
children's knowledge about gender differences in instrumental
competence, social prestige and power, nurturance behavior, and
roles and occupations. Some critics contend that teachers behave
differently with boys and girls, depending upon typified knowledge
of what children are like rather than perceiving the child as a
unique individual. There is a body of research that supports the
contention that teachers'interaction with boys and girls is differ-
ent. For instance, one systematic observation study (Serbin et al.,
1973; Serbin & O'Leary, 1976) reported that teachers spent more
time teaching boys than girls, especially when teaching instrumental
type skills. After explaining a procedure requiring motor and
instrumental competence, for instance, using a stapler to attach
paper handles on a basket, teachers tended to patiently assist boys
as theo boys completed the task themselves. With girls, teachers
were more likely to complete the task for them rather than teach
them how to do the task themselves. One problem with assessing
the meaning of such research is that one does not know, but can
only guess, about the interaction between students and teachers.
One cannot know, for instance, whether children behaved differ-
ently toward the teacher and thus elicited such behavior. Or what
meaning the help from the teacher had for the girls, boys, and
Another gender-related aspect of what Henry (1966) called
the "hidden curriculum" of schooling is the content of children's
literature and textbooks. Analysis of textbooks and literature by
a number of researchers (Feminists on Children's Media, 1971;
Key, 1971; O'Donnell, 1973; Women on Words and Images, 1974) has
revealed that they support the images of men and boys, women and
girls, which characterize children's knowledge about gender dif-
ferences in power, occupation, role, nurturance, competence,
activity level, and sphere of operation. In addition, male char-
acters were found to outnumber female characters about three to
one or more. Some educators defend this unequal distribution of
characters with the explanation that boys won't read books about
girls and girls will read books about boys. Consequently, if
children's books aren't about boys, boys will be penalized in the
development of their reading skills. Feminist critics respond
that boys won't read books about girls because girls are portrayed
in such an uninteresting manner (Women on Words and Images, 1974).
In addition, feminists charge that the portrayals and the ratio of
male to female characters may teach girls that they are less
interesting and important persons than boys, whatever the explicit
intentions of publishers and educators in using such materials.
Schools have also been charged with perpetuating the idea
that power in public roles is a prerogative of men through the
"hidden curriculum" of the hierarchical relations of authority in
elementary schools. Examination of the issue by Johnson (1971)
showed that most school administrators are men though 80% of ele-
mentary school teachers are women and that the percentage of female
elementary principals has progressively declined from 55% in 1928
to 20% in 1973. According to feminists, this hierarchical rela-
tionship teaches and reinforces the knowledge that power and men
are associated in public roles and that women, including their
women teachers, are supposed to be less powerful and less of an
authority than men.
Despite differences in prestige attached to men and women,
girls, as well as boys, of all ages between three and 14 seem to
prefer persons of their own gender when asked about preferences
directly or through the use of projective questions. Children of
four and five were shown sets of pictures, each with a girl and a
boy, and were asked whom of each pair they would choose as a
friend. In general, children preferred same gender friends.
Children observed in schools also played more with same gender
persons (Belotti, 1976; Cadmus, 1974; Knudson, 1973). Other
researchers (Hartley et al., 1962) asked children eight to 11
years old whether they would rather have a boy or a girl baby
when they grew up and had children. To determine how children
viewed adult preferences between boys and girls the children were
also asked about a fantasized couple who wanted to adopt a child.
Those children who expressed a preference between a boy or a girl
baby preferred a baby of their own gender. Children also thought
that women would prefer girls and men would prefer boys. In this
study no questions were asked about the reasons for preferences.
Smith (1939) presented children ages eight to 14 with a list
of 33 traits which had been designated by experienced teachers as
desirable or undesirable. Children were asked to indicate whether
a trait was more like a girl or a boy. Children of all ages
assigned more positive traits to their gender than to the other,
and in general saw their gender more positively. However, with
increasing age, boys expressed a progressively lower relative
opinion of girls; girls, by contrast, increasingly expressed a
higher opinion of boys relative to themselves. By the age of 14
girls thought almost as well of boys as they did of girls.
Quantitative type research on college age men and women
found that persons of that age of both genders tend to construe
and construct reality using the assumption that what is linked to
men is better (McKee & Sherriffs, 1957). Goldberg (1968) gave
college women sets of booklets with the same six articles in six
professional fields including some traditionally associated with
women, some with men, and some with neither gender. In some book-
lets an article would have the name of a female author, in
another booklet the same article would carry the name of a man.
The college women were asked to evaluate the articles on several
criteria. The results showed that when articles had the names of
men they fared significantly better than when the same article
was presumed to be authored by women. College women perceived
men as being more competent even in areas which were traditionally
viewed as being a woman's sphere.
Findings from forced-choice research by Brown (1957) show
that the decrease in girls' relative preference for femininity
begins at age five. Kohlberg (1966) notes that this decline cor-
responds with an age-developmental perception of superior male
prestige, power and competence.
What gender means to children is revealed by their behavior
as well as by what they say. However, most of the research about
children's behavior has not been considered within an intentional
context and the question of how children themselves articulate the
meaning of their behavior has not been a specific concern of most
research. Instead, patterns of behavior are identified through
observation and are counted, by agreement within a science, as
instances of some type of behavior. Alternatively, observers enter
the field with observational instruments listing concrete behaviors
which, again by agreement within a science, are said to represent
instances of certain types of behavior. When the particular
behaviors are observed they are counted and quantified. The
research goals are to measure frequencies of behavior,not to
describe the meaning children give to their own behavior. There
may be some speculation on the part of the researcher, however, on
A study by Knudson (1973), a primatologist,4 illustrates
the latter methodology and will be described here to show how the
present study, by contrast, will focus on the meaning of the
behavior to the actor rather than on behavior per se. Knudson's
study, "Sex Differences in Dominance Behavior of Young Human
Primates," was concerned with counting the frequencies of certain
behaviors among nursery school children which she believed had to
do with dominance and submission. The results of the observations
were statistically analyzed in relation to a number of other vari-
ables such as size, age, and presence of siblings in the classroom.
Knudson found that boys were, on the average, more physically
aggressive and that girls were more verbally aggressive than boys.
She reported that boys, unlike girls, had a relatively well defined
hierarchy of dominance, and were generally more dominant than girls.
Knudson's findings were consistent with other studies that showed
that though there were average differences in aggressive behavior
*of the genders, no behavior was entirely exclusive to one gender.
He data also showed that intergender variation of dominant and
submissive behavior was more significant than intragender varia-
tion. Several conclusions may be drawn from considering these
data, but it cannot be known what the behaviors meant to the
children because their subjective meanings were not reported.
The extent to which Knudson was unconcerned with the partic-
ipants' own meanings was illustrated by an aGcount she gave of
one subject, a girl who was counted for several days as a boy.
Unlike other girls, she regularly played with boys outside and
exhibited what Knudson called "rough and tumble" play. Knudson
did not say how the girl or the other children'interpreted the
girls' behavior. Did they count her as a girl or a boy or was
gender even relevant to them? How did she perceive herself? Was
she potentially a transsexual or did she give meaning to her
behavior within the experience of a girl's identity? More gener-
ally, what did the children in the classes observed make of the
different patterns of behavior of girls and boys? Did girls and
boys interpret the meaning the same or differently? Were there
no shared gender meanings but only individually determined mean-
As a primatologist, Knudson approached human behavior with
the same methodology and in the same terms as nonhuman primate
behavior. This meant, among other things, considering behavior
independently of meanings constituted in language. The intention
of the present study is not to question the legitimacy or value
of systematic observation methodology, or Knudson's findings, but
to illustrate that a methodology which can result in a child's
being counted for several days as a member of the wrong gender
is not adequate to understanding a child's subjective meaning
within an objective context.4
There is current research on gender and children within
school settings that has used participant observation methodology,
or a similar approach, to collect material for analysis. However,
these studies have had different theoretical orientations and
purposes than this study. Three recent studies using similar
field methods to study gender will be discussed at this point to
illustrate how the central concerns of those studies are different
from present concerns.
A fundamental difference is that all three studies have
employed the conceptual framework of socialization. The primary
emphasis in socialization research is upon environmental factors
which act upon a child and to which she or he reacts. Much of
the quantitative based research previously discussed has also
used the socialization approach to ask questions about children.
The active role of the child in structuring reality is theoretic-
ally assumed by some researchers but in practice is typically
neglected or viewed as a secondary goal.5 The primary question in
most socialization based research is how do social agents--schools,
the media, parents, and other institutions--induct children into
gender roles and what are the processes of transmission? The
question is a good one but not a useful one for answering how
children construct their own social reality.
Pivnick (1974) used the socialization framework and partici-
pant observation field methods to study gender and children in a
first-grade classroom in a somewhat traditional school setting.
Pivnick wanted to determine what teacher behaviors, institutional
structures, and school materials supported or challenged what she
had previously identified as the conventional "sex-role expecta-
tions" (or gender role) for adults in adult society. She reported
that there were a few, relatively minor ways that teachers differ-
entially responded to girls and boys which reflected teacher gender
role expectations, but there were no systematic attempts to teach
gender roles directly. Teaching gender roles through school
materials was, however, a different matter. Like previous
Researchers who had investigated children's media, Pivnick found
that characters were extremely gender typed and that boy charac-
ters were by far the most notable and commanding. Pivnick noted
that there were no attempts on the part of teachers to present
alternative nontraditional views of the genders.
Pivnick did not explicate children's conceptions of gender,
nor were their ideas very often portrayed indirectly through
description of behavior. Children's talk and behavior were
usually discussed only when they were part of a teacher-child
interaction presented to illustrate the teacher's gender role
expectations and what she was doing to socialize children into
Belotti (1976) used field observation methodology, as well
as material collected from observing and participating as a member
of Italian society, to answer the question posed as the title of
her book, What Are Little Girls Made of?6 Part of her discussion
concerned children's participation in games and rituals,
children's literature and toys, and the role of the school in
socializing girls and boys into their respective gender roles.
She found that most Italian nursery school teachers knowingly and
unknowingly inducted children into conventional gender roles.
Some of her findings are particularly interesting because they
demonstrate differences and similarities between American and
Italian culture in the gender area. Though not setting out to
\study children's knowledge about gender, in the process of
describing how parents, teachers, book publishers, and the mass
media socialized children, she paints a rich picture of girls and
boys. One senses something of how they gave meaning to and con-
structed their world. On the other hand, she never explicitly
states what they know in their own terms. The reader is left to
ponder whether her imaginings about children's experience reflect
their actual interpretation of their experience. In general, the
focus of the study was on how adults organized children's reality
rather than upon how children organized their own reality within
a gender-based context.
Another briefer study which utilized the methodology of
participant observation in a natural setting and the conceptual
framework of socialization was Joffe's (1971) research in a self-
consciously progressive nursery school in California. Her stated
purposes were to determine the school's role in the transmission
of gender role expectations and to determine how the children them-
selves conceived of their gender role obligations. She found that
though the school was theoretically and politically committed to
minimizing gender-typed socialization, some adults, especially
helping parents, inadvertently transmitted cues about what was
appropriate, expected behavior for the genders. Since the school
was dependent upon outside sources for children's media, the media
werefound to lag far behind the school's progressive posture about
Joffe implicitly retained the perspective of socialization
when she attempted to examine how children perceived gender roles.
Instead of referring children's talk and behavior to their own
conceptions of gender, Joffe referred what they said and did to
what she knew about the meaning of adult gender roles and behavior.
To illustrate, Joffe described several events where one child
rejected another's use of toys or objects by reference to gender.
"Girls only!" a girl yelled to a boy who wanted to join her on a
large structure in the playground. The boy countered, "No! Boys
only!" Joffe suggested that because the behavior of exclusion was
reciprocal it was, in her words, "meaningless." She continued,
saying, ". . one can reasonably conclude that to neither of the
contestants is there any serious belief in an essential 'male' or
'female' aspect of the structure under dispute" (p. 472). She
designated this gender-based exclusion as part of an "ideology of
control" but again related it to the experience of adults rather
than to the experiences and meanings of the children. Joffe wrote
In sum, we might look at the use of sex as an ideology
of control in childhood as a revealing caricature of
the adult world and its usage of sex categories. Like
these children, adults also invoke sex as a means of
behavior control; the crucial differences are that
among adults, the two categories are utilized in a
patterned way (some would call it male supremacy) and
both male and female adults--unlike these children--
actually behave in accordance with this ideology.
From Joffe's treatment of this event we know two things. First,
what the children did and said, and second, what Joffe herself knew
about adult gender patterns of behavior and adult meanings. What
we do not know, and cannot know from her presentation and
analysis, is what the children knew about gender and what meaning
the event had for them. In the present study, such an event or
pattern of events was further analyzed to assess how it expressed
children's knowledge about gender, and constructed the concrete
reality of gender as children articulated meaning in their own
terms. To declare that such behavior is meaningless because it
does not conform to prior knowledge about adults' meanings is a
way of not taking children seriously as social constructors of
reality. It would be analogous, I think, to characterizing a
third world people's attempts to modernize along the Western
industrial model, within their own concrete cultures and societies,
as a caricature and meaningless because they had not yet become
Westernized and modernized. To observe third world persons on
television with grass skirts, outhouses, and McDonald hamburgers
does provide a mirror of sorts for Americans. But what do these
'things mean to them? Certainly they do not experience themselves
McKay (1974) has suggested that children are in possession
of their own culture or succession of cultures and are competent
interpreters of their social world just as adults are competent
interpreters of their world. He has criticized researchers for
studying children using the notion of socialization. He contends
that it is an expression of the sociologist's common-sense and
taken-for-granted position in the world of everyday as an adult.
As such, socialization analyses essentially mirror the adult
sociologist's view that children are incomplete human beings for
not having yet been socialized and that adults, by contrast, are
complete. McKay complains that socialization research is "for-
ward looking" in the sense that the child is not considered on
her/his own terms but as someone in the process of becoming some-
thing else, that is, an adult, a complete human being. Children
should be approached by sociologists just as anthropologists
approach members of other cultures: on their own terms. The next
section of the dissertation will propose a framework for studying
children and gender on the children's own terms.
A review was made of some of the most relevant empirically
based research on gender and young children to describe what
researchers have found that children, especially of the ages four
through seven, know about gender. The review of the research
using methodology other than participant observation indicated
that children typify and construct gender along several dimensions.
First, by the age of seven most children know that there are two
and only two genders, that they are different from one another,
that everyone is of a gender, and that gender is invariant. Sec-
ond, children know that power, types of competencies, social loca-
tion, social function, attitudes, physical traits, and expressive
style are distributed by gender.
Some of the research on the school's role in differentiating
and typing by gender was briefly reviewed. In general, it seemed
schools and teachers tended to support children's notions about
gender, as delineated by the research on children's ideas, rather
than to change or modify them.
Three gender studies which used participant observation type
methodology were reviewed and contrasted to the present study. It
was found that these studies, representative of the genre, used
the framework of socialization to examine children and gender within
school settings. The studies tended to ignore or gloss children's
own conceptions of gender and did not seriously consider how
children constructed gender in day-to-day activity. In conclu-
sion, it seemed that no current research had the goals of the pres-
ent research: to explicate children's ideas about gender and to
demonstrate and describe how they used those ideas to construct
reality in day-to-day activity in interaction with other children
within the social setting of the school over time.
1. See especially Chodorow (1978), Rosaldo and Lamphere, eds.
(1974), Reiter, ed. (1975), and Rubin (1975) for some good
examples of the development of feminist theory and empirically
2. For a contemporary formulation of psychoanalytic theory and gen-
der development see Stoller (1968, 1975); for the classic
statement see Freud (1925). For a complete statement of
social learning theory and gender development see Mischel
(1966, 1970). See Kohlberg (1966) for a cognitive-develop-
mental analysis of the development of gender. For a phenom-
enologically based critical analysis of these positions see
Kessler and McKenna (1978). Kessler and McKenna (1978) have
made an important contribution to gender.research and feminist
theory with their recently published work, Gender: An
ethnomethodological approach, and have provid-ed the foundation
for a phenomenological theory of gender development. Unfor-
tunately, this work was not available at the time the present
study was formulated or for the bulk of the analysis and writ-
ing. It is recommended to anyone interested in gender
research, whatever their theoretical orientation. Their com-
plex analysis cannot be adequately considered within the
review of the literature for this study.
3. The quotation marks signify the exact phrases or terms used by
the researchers in their questionnaires rather than phrases
or terms introduced by children.
4. For a feminist reinterpretation of primate studies see
5. Some of the research of Hartley (1959) is a notable example of
a balanced approach where the views of the children are taken
into account. See especially Hartley (1959).
6. Belotti's (1976) book is especially notable for its implicit
male bias and value system for assessing the meaning of little
girls' behavior. If the girls are typical girls she expresses
contempt for them. Belotti also expresses class-based contempt
for women Italian nursery school teachers who, according to her,
are usually from the lower classes.
METHODOLOGY AND PROCEDURE
The goals of this study were to describe what gender meant
to the subjects of the study as they lived their everyday lives
within this particular social setting and to describe how they used
gender meanings to construct an intersubjectively meaningful
social world. Essentially, the purpose was to describe the social
reality of gender as the children subjectively apprehended it and
objectively constructed it in day-to-day activity. The method of
inquiry best suited to realize these phenomenological goals was the
method called participant observation. This section will discuss
participant observation methodology and the criteria for the valid-
ity of the study. It will then discuss the actual collection of
material for the study.
Participant Observation Methodology
As used for this research, participant observationI is a
term that refers to the "circumstances of being in or around an
ongoing social setting for the purpose of making a qualitative
analysis of that setting" (Lofland, 1971, p. 93). It is an
attempt to be close to and study the people who live in that
setting in order to understand their meanings and lived experi-
ence by observing them over time and recording their activities
and utterances as they naturally go about their everyday lives.
A central requirement for understanding the subjective mean-
ings of the subjects of a study is that the participant observer
enter the natural setting with as few preconceptions about the
nature of the phenomena to be observed and described as possible.
Zaner (1973) writes
To seek to understand the social world as it is for
those whose social world it is is possible only if
one practices the systematic art of listening to them
in their own terms and attends to the "social world"
they construct for themselves. "Listening" as I
intend it here, is no mere fetish, but requires the
careful construction of devices--models and ideal
types, analysis of common vernaculars, study of the
multiple forms of expression .--by which an
attuneful and appreciative "seeing" of social worlds
can alone occur, one which is adequate and faithful
to the "things themselves" in their own proper set-
tings. (pp. 41-42)
The construction of analytical and phenomenological categories must
emerge during the observation and analysis, and not prior to it, to
adequately represent the subjective experience of those studied.
Lofland (1971) describes the commitment of one doing phenomenologi-
cal inquiry as a commitment to "represent the participants in their
own terms" and, therefore, it is necessarily a process of dis-
covery, a process of learning what is happening while one is
engaged in the world of the subjects. He writes that "one must
find out about those terms rather than impose upon them a precon-
ceived or outsider's scheme of what they are about" (p. 41). The
participant observer must approach phenomenon in a manner which
allows it to appear to her/him as it is in itself prior to any
theoretical interpretation of it.
Lofland (1971) characterizes the role of the participant
observer as that of a reporter who has "taken the role of the
other" and who,by the depiction and presentation of what life is
like for her/his subjects, allows the readers to at least par-
tially project themselves into the point of view of those who have
been depicted. He writes
. the reporter should have himself been close to
the people he reports on. By the term "close" I
refer to four types of proximity. (1) He should
have been close in the physical sense of conducting
his own life in face-to-face proximity to the per-
sons he tells about. (2) This physical proximity
should have extended over some significant period of
time and variety of circumstances. (3) The reporter
should have developed closeness in the social sense
of intimacy and confidentiality. . (4) He should
have conducted his recording activities in such a way
that his reportage can give close and searching atten-
tion to minute matters. He should have paid atten-
tion to the minutiae of daily life.
Lofland lists several requirements for the report itself.
The report should be truthful. It should describe
what the reporter in good faith believes actually
went on; it should be factual.
The report should contain a significant amount of
pure description of action, people, activities, and
Fully to capture the reality of a place, the report
should contain direct quotations from the partici-
pants as they speak and/or from whatever they write
down. (pp. 3-4)
The primary goal of the participant observer is a descrip-
tion of the characteristics of a phenomenon rather than an analysis
of causes or consequences. Berger and Luckma.nn (1967) make this
clear when they write
The phenomenological analysis of everyday life, or
rather of the subjective experience of everyday life,
refrains from any causal or generic hypotheses, as
well as from assertions about the ontological status
of the phenomena analyzed. It is important to remem-
ber this. Conmon sense contains innumerable pre- and
quasi-scientific interpretations about everyday real-
ity, which it takes for granted. If we are to describe
the reality of common sense we must refer to these
interpretations, just as we must take account of its
taken-for-granted character--but we must do so within
phenomenological brackets. (p. 20)
"Bracketing" refers to the technique of suspending the belief in
the constancy and independent existences of phenomena by treating
our own taken-for-granted assumptions as beliefs rather than as
inmmutable reality. By bracketing questions and assumptions about
the origin and ontological status of phenomena, an observer may
better explicate how the subjects themselves ongoingly construct
and, perhaps, articulate notions of causality. In this study,
unless the antecedents of some aspect of the phenomena of gender
were present and apprehended by the observer, the cause of the
aspect was not considered or, if considered, will be clearly iden-
tified as conjecture.
Analysis primarily takes the form of an ordering of the sub-
ject's categories for understanding and constructing the social
world. The task of the observer, then, is to engage herself/him-
self in the world of the subjects while at the same time maintain-
ing the stance of a disinterested observer who, being disinterested,
can render an explicit objective account2 of the manner in which the
subjects themselves structure, order, and account for their experi-
ence, regardless of the ultimate validity or invalidity of the
knowledge upon which such ordering is based (Berger & Luckmann,
1967). The point in the present study was to tell how it was for
the subjects. What did the subjects know and what did they do,
considered from the perspective of gender?
A participant observer basically has three sources of
material available to develop this description of the subjects'
world. First, the researcher has face-to-face access to the con-
versations and acts of the subjects as they live in their natural
attitude of everyday reality, an attitude which the observer seeks
to leave undisturbed by her/his presence. By observing the sub-
jects over an extended period of time the researcher may determine
the typical individual and shared meanings subjects use to define,
interpret, and apprehend the people, objects, and events within
their concrete social setting. By carefully examining the material
collected, the researcher should be able to describe the explicit
and implicit motivational and explanatory schemes that recur over
time and that seem to be essential and central to the subjects'
production of their meaningful social order as they daily construct
The researcher also has access to the objects which the sub-
jects produce in the form of written documents, arts and crafts,
tools, toys, and so on. The participant researcher should become
aware of subjects' shared meanings expressed within and by the use
of such objects.
Finally, the participant observer must also utilize her/his
own experience as a person who lives in the world as well as
studies the world. Part of the task of the observer is to critic-
ally reflect upon the nature of the observed phenomena as it
appears in her/his own consciousness.3 The observer must explicitly
recognize that she/he perceives the social world in terms of humanly
constructed meaningful patterns and not as meaningless sense per-
ceptions. This recognition must occur not simply to guard against
bias and projection but must occur as a recognition of what
actually occurs during sociological work. The sociologist as
observer inevitably employs her/his own meanings as a resource
shared with participants in order to make sense of their acts and
conversations. Turner (1974) makes this point when he writes that
. . the task of the sociologist in analysing naturally occurring
scenes is not to deny his competence in making sense of activity
but to explicate it" (p. 214). The ultimate goal of the observer
is to describe the life-world of the subjects and not to render an
account of her/his own experience. In practice, the analysis and
description depend upon reflection on the content and assumptions
which structure one's own consciousness of the phenomena. The ren-
dering of the other's world depends upon self-understanding on one's
own life-worldly experience.
Participant observation methodology has been used extensively
by sociologists for qualitative analysis of natural settings, but
the methodology has not been used extensively for studying the
setting of the school. In those school-based studies that have
employed the methodology of participant observation the goals and
theoretical assumptions of the research have been different from the
present goals and assumptions. In general, such research has
intended less phenomenological goals. Three studies that used par-
ticipant observation methodology to study aspects of gender within
a school setting were previously discussed in Chapter II.
Validity of the Study
Phenomenologically based studies using the methodology of
participant observation have clearly different goals from studies
which employ quantitative methods of analysis. Quantitative studies
seek to provide reliable generalizations about and systematic
empirical measures of the frequencies of events. They seek to pro-
vide evidence of the causes and consequences of social phenomena.
By contrast, qualitative studies seek to be descriptive rather than
explanatory. The goals are to describe human social experience in
its own, perhaps situationally unique, humanly derived terms and
not translate experience into quantitative terms.
If the criterion for the validity of qualitative studies of
everyday life is not verifiability with other research, as it is
for quantitative studies, what are the criteria for determining
validity? Psathas (1973) identifies the "key issue" for studies of
everyday life as "whether the results of an inquiry fit, make
sense, and are true to the understanding of ordinary actors in the
everyday world" (p. 12). He proposes three "tests" to determine
the validity of such studies.
One test of the validity of investigations lies in the
extent to which the findings are faithful to and con-
sistent with the experience of those who live in that
world. Are the findings faithful representations,
descriptions, accounts, or interpretations of what
those who ordinarily live those activities would them-
selves recognize to be true? If second order con-
structs were translated back into the first order
constructs to which they refer, would the observer's
report be recognized as a valid and faithful account
of "what the activity is really like"?
A second test is whether the descriptions and accounts
of the activity would allow others--not directly know-
ledgeable as to their occurrence but sharing the same
cultural stock of knowledge--to recognize the activi-
ties if confronted with them in the life-world after
having only read or seen the account presented by the
social scientist analyst. (p. 12)
The third test suggested by Psathas is one which he describes
as more difficult and not relevant to all studies. Basically, can
the "reader" of a social scientist's report become a "player" in
the everyday world of those who ordinarily participate in that
world merely as a result of having read the report?
Lofland (1971) had a similar assessment as Psathas about the
key issue for questions of validity of studies of the everyday world
of subjects. He wrote
. the best and most stringent test of observer con-
structions is their recognizability to the participants
themselves. When participants themselves say "Yes,
that is there, I had simply never noticed it before,"
the observer can be reasonably confident that he has
tapped into extant patterns of participation. (p. 34)
Time Span of the Observations
To increase the depth and scope of my understanding of how
children understood gender and reconstructed a sense of gender in
their everyday lives, it seemed necessary that I be present for a
considerable period of time. Consequently, I observed in the
setting for over 600 hours, over a period of ten months, from the
first day of school in September until the last day of school in
June. For the first three weeks of the school year I was present
at all times while the children were at school so that I could
become aware of the attitudes and behaviors characteristic of the
students prior to their entry into this situation as well as to
observe the development of social relations from their beginning.
From the fourth week of school until school recessed for the holi-
days in December, I was present except for three afternoons a week.
On those days, I left the school one and one-half hours before the
children left for the day. When school resumed in January, I
observed continuously for another week. After that week I observed
at irregular intervals to monitor new developments. During the
last five weeks of school I was present almost continuously, either
observing or interviewing.
During the period of observation, I accompanied the children
as a single group, in small groups, or individually everywhere they
went during the school day. We went to the school cafeteria, music
class, physical education, the library, the school nurse, all over
the playground, and on short field trips. In addition, I attended
events which took place at times other than regular school hours.
For instance, I attended the elementary school Open House just
prior to the holiday recess. I also attended after school confer-
ences that the teacher had with the practicum students from the
Collection of Material
There were three concrete methods used to collect material
for analysis. By far the most important method was to observe the
children, teachers, and other actors while keeping a running
account of what was occurring in the form of written field notes.
The second most important method for collecting material was to
interview the teacher and each of the children individually, using
a format of open-ended questions. A third, quite minor method was
to have each child participate in a picture-selection task. Because
of the way each of these specific techniques was utilized, each
must be considered part of the general methodology of participant
observation rather than as separate methods. This section will
concern itself with the actual collection of the material in order
to provide an account of the research process, the usefulness of
the methodology within school settings, and an account of the gen-
eral nature of the particular setting.
Depending upon the social context and the necessities of
the research goals, the method called participant observation may
refer to a number of different behaviors, research postures, and
levels of engagement on the part of the researcher. There is,
however, an attitude which is necessary in order to use the method
properly, an attitude of nonjudgemental perception and a mental
posture of disengaged reflection. This attitude and research
posture reflect the primary assumption of qualitative research
that it is possible for the researcher to transcend her/his
common sense taken-for-granted notion of the world in order to
reflect upon and describe the social reality of others, while
being a person who lives both with and within that social reality.
This process is described in the literature in a number of ways.
One is supposed to "empty" oneself of presuppositions, to be
"open" to the phenomena, and to let the situation reveal itself in
consciousness by "seeing" instead of "thinking." By assuming this
attitude, one is able to apprehend experience at different and
deeper levels of meaning.
The successful acquisition of this attitude is typically
influenced by at least two factors. It is influenced by the emo-
tional and cognitive style familiar and habitual to the researcher
in her/his natural attitude, and by the demands for engagement
made upon the observer by other people within the research setting.
In this research, the greater problem was modifying my
habitual cognitive process. The first and most essential lesson I
had to learn as an observer was to monitor my normative judging
process and my tendency to abstract phenomena prematurely. Both
tendencies had to become conscious so that I could "see" without
knowing what I was going to see in advance, to see what was there
instead of merely seeing a reflection of my preconceptions or
abstractions. From observing I understood at a more profound
level what don Juan meant when he cautioned Carlos Castenada
(1971) to stop his "internal dialogue" and rely on his senses. My
strong tendency to abstract phenomena before "seeing" what
actually composed the phenomena constituted a serious liability for
understanding the nature of others' subjective'experience and
describing it. It necessitated a constant process of"taking apart"
my abstractions so that I might understand events better. The
process of recording events concretely and behavioristically
while in the field, rather than interpretatively, was a useful
method for monitoring this tendency.
A device developed for the practical purposes of observation
helped me to learn how to stop the judging and premature abstract-
ing process. I had been aware from the beginning of the observa-
tions that subtle and not so subtle body cues revealed to the sub-
jects any judgements I was making about their behavior. It was
immediately apparent that the children looked at my face,
especially, when they were doing something that they thought an
adult might object to. In consequence, I learned to be aware of
my face and body and the messages that I was giving to the
children. A tightened jaw, slightly raised eyebrows, raised chin,
tension ,in the shoulders, all provided messages to the children
of disapproval. Similarly, smiles provided encouragement. Obvi-
ously, if I would encounter the children as they would act with
one another beyond the presence of significant adults, these
behaviors had to be changed. When I maintained an almost totally
impassive, relaxed facial expression and loose posture my external
appearance immediately seemed to convince the.children that I was
not making either positive or negative judgements about their
behavior. However, this discipline of outward appearance became
more than a facade because it seemed that by acting neutral I
became neutral. My mental processes became congruent with my
body. I would become conscious of being better able to observe
all manner of behavior without constructing normative judgements
about it or constructing elaborate fantasies about its meaning.
And when I did make such judgements and construct such fantasies,
I became aware of it by using my body as a monitor of changed
feeling. My "open" body facilitated an open, receptive awareness.
The implicit and explicit demands of others for the researcher
observer to become actively engaged, to be a full participant, were
far less of a problem in this social context than they might have
been in another. Most importantly, I learned that young children
can be observed without one's active participation far more easily
than most adults. This will be discussed later. In addition, the
attitude of the adults who worked at the school was characterized
by openness and genuine respect for the value of research. Mrs.
Cowan, the teacher whose class I observed, was particularly sup-
portive of my role as a researcher.
However, the fact remained that when I entered the classroom
my role and situation were somewhat ambiguous and the level at which
I would be actively engaged as a participant or disengaged as an
observer was somewhat problematic. For my part, I wanted to
observe and to take written field notes while observing. I
intended to initially limit my participation to a minimum, and only
for the research purpose of acquiring more information or clarify-
ing something that puzzled me. However, the participants, adults
and children alike, had other projects than research they were
pursuing, and oftentimes in the early period of the observations
they would seek to engage me in one way or another.
Mrs. Cowan was gracious and generous in her acceptance of
my presence. Her immediate goals, however, were not primarily
those of facilitating research; she had to organize 30 children,
of two general developmental levels, and 30 individual levels,
into a coherent social group so that learning and social develop-
ment might take place consistent with her assessment of individual
needs. This involved her being actively and continuously engaged
with 30 children who were four, five, and six years old. Though
she had the assistance of a teacher aide for two hours in the
morning until December, and the occasional assistance of parents,
for practical purposes she was alone. Neither the aide nor the
parents initiated activity on their own, but waited for specific
directives from the teacher.
During the large part of the day when neither aide nor par-
ents were available to assist in the ubiquitous details of class-
room life, the teacher wanted and needed some help and quite nat-
urally saw me as being a potential source of assistance. There I
was: an adult female, constantly present, apparently doing nothing
but watching and writing on a note pad, and all the while about me
children were requesting paper, crayons, pencils, help, and atten-
tion. During the early part of the year the .teacher would ask me,
at what I usually experienced as inopportune times, to provide
assistance of a mundane nature, e.g., to "cut the art paper for the
children and pass it out" or for assistance which implied that I
accept responsibility for intervening among the children, e.g.,
"taking the children to music."
The need to "get along" with the teacher, and the wish to
help when possible, made such requests problematic. Because of the
extremely fluid nature of classroom life, I felt it was imperative
to continuously observe and take notes about the developing social
situation during the early phase of social organization. In addi-
tion, it seemed to me that were I not there some type of interactive
response would naturally develop, and my being there was incidental
to the natural setting. And, though I did not mind assisting at
times, I did not want to accept the role of teacher aide, for once
accepted, the role would be hard to shed. Consequently, I resisted
the more neutral, mundane requests passively. For instance, by
doing the task when specifically requested, but never volunteering,
and ending the engagement as soon as the specific concrete request
was fulfilled. Not an insensitive person, Mrs. Cowan soon under-
stood that I conceived the needs of my research to take precedence
over her needs for my assistance. Consequently, she began to modify
her requests so that she asked for assistance far less often, wait-
ing for times that she perceived me to be receptive.
The matter of my participating in classroom life as an adult
who was responsible for children and who would actively intervene
and modify their behavior was more serious an issue, and on that
score I was quite firm and forthright from the beginning. I
explained to the teacher why I did not want to assume any role which
implicitly demanded that I be responsive to the children. I
wanted the children to know that they could do'"anything" in my
presence, and that no judgement or consequence would result from
my witnessing their behavior. Therefore, with the understanding
of Mrs. Cowan, I did not perform such tasks as "leading children
to the gym for physical education," or "watching them after
lunch," until well into the observation period, after I had been
typified by the children as a harmless, and possibly socially
Having established an observational baseline of sorts after
several weeks of observation, Mrs. Cowan and I developed an
implicit understanding about the role I would take as a partici-
pant, and to what extent I would assume responsibility in the
classroom. My sense of the agreement was that I would intervene
only in the event of an emergency, that is, when there was a real
and imminent danger for the physical safety of a child. The exact
lines of responsibility were never drawn nor was the question ever
discussed explicitly, but a satisfactory arrangement evolved in the
context of the ongoing interaction. She observed me, and, I imag-
ined, concluded that, "Yes, she won't let a child who is in the
shallow creek drown. . But will she stop a child from enter-
ing the creek in the first place?" The situation was ambiguous.
I was passive and impassive, and observed to be so in a variety of
situations in which adults would normally intervene. I stood by
and observed and took notes while children fought with one another,
even when one was clearly being hurt by a larger child; I observed
the children tearing through the halls and yelling on the way to
lunch, and continued taking notes all the while; I observed them
as they disobeyed the explicit rule of the teacher not to go down
by the creek without an adult, without taking any action other than
to follow them after a few moments to observe them and take notes.
It was the incident of the creek, I believed, that helped Mrs.
Cowan understand the sense that I had of what was her responsibility
as the teacher, and what was my responsibility as a researcher
observer. Because I had always felt my presence to be incidental
to classroom life, and because I had never explicitly or implicitly
agreed to any other definition of the situation, I felt relatively
comfortable in assuming that role.
During the later part of the observation period, when Mrs.
Cowan needed to leave the classroom and I was the only adult pres-
ent, it was enough for her to be satisfied that I agreed to remain
until she had returned. Mrs. Cowan would ask, for instance,
"Barbara, are you going to be outside after lunch?" I would answer
that I was, and she would reply, "Good. I need to go to the rest-
Agreeing that I was going to be outside observing after
lunch was not the same thing, I felt, as agreeing that I was respon-
sible for the children other than the way any adult would be con-
sidered to be responsible for children in her presence. Fortun-
ately, a situation never developed which constituted an emergency.
I did intervene for reasons of safety twice, though the situations
had not yet fully developed into imminent danger when I acted.6
Importantly, Mrs. Cowan had a reliable sense of the limitations
and restrictions that children placed upon themselves in terms of
safety and hurting others. Apparently she had developed it from
years of teaching. She seemed to have the ability to determine
whether there were children in a group who would cross the boun-
dary from hurting others to doing serious damage to others or them-
selves. In this group there were no children who did not have a
good deal of self-control about safety.
The ethical question of my being an adult who did not act
but only observed children was more problematic in relation to
the children. As I have said, my research needs as I saw them at
the beginning of the observations were to establish myself as a
person whose presence did not essentially concern the participants.
In relation to the children, the task was a relatively easy one.
I quickly learned that one may ignore the requests and questions
of children, requests which are ubiquitous and unceasing within
such a context if one acknowledges them; I would simply look at
them impassively as though I did not comprehend the meaning of
their behavior nor understand the normative values which usually
attach to such behavior. This was relatively easy as I had never
angag(d them, even in mundane ways. In this context, the children
did not get angry when I did not respond to their requests or
questions, even by acknowledging them. They did not try to hide
their behavior from me.7 After the first day or so, they were
apparently not self-conscious about my presence and were willing
to do all types of things in my presence, from lying to other
adults and beating up other children, to expressing joy and affec-
tion to one another.
Initially, I was surprised to the point of being thrilled that
I could be in the presence of other humans in face-to-face interac-
tion without having any responsibility to act or be socially compe-
tent in more than a rudimentary way. After a time, the situation
became more ethically problematic for me. I began to feel a sense
of complicity in the ubiquitous acts of violence, as though my pres-
ence as an adult who did not act in the face of such violence served
to affirm its legitimacy, or served to increase the feelings of
helplessness of a child who was being hurt. During the earliest
period of the observations, a child who was being attacked would
appeal to me and the aggressor would hesitate to continue the attack.
After a short period of time, however, it became common for an
aggressor to tell another that it was useless to appeal to me. As
Wanda put it when she was hitting a smaller child, who unsuccess-
fully sought my help, "Don't do no good to tell her you stupid black
ass. She ain't gonna do nothing' to help you." Comments of that
sort were somewhat unsettling. Even as I continued my observation
and note taking, I began to speculate on what manner of statement
my passive presence made to the children. I never satisfactorily
answered that question for myself, but continued observing and tak-
ing notes without intervening.
I came to be known by the children, who did not usually remem-
ber my name, as "the girl who writes all the time." Unlike the
teacher, the children were never told what I was doing in the
classroom and some occasionally asked me what my purpose was. Unlike
the first-grade children Cadmus (1974) observed in a more structured,
teacher-directed setting, many of the children I observed were never
satisfied with my answers to their questions about what I was doing
in the classroom and why I wrote all the time. Using Cadmus' sug-
gestions, I initially answered, "Writing down a few ideas." Such an
answer was often followed by another question such as, "What ideas?"
Shelley, the most persistent questioner, tried to get me to give a
phenomenological report of what I was doing and what my intentions
were. After several attempts at penetrating my obscure answers the
following interaction occurred:
Shelley: "What are you doing?"
Observer: "Writing down some ideas."
Shelley: (Exasperated) "Ideas about what?"
Observer: "The phenomenological reality of gender."
Shelley shakes her head, thinks a moment, and then, pointing
to the handwriting on the page says, "What do these ideas
say? Read the words to me." (Emphasis hers.)
Observer: "Excuse me now."
Shelley: "Are you writing about us?"
Observer: "I write about everything I see."
If I had it to do again, I would, at the beginning of the
observations, tell the entire group in simple, understandable terms,
what I was doing in the classroom. A truthful, forthright answer
would not have changed their behavior in any significant way. The
crucial point in observing was that I did not judge them or inter-
The children's typification of me as a person who did not "do
anything" was obviously useful for observing. I was able to take
notes and watch them without having any significant impact on the
life-world, and without having to constantly monitor the impact of
my own participation and involvement. In combination with the rela-
tively unstructured and unrestricted nature of the classroom, I was
able to observe 30 children beyond the presence of significant
adults, and,thus, to observe a child directed and constructed mean-
ingful social world as it was being constructed and maintained.
Observing the various adults was more problematic.8 Unlike
the children, none of the adults thought that I was unaware of the
meaning of their behavior. With adults, a different stance had to
be taken, one which was generally friendly if somewhat formal.
Initially, the teacher was somewhat apprehensive about my
presence in the classroom, especially as she felt a bit anxious,
"rusty" was her word,about her teaching this year. I could easily
observe the teacher without influencing her behavior when I observed
her indirectly, from a distance, or while she was in a formally
structured situation, as when she was working with the entire group.
Over the long run, her public utterances and behavior were largely
spontaneous and uninfluenced by my presence.
However, it was difficult to observe her closely when she was
interacting with a single child during individualized instruction.
In order to hear her soft voice I had to sit right next to her and
the child, especially as there was always a good deal of sound from
the rest of the class. Many people tend to feel uncomfortable when
one observes them and despite the fact that Mrs. Cowan was accus-
tomed to being observed as a laboratory school teacher she felt
uncomfortable. Almost invariably she would stiffen a bit, and then
deal with her uneasiness by trying to incorporate me into the role
of assistant teacher thereby reducing the threatening aspects of my
role as observer and researcher. She would try to get me to become
a full participant in one way or another, usually by requesting
that I take over the job she was doing. For instance, if a child
was reading to her she would ask, "Would you read to Barbara?" I
would then end up listening to a child while she left to teach
Because the results of such observations were generally unsat-
isfactory, and accessible only by indirect means, I did not observe
such intimate, one-to-one encounters very often. In essence, Mrs.
Cowan had effectively modified an aspect of my behavior which had
made her more uncomfortable than she wanted to be. However, I did
observe the teacher's public behavior toward children so I was able
to see what other participants saw, and to assess the meaning which
they attached to her statements and behavior.
Ques tionirg and Interviewing
The research posture I assumed during the first period of
observation was not entirely passive and unresponsive to the sub-
jects. During this first three months, my research-as-zombie
period, I would occasionally ask a child about the meaning of an
event. The questions were generally asked in simple informational
terms such as, "When you said __ to that boy, what did you mean?"
Or, "Why do you think that started crying when ___ said
that?", and so on. The purpose of asking questions was to clarify
some matter usually having to do with motivation. Asking questions
often provided immediate clarity but there were pitfalls involved.
By asking questions I once or twice ended an event before it had had
a chance to fully develop. More importantly, by asking questions,
I sometimes tended to abort my own reflective process. Instead of
reflecting upon my own puzzlement or confusion and trying to deter-
mine what assumptions or categories I was using to understand mean-
ing, and thereby possibly reveal categories that the others were
also using, I sought immediate clarity. The most important of these
times was when I could not determine a child's gender. On the other
hand, there were times questions should have been asked when they
were not, and opportunities for clarity were lost. From experience
I learned that essential themes were recurring and if I observed
carefully, the significant aspects of the situation would be revealed.
This was a highly individual matter, however, and another researcher
might benefit from more, rather than less, questioning.
Systematic and structured ways of questioning were not used
until well into the observations in late December when the first
picture selection task was given. There were several reasons for
the late date of structured questioning. First, I had found that
my questioning tended to make some children shy of acting around me
immediately afterwards, and caused others to orient themselves to
me. I found the role of nonparticipant observer to be useful and
enjoyable and I did not want to change this role relationship
with the children. Second, I wanted the questions developed for
the interviews to have emerged during the process of observing
rather than from any prior categories and conceptualizations.
Third, I wanted to consider the responses and answers within the
context of what I had learned from observing over an extended
period of time. I wanted to know what the children did and said
with each other before I considered what they said to an adult.
At the end of the year each child was asked these predeter-
mined, open-ended questions during a long and short interview ses-
Long Interview Questions
1. What is your mother's occupation or job?
2. What is your father's occupation or job?
3. What do you want to do or be when you grow up?
4. Do you like school? What activities do you like the
best? The least?
5. When you play, what do you like to play the most?
6. Whom do you like to play with the most? Why? The
7. Some people are boys and some people are girls. How
are boys and girls the same?
8. How are boys and girls different from one another?
9. What can girls do?
10. What can boys do?
11. What can men do?
12. What can women do?
13. Do girls have fun? Do boys have fun? Who has more fun?
14. If you were grown up and were going to have a baby,
would you want a girl baby or a boy baby? Why?
15. Who do you think should be the boss or make most of the
decisions in your family? Why?
16. Do you know what power is? What is it?
17. Who has power in the class?
18. Who has power in your family?
19. How does a person get power?
20. If you could have a man teacher or a woman teacher next
year which would you choose? Why?
Short Interview Questions
1. Which boy in the class is most like a boy? Why?
2. Which boy in the class is most like a girl? Why?
3. Which girl in the class is most like a girl? Why?
4. Which girl in the class is most like a boy? Why?
The general purpose of the interviews was to understand how
the children, when asked directly, would articulate the categories
which they used to understand, interpret, and construct the world
in terms of gender. Also sought was knowledge about relationships
and patterns of activity which might have to do with gender, such
as friendship or status. Both the content of their typifications
and their typifying process were of interest. Another purpose was
to consider their meanings within the context of what had been
observed over several months. Though some questions, such as the
obligatory "What are you going to do or be when you grow up?" car-
ried the stamp of habitualized adult-child interaction (some
children sighed when I asked this question) most of the questions
were developed from research concerns and puzzlements which
emerged during observation.
Because of unforeseen circumstances and demands upon the
time of the children, much less time was used for the interviews
than had been planned. This was especially the case for the
shorter interview which was carried out almost on a hit-and-run
basis right in the middle of hectic classroom activity. The long
interview was conducted over a period of several days during the
next to last week of school. The short interview took place dur-
ing the last two days of school. Unfortunately, lack of time did
not allow every child to participate in the short interview.
Because of the qualitative nature of the research process, and the
fact that the interviews were fundamentally supplemental, this
lack of completion did not substantially detract from the value of
the material gathered.
The procedure used for the interviews was simple. For the
long interview each child was asked to come into the small room
adjoining the classroom and asked if she or he was willing to
answer a few questions. For most of the students the interviews
were conducted individually and outside the presence of other stu-
dents. I wanted the ideas of each child uninfluenced by others in
an immediate sense, and I wanted the less active, less articulate
children to have a chance to give voice to their view of the world.
There were some exceptions to the rule of individual interviews.
Anne, Karen, and Victoria wanted to be interviewed together and I
agreed. Each of the three was asked each of the questions in turn,
but they were allowed to interact with one another during the pro-
cedure. Because of special circumstances, Michael had to be ques-
tioned within the classroom proper while others were about. He
was interviewed while Shawn, who had already been questioned, was
present. Shawn was encouraged not to dominate but was allowed to
comment. In both of these atypical cases it was decided that the
interaction during the questioning was as instructive and as
important for analysis as the solitude of other interview situa-
tions. In fact, some especially valuable material was gathered
during these two interviews.
The shorter interviews were all conducted with other children
around, though each child was questioned individually. During the
short interviews other children would sometimes listen to the
answers being given, would inadvertently provide a stimulus to the
child being questioned which influenced her/his answer, or would
even coach the interviewee as to what answers to give. Though this
was not ideal, nor what had been planned, the answers of the inter-
viewee, as well as the comments and responses of other children,
were quite useful for understanding what gender meant to them.
A relatively noninterventionist posture was taken by the
observer for the interviews. Several guidelines were fairly rigor-
ously observed. First, the same nonjudgemental attitude used for
the observations was achieved during the interviews. The child was
asked a question and the response was accepted and written down,
verbatim when possible, or in its essence. Answers which con-
sisted of shrugs and terse statements, such as "I don't know," were
accepted, though the question was repeated to give the child
another chance for comprehending a meaning. However, no additional
explanations of a meaning were provided, either in the form of
suggesting examples or by explicating a concept by using different
categories to explain meaning. Either a child understood and con-
structed a meaning or she/he did not. The reason for this rigid
approach had to do with the purpose of the interviews. The purpose
was to have the child provide the explanatory concepts and cate-
gories and to articulate the elements of a concept rather than to
have the child respond to observer constructed typifications
other than those structured by the questions themselves.
Had the interviews been the primary source of material this
approach would not have been acceptable, and it would have been
necessary to follow through more thoroughly. But because the
interviews were fundamentally supplemental to the observations the
responses were acceptable without further elaboration.
There are no problems with the validity of the content of
the questions, their structure, the order they were asked, the
answers, or the particularities of the interview situation, given
the conceptual framework of the study and the reflective tools of
analysis. In essence, the answers to the questions, within the
context of the interview situation, have essentially the same
status for purposes of analysis as the material gathered through
observation. In fact, the interview should be considered as face-
to-face interaction and a subject of analysis as interaction,
though it intimately involved the researcher. This approach was
consistent with the methodological framework of the study.
The interview material was considered in terms of the moti-
vation and meaning the interview in its totalitL had for the child,
including at times the fact that another child was coaching from
the sidelines. All of the answers and responses have the same
status and validity, though some answers were more useful and pro-
vided more insight than others. When a child gave an answer which
seemingly parroted an adult axiom, but acted in a contradictory
fashion during the face-to-face of everyday, the answer was as
useful as when a child gave what appeared to be a completely spon-
taneous answer. When a child gave an answer which was clearly
related to a stimulus in the immediate environment, including the
gender of the observer, the response was useful in terms of under-
standing the process of typification and of social maintenance of
social knowledge. For instance, when a boy made a negative remark
about girls during an interview and suddenly realized that the
observer was a girl his response at that point was material for
analysis. The research question was, What did the answer mean
within the social context?, rather than in terms of a more isolated
, and abstract conception of knowledge. Subjective meaning is social
meaning and social events, whatever their nature, were material for
analysis. Given the assumptions of the process of analysis and
the criteria for validity there are few relevant questions about
the validity of any material. This is not the same thing, of
course, as questions about the validity of the results of the
Picture Selection Task
A minor source of material used for the study was the
responses given by children during a picture selection task.
The purpose of the task was to get material on friendship selec-
tion, status, and perception of teacher preference among students.
It was given twice, once just before the holiday recess in
December and once again in March. The procedure used was to invite
one child into the small room where snapshots of every individual
member of the class were randomly arranged on a table. The child
was given a few moments to look at the pictures and then was asked
to perform one of two tasks, and then the remaining task. After
the first task was completed the pictures were shuffled and ran-
domly arranged on the table for the next task. The instructions
for the tasks were:
1. Choose the picture of the person whom you'd like to
be your best friend, the person that you like the most.
2. Pretend you are the teacher, Mrs. Cowan. Select the
child that you think is the best student in the class,
the one you think that Mrs. Cowan likes the best.
After choosing a picture the child was asked to choose
another, "Of the ones that are left, choose . .," until all of
the pictures had been chosen. When a child did not want to finish
the tasks, for whatever reasons, I insisted that she/he finish. I
recorded her/his objections to finishing, recorded any remarks made
at the time, and noted where she/he wanted to stop. All of the
choices and their order were recorded as well as other significant
remarks and behaviors. It was clear that no child had difficulty
understanding what was being asked of her/him. All the children
were initially eager to do the tasks though some did not want to
continue to make selections for various reasons. No child asked
why the task was being given. Only one child, during the second
task, showed any concern about the answers given by another
child.10 At no time did any child show concern that other children
would learn of the answers she/he gave. I do not know whether the
children talked about their answers among themselves. I never
observed any to mention the tasks to others.
There was a difference in the attitude of most children
toward the teacher-task and the child-task, a difference that
persisted regardless of the order in which the tasks were given.
The children were generally uninterested in pretending to be the
teacher. The lack of interest in the teacher preference task was
not surprising as it had become apparent during the observations
that the teacher did not generally show a significant preference
for individual children, and had, for a variety of reasons,
assumed a role that resulted in children not having much tension
about her opinions. Consequently, the teacher-task was given only
during the first session.
Occasionally, after a child had finished making her/his selec-
tions I made an observation about the choices which had been made
*and recorded any responses the child gave to my observation.
Where my comments were the stimulus for a child's remark, as
opposed to when comments were spontaneously offered by a child, it
is noted in the analysis. Most often, primarily because of a lack
of time or perceived interest on the part of the child, I did not
comment on the choices after they were made, but simply dismissed
the child and thanked her/him for performing the task.
No quantitative analysis was performed on the material col-
lected and none would have been useful to the purpose of this study.
Such an analysis would have been a different type of study than the
one made. I did use some simple arithmetic to consider some of
the picture-selection task material, e.g., ten'girls selected a
certain boy in their top ten selections, but all such counting
was considered in the context of the observations and was used to
illustrate a point made through the observations rather than to
make a point in itself. In fact, given the casual nature of the
procedure, the loose structure of the questions, and the complex
nature of the phenomena, a quantitative analysis would have been
either meaningless or false in its meaning. Like the interview
questions, the task selection must be considered as "soft" data,
as conversation, in fact, and should not be thought of as representing
any more objective type of material. It might even be argued that
the most meaningful and useful part of the material was the spon-
taneous comments and body behavior of the children as they did the
The Concept of Typifications
During the period of analysis and writing some concepts from
phenomenological sociology as primarily developed by Alfred Schutz
(1970; Schutz & Luckmann, 1973) beeete-useful for understanding
the meaning of the material collected and for organizing it for
presentation. The most important of these concepts was that of
typifications or typicality constructs. Shutz's concept of typifi-
cation is a complex one and only a few of the more important points
relevant and necessary for the present study will be briefly dis-
According to Schutz, an individual's common sense knowledge
of the world is a system of constructs about its typicality, and
the meaning a person gives to the world is constructed by refer-
ring to her/his current typifications, the totality of which con-
stitutes her/his stock of knowledge at hand. Typifications are
structured in consciousness through language, and language pro-
vides a vehicle so that complex phenomena can be apprehended
simply and immediately in their typified, subjectively essential
aspects. Whether in face-to-face interaction or in more anonymous
social time and space, aspects of persons, objects, and situations
are understood by reference to typicality constructs which are
structured in an individual's current stock of knowledge and not
by reference to the unique and complete phenomenon prior to typi-
fication. Typifications allow us to act in the world without con-
tinually reassessing all of our sense data and we develop recipes-
for-acting which are apprehended as appropriate to situations. An
individual comes to a situation with her/his current stock of know-
ledge and engages in the process of typifying various aspects of
a situation while living it. The typifications in an individual's
stock of knowledge, some of which are contradictory, which become
relevant at a particular time depend upon the social context and
her/his current projects and motives. Knowledge is always con-
textual and each of us has many sets of typifications of other
types of people as well as typifications of the self. The deter-
mination of which specific typification will emerge depends upon
what is understood to be relevant at that particular time in that
concrete setting. It is the immediate interests and projects one
has which determines which aspects of a situation or person will be
typified and brought to awareness and which aspects will be
ignored. Another point is that there are reciprocal typifications
among people. One is subject to the typifications another has of
one and one tends to refer one's actions not only to one's idea
about oneself but also to the ideas one imagines or knows that
others have about one. A person's knowledge of the social world is
inherently interactive and social and constructs about the meaning
of the world are constructed in relation to and with others.
Another characteristic of typifications, or elements within one's
stock of knowledge at hand, is that they are changed only to the
extent necessary to act in the world, changed only to the extent
necessary to explain or act in problematic situations. Typifica-
tions are tenacious and because one's typicality constructs do not
fit a particular situation one does not abandon them but merely
modifies them to account for problematic aspects.
The material collected in this study has been organized by
referring to some of the children's essential and core typifica-
tions about gender as they were structured in their language and
which were the foundation for their acting as gendered persons in
a gendered social world. They were the primary typifications
about gender which children used in this concrete social setting.
In another context, for instance, at home with their parents or
under the close supervision of other adults, these typifications
would, it is believed, remain as central ideas about gender but
would have been given different expression because, as stated
before, the process of typifying is interactive, contextual, and
reciprocal. This study will describe those typifications which
children shared about gender which were most relevant to them as
they lived in this context with 29 other children with little
direct supervision or control by adults.
Some clarifying remarks need to be made before proceeding
with the presentation of the material. First, the description
of what the children knew about gender and what they did in rela-
tion to what they knew neither exhausts their knowledge nor their
activities. The purpose here is to explicate the essential shared
elements of knowledge and types of behavior children themselves
connected to being of a gender, and not to describe how gendered
persons behaved in general. Some children seemed more complex than
others; some exhibited what I would call, in my natural attitude,
depth of character; none seemed shallow. All approached their
world with relatively complex motivation and a variety of projects,
only some of which had to do directly with their knowledge about
gender. Very little of their complexity will be evident from the
On the other hand, the reader should also keep in mind the
phenomenological fact that these children did live in their world
as gendered persons and that being of one gender and not the other
was central to their experience. Similarly,-children attributed
gender to others in all instances of social contact. To my know-
ledge, no child ever acted in a situation without knowledge of the
other's gender. The one instance when a stranger's gender was
ambiguous and attributing gender was problematic, the student,
like the observer, seemed to want to know the other's gender.
Gender was important because social meaning was mediated by ref-
erence to gender and, specifically, in reference to the essential
elements of knowledge about gender which will be explicated here.
As Kessler and McKenna (1978) said,""The attributor filters all
of the actor's behaviors through the gender attribution that was
made, and all the actor's behaviors are made sense of within that
context" (p. 160).y The reader should understand, then, that
children approached each situation and each person while implicitly,
if not explicitly, understanding gender as a relevant category.
Finally, with one exception, all the statements or phrases
that are enclosed within quotation marks were statements or phrases
made and used by one or more children. The exception is the phrase
"everybody knows," a phrase used to suggest a sense of something
being common knowledge rather than it necessarily being a literal
fact. Statements enclosed within apostrophes indicate a general
sense of individual or group meaning but do not signify statements
actually made by participants.
1. The methodology to be described here is called, variously,
the participant observation, participant-as-observer, field
research, qualitative observation, and field observation.
Participant observation is a term currently employed by many
social scientists. It best suggests, I think, the phenomen-
ological fact that the observer is part of the world at the
same time she/he studies the world.
2. "A person who accepts the role of observer remains outside the
ongoing interaction which constitutes the we-relationship on
hand. . If the observer is a genuine observer, he remains
detached, takes no sides, has no stake in the outcome of the
ongoing interactive process. Thus, he must be considered
objective by definition. Because for [Alfred] Schutz, the
objective point of view is simply the point of view, the per-
spective, of the uninvolved observer." (Wagner, 1970, p. 35)
3. As Henning (1976) points out, it is when utilizing her/his
own experience as a source of data that the participant
observer is methodologically closest to phenomenologists and
4. For a sample of such research, as well as a guide to doing
qualitative research, see Lofland (1971).
5. For examples of the use of participant observation methodology
within school settings see Eddy (1967, 1969), Jackson (1968),
Henry (1966), and Cadmus (1974).
6. I stopped what was playful rock throwing, at one another, by
some boys. I intervened when Wanda and Myra had Shelley on
top of the jungle gym, terrified because the two girls were
sadistically rocking the structure back and forth and threat-
ening to topple it over with Shelley on it. After a few min-
utes of Shelley's terror, and the two girls' pleasure, I chose
to end the event, though it was clear that Wanda and Myra were
making threats without the intentions of following through.
7. After the first two days of observation, I observed children
to actively seek privacy from me only once, when Michael and
Shawn were fighting with Nancy. Later the two boys were
expressing their hostility in a conversation. Shawn started
suggesting that Nancy had a sexual relationship of a violent
nature with her father, who sometimes came to class to observe.
When Michael noticed that I was listening, he became embar-
rassed and cautioned Shawn to hide the sexual drawing he was
Most conversations about nonromantic sex also tended to
include a touch of violence. Violence without sex was never
hidden from me. Of the girls, only Wanda 'linked sex and
8. I did not fully appreciate the difference between observing
adults and children until the night of the Open House. Before
the holiday recess the elementary school had an Ooen House to
which parents were invited. In the classroom itself I was
cordial and assumed the role of helper to the teacher. I sus-
pended my role as researcher observer, at least to the extent
of taking notes. I had decided that it would be impolite of
me to take notes around parents and impolite to observe closely
without participating, even though the children were there too.
I lost this correct insight, however, during the program in the
gym. Before I became aware of what I was doing I had assumed
the role of observer in the way I was accustomed to doing at the
school with the children. A conversation between several par-
ents from another class, who were standing at the gym entrance
waiting for the program to begin, caught my attention. I
unconsciously sidled up and leaned into the group, obviously
listening to their private conversation. When they stopped
talking I became aware of the silence. When I looked up, I
saw them observing me. Red-faced and with a shrug of my
shoulders, I immediately moved away from that group, leaving
for another, far away spot. I learned what I already knew.
That one cannot treat questions of privacy the same way for
adults as one does for their children. I had become so accus-
tomed to taking liberties with the privacy of their children
within that social setting I unthinkingly took liberties with
For a discussion of some of the potential similar problems and
issues when observing adults, see Lofland (1971).
9. I would recommend that a researcher use a reliable tape
recorder for interviews. Much color and fullness were lost by
my not recording all of the interviews. The one time I tried
to use a recorder, however, the tape became scrambled and I
lost the entire interview with no chance to get another. It
made me gun-shy; thereafter, I depended on written notes.
10. Jimmy was concerned about the answers given by another child
and was well aware of the significance and meaning of the
answers given for the friendship selection task. The event
was relevant to gender and is discussed in the text of the
11. Some of the comments children gave on the teacher picture-sel-
ection tasks did reveal something of what children knew about
gender and something about what they knew of the teacher's
preferences as a gendered person. Some of these comments are
discussed within the text.
THE SOCIAL SETTING
The purposes of this chapter are to provide more detailed
information on the nature of the social setting including informa-
tion about the school, demographic information about the students
and their parents, and the way the teacher organized the classroom
and the students' time. A rather detailed description of how the
teacher organized classroom activities and time and approached her
task as teacher is provided so that the reader may understand to
what extent, and why, the children were able to construct a child-
defined social system.
The school selected for this study is a laboratory school
affiliated with a large state university in north central Florida.
The school has all grades from kindergarten to 12th, but the ele-
mentary school students and the high school students are physically
separated from one another and have very little contact.
The school, founded in 1934, was once located on the main
campus of the university, but since 1958 has been located close to
the university on a well kept spacious site of 34 acres. There are
several buildings rather than a single structure. The buildings
are relatively modern one-story buildings of-the kind where the
passageways are open to the outside on one side. The elementary
school classrooms are large and are distinguished by large glass
windows and sliding glass doors which open out'to a small covered
patio area with a concrete floor and a small playground enclosed by
a brick wall about three feet high. The small playgrounds are
shared by two adjoining classes. Beyond the enclosed playground
is a large play area which separates buildings and opens out to
quite a large play space used in common by the classes which border
it. There are many windows in the school, which provide a feel-
ing of openness and spaciousness. As one looks out the windows
one sees trees, plants, shrubs, and, most unusual, a small creek
that flows through the school,and divides the elementary section
from the high school section. One day a small alligator was seen
in the creek, or so the children said. It's a beautiful school.
Unlike public schools children are not assigned to this
school, but parents must instead apply for their admission. Because
of the generally high academic reputation of the school and the
reputation of the faculty, as well as because of its connection to
the university, many parents in the community and in adjoining
small towns want their children to attend the school. For some
parents, but not others, the school's perceived progressive or
liberal philosophy of education provides a special incentive. For
some the reputation that the faculty has for respecting the dig-
nity and integrity of children is paramount. As one mother told
her child who was crying and afraid because he was late to school,
"You don't have to be afraid in this school; you know this
school is not like that." The reputation that the school had about
respecting children was deserved, as I discovered1 after hours of
observation. Because of the various appeals, the school has a
long waiting list, especially for some categories of applicants
such as children whose parents are white, from the middle and
upper socioeconomic groups, or who are connected in a professional
way to the university. In any category and for every child admis-
sion requires some effort on the part of a parent.
The extra effort suggests that the parents of these children,
especially those from lower socioeconomic groups who were least
likely to be familiar with the school, were more actively involved,
if not interested, in the schooling of their children than a typi-
cal parent of a child in a public school.2 This inference was
supported by some observations. It was not unusual for parents to
come to the class to assist the teacher or, more commonly, to
observe. Mothers and fathers came to the school.
The event that made me aware of the high level of parental
involvement, though it was not necessarily the most significant
indicator of involvement, was the Open House and program held prior
to the holiday recess in December. The place was packed. At
least one parent of every child in the class I observed came to the
program, and both parents of most children came indicating that
it was not just a matter of having to come because the children
were in the program and must be driven. The gymnasium, where the
program was held, was filled to overflowing with the families of
the elementary school children. Parents stood in the halls of the
gym and sat on the gyn floor after the bleachers were filled.
This and other events confirmed an opinion that these children
for the most part had parents or others who not only loved them
but were actively and intimately involved with them.
At one time in its history the school was racially segre-
gated and admitted only white children, and students were primar-
ily drawn from the children of university faculty and administra-
tion. Since 1971, freed from the restrictions imposed by state law
and custom by a Federal court order, the school has actively
recruited blacks, though they too must apply, so that the number
of black children is proportional to the number of blacks in the
community. The school also tries to diversify the social and eco-
nomic composition of its population by selecting children from
lower socioeconomic strata and by limiting the proportion of
children of faculty. It has only been moderately successful at
its attempt to diversify. The following charts show the race, sex,
occupation, and amount of schooling of parents of children who
The university was well represented. According to the
information submitted by the parents, seven of the children in this
class had fathers who had the Ph.D., six of whom were associated
with the university. Two of the six had mothers who taught at
the university, presumably with master's degrees or higher. Eight
children had parents who were full- or part-time students at the
university at the time of the study. Of these eight children with
student parents, six had a parent who was a graduate student, two,
undergraduates. Of the six graduate student parents three were
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studying for the Ph.D. One received it during the period of the
study. Of the three children who had a parent studying for the
master's degree, one also had a father who was a medical student
at the university.
Other of the children had parents who were college graduates.
At least two more children had parents who had done some graduate
work at the university.
On the cards submitted to the parents by the teacher, from
which some of this information was gathered, parents listed occu-
pations of skilled workers such as electrician and plumber and
service occupations such as policeman and waitress. But the occu-
pations listed by the parents did not necessarily always reveal
the entire story. The waitress, delivery man, and retail clothing
clerk had all attended the university or other colleges, but had
chosen to participate in what was described by some writers as the
counter-culture, by some citizens as the "hippies," which had dev-
eloped in the community largely in relation to the university.
Consequently, while it appeared to the school administration that
they were accepting applicants from the lower level service type
occupations and therefore assuring social and economic diversity
of the school population, the reality, at least in this particular
class, was in essential ways otherwise.
Considering the black families separately, the educational
level of the black parents was similarly high and was not repre-
sentative of the larger black community. Of the seven black
children five had at least one parent who was a college graduate.
Of the five at least three had a parent who had a master's degree
and of the three, one had a parent who had, prior to the time of
this study, worked for the Ph.D. and who had been the first black
person to be elected President of the Student Body at the uni-
As a group fathers were more schooled than mothers. It was
sometimes difficult to ascertain the level of schooling achieved
by mothers, though they were typically the ones who had filled
out the cards for the teacher. The card asked for occupation
rather than education so that mothers would put down "housewife"
or homemaker" or no answer at all if not currently employed, what-
ever their previous employment or level of education. For inex-
plicable reasons two women who were teachers at the university did
not list that as an occupation, perhaps because both worked part
time or because both had husbands with the Ph.D. who also taught
at the university. From the information available all of the
fathers who lived with their children were either employed outside
the home or were students or both. Of the mothers, all but seven
were employed outside the home. In the case of the seven children
whose parents were divorced, or for other reasons both were not
living in the same household with the children, every mother
worked, and the children lived with their mothers or other female
relatives. The parents of two more children separated during the
period of this study. Those two children also lived in the same
household as their mothers. In most cases of divorce or separa-
tion it appeared that the father maintained relatively close
contact with his child. One widower remarried during the period of
As in most elementary schools there were more women person-
nel than men. Of the 11 classroom teachers in the elementary
school nine were women; the elementary art and music teachers were
women; one of the physical education teachers was a man, the other
a woman. Most of the additional personnel with whom these children
had contact--librarians, the school nurse, reading specialists,
lunchroom attendants, food servers, and the guidance counselor--
were women. For the first time in the history of the school the
principal was a woman. All of the practicum students and practic-
ing teachers from the university who worked in the class observed
The teacher selected for this study, referred to here as Mrs.
Cowan, was one of three teachers who taught self-contained combina-
tion kindergarten-first grade classes at the school. My selection
of Mrs. Cowan instead of one of the other two women teachers is
somewhat embarrassingly revealing of an unscientific bias possessed
at the beginning of the study. I had wanted to observe a teacher
who fit a vague image I had of a typical teacher, a teacher who
would provide me with lots of material about what it was that
"teachers were doing to girls and boys to produce stereotypical
gender-related behavior." My perspective was implicitly based on
the concept of socialization, that children weren't active
participants in creating their reality but merely followed the
lead of adults. Based on largely unexplicated assumptions and
typified elements of knowledge, I chose Mrs. Cowan from among the
three available teachers. One of the teachers had been described
to me by my informant who worked at the school as "a young white
teacher who is really into research about sex roles." I certainly
did not want to observe a teacher who was "really into research
about sex roles." Where would I get my interesting anecdotes about
teachers imposing traditional gender roles on children? The other
teacher who was not chosen was described by the same informant as
"an older, middle-aged black woman." "Black woman" was not part
of my picture of typical teacher and, in any event, added the
possibly complicating dimension of race that I wanted to avoid.
Typical teacher was the third teacher described: "white,middle
aged. Appears to be somewhat conservative in dress." Yes. That
was the teacher I wanted.
Despite the bias inherent in my choice of the teacher, I was
fortunate and the research benefited from the choice. Because of
Mrs. Cowan's approach which, as might have been expected, did not
fit my expectations of a white, middle-aged teacher who dressed
conservatively, I was able to observe 30 children who were rela-
tively unrestricted. And certainly they were not restricted in
the ubiquitous, numerous, and sometimes petty ways that were char-
acteristic of many of the classroom teachers-I had previously
observed. In short, I was able to observe children in a natural
setting as they constructed and interpreted social reality without
excessive or significant adult intervention.
Mrs. Cowan had a well articulated theory of education and
thought of herself as a professional. She had an advanced degree
in early childhood education, occasionally attended conventions
and workshops on teaching and child development, and was familiar
with much of the research as well as many of the current issues
in the field. She described her theory of education as "what used
to be called Progressive." When I remarked how she consistently
used an individualized and open approach with all its difficulties
in a class of 30 she laughingly replied, "You know, 'keeping the
faith of Progressive education'." She described herself as hav-
ing "a lot of experience" as a teacher. At one time she taught at
the college level, but for the last ten years has taught preschool,
kindergarten, and first-grade children. She said she preferred
preschool because "that's where you really have a chance to make
In her judgement the practice of combining kindergarten
children and first-grade children in one class was ill founded.
"The fives4 need a year of their own because they are in a differ-
ent developmental stage than the sixes and should not be encour-
aged--and certainly not made--to do much cognitive work." She
believed that the "fives need this time to practice their social
relationships, to learn to live in groups, and to develop their
She knew that everyone did not agree and was very aware of
the increasing pressure to emphasize academic work at all levels
and ages in the elementary school. She disapproved of the increase
for the sixes and even more for the fives but has adjusted. "So I
use more time for formal skills than I really like to." She under-
stood the change in emphasis to be the result of parental pressure,
ruefully adding, "Some people want their children to start reading
Mrs. Cowan strongly disapproved of the large class size.
When she had taught several years ago in another school each
teacher had a group of 15 students--"about the right size"--and the
increase to 30 with only one adult regularly present made it "almost
impossible to teach effectively." She complained that the classes
at the laboratory school were larger than those at public schools.
Last year Mrs. Cowan did not teach but "took a rest." When
she returned on the morning of the first day of school she
expressed some feelings of anxiety about teaching this year, par-
ticularly regarding parental demands and expectations. She said
that she felt "rusty." Later in the year she said that she had
"settled down" and was feeling more secure about teaching again.
Then at the end of the year she told me she had decided to retire
from teaching. She seemed relieved about the decision.
Consistent with her judgement that children of five and six
need an opportunity to develop social skills.and to learn to live
in groups with other children, most of the time during the school
day was left relatively unstructured. Only three times during the
day, for approximately one and one-half hours, not including
special classes like physical education, library, or music, were
there activities scheduled by the teacher where she was the center
of attention: during "Group," "Get Ready for Lunch Time," and
"Story Time." At these times children were required to sit on the
rug facing the teacher, who sat on a chair, were expected to be
relatively still, to be quiet, and if possible, to pay attention.
As she often said to those children she knew to have short atten-
tion spans, especially some of the kindergarten boys, "You don't
have to listen, but you do have to be quiet and sit still so that
others may hear."
"Group" took place in the morning at the beginning of the
school day and, as the name suggests, was in part a ritualized
activity to affirm and create a sense of community. General
announcements were made by the teacher, the day's schedule of
activities and topic for study were discussed by the teacher,
children who were absent were welcomed back, absent children
were noted, and other clerical chores were completed. During Group
children showed and shared those objects they had brought to
school. Occasionally one would talk about an experience that she/
he considered interesting. Sometimes Mrs. Cowan encouraged these
talks and sometimes, for the sake of time, she limited them. Dur-
ing Group Mrs. Cowan taught a lesson to the entire group. The
lesson might be one that continued over several days or might only
take one day with a new lesson or topic the next day. A variety
of topics was introduced, such as health, family structure, and
science. The teacher would teach the short lesson and then pro-
ceed by asking the children specific questions. Usually the
questions were intended to develop reasoning skills, as well as
to focus on specific content, and required a relatively high level
of reasoning ability to answer. The more articulate, verbally
aggressive, and intellectually mature children would usually
respond, and little effort was made by the teacher to actively
engage other students. Boys were, as a group, much more active
about answering questions than girls. It seemed that they were
less shy in a group context.
After Group was over children would begin to work on aca-
demic tasks assigned by the teacher during a period of time called
"Work Time," which lasted anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and
15 minutes. At this time children were expected to sit at what
the teacher called "work tables," at desks for four or more
children, and were corrected if they went to the housekeeping area
or to the art table to work. "This is Work Time not Choose Time.
You can't do your work in the housekeeping area." During Work
Time children could talk freely to one another and were corrected
or admonished only when the teacher felt that they were getting
out of hand and disturbing her or others, as she worked with indi-
vidual students. When they completed the assigned tasks, or, in
the case of students who seldom completed the task because they
were too immature, students were allowed to choose another activ-
ity of their choice inside the classroom or outside in the patio
area of the Small Playground. All during Work Time, then, children
were talking and playing with one another.
After Work Time was "Choose Time." During Choose Time the
children could choose an activity inside the classroom or in the
covered patio outside. They might read, do art or crafts at the
art table, play with blocks, play in the housekeeping area, play
dolls, or do whatever they chose within the specified boundaries,
as long as they were moderately quiet and did not disturb the
teacher, who was usually working with a single student on some
academic task. Choose Time overlapped with Work Time and so was
of an indefinite period. Everyone, however, was free to choose
for about 15 or 20 minutes.
"Small Playground Time" followed Choose Time. During Small
Playground Time children were required to go out into the small
playground which adjoined the classroom and was bounded by a low
brick wall. There they could play with water, make mud, play on
the jungle gym, or the small fiberglass dome, do art or crafts
in the concrete area, walk on the brick wall, play chase with one
another, yell, talk, "play wrestle" or even have a "real fight,"
find insects which they sometimes tortured, perhaps inadvertently,
and generally do whatever they wished within the bounds of safety
or near safety. This was the time the teacher took a short
break, and for some reason the teacher aide, Mr. Row, was reticent
about correcting the children except when it.came to safety. Per-
hapse he took his cue from the teacher, or being an introverted
type, did not feel inclined to intervene. He and I would
sometimes stand and watch as children quarreled and even fought
About 15 minutes before the class was scheduled to go to the
cafeteria Mrs. Cowan would announce that it was "Get Ready for
Lunch Time," the second time during the day that she became the
center of classroom activities. During this time the children
gathered around the teacher's chair to receive their lunch tickets
and generally prepare for lunch. Part of the preparation occasion-
ally included her correcting previous lunchroom behavior, but
mostly this time just involved clerical chores. At the end of this
time the children, accompanied by the teacher, would walk to the
cafeteria. At the cafeteria they were assigned six tables. They
could sit wherever and with whomever they wanted at the six tables
and were allowed to talk. During lunch the teacher, who waited
until all the children were seated, ate her lunch with them at
whatever seat was available. After lunch she would oversee the
clean-up of the tables with the help of sometimes unenthusiastic
students, while the main body of children left to wait on the patio
outside the cafeteria and outside her immediate supervision.
For many of the children the favorite time of day followed
the lunch period. At this time they went outside to play on the
large playground and were free to be as active as they chose,
though there was a strictly enforced rule that Lhey not go down
by the creek without adult supervision. This time, called by the
teacher "Large Playground Time," lasted anywhere from 20 minutes,
the usual time, to 40 minutes. The teacher would take a small
break during this period and then would either observe the children
at play or, more commonly, observe them for a while and then pre-
pare for the next "Work Time" in the afternoon. After mid-year the
children were generally left in my passive supervision.
After Large Playground Time the children were called in and
after getting drinks and going to the classroom toilets, which they
were allowed to go to anytime they needed to without asking, and
then they settled down in a large group for "Story Time," the final
time of the day that attention centered on the teacher and that
she worked with the entire group at one time. Story Time lasted
anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes and everyone was expected to be
quiet. Mrs. Cowan did not encourage or generally respond to
attempts of children to discuss the stories.
After lunch and Story Time there was another combination
Work Time, to finish taks which had not been completed earlier,
and Choose Time. As in the earlier period the teacher worked
closely with individual students on academic tasks and did not
supervise the other children closely. As at other choose periods
some children stuck to one project, some wandered from area to
area and group to group, a couple girls sometimes read books of
their own, one or two children would just seem to be observing
what others were doing. At the end of this time the teacher
announced that it was "Clean Up Time" and "Get Ready to Go Home
Time" and as the children straightened up thq room under the
supervision of the teacher they talked with one another, some-
times in the playful, fantastical way that characterized much of
their interaction. Clean Up Time and Get Ready to Go Home Time
were just a continuation of the relatively free interaction
children had had all day.
One can see that these children were free from direct, close
adult supervision much of the day and this freedom was a factor
in the type of social structure that they were able to create. It
was partly because of the large amount of unstructured time that the
most important social system that emerged in the classroom was the
one that was created by the children themselves with little or no
significant consideration of the immediate opinions or definitions
The amount of time children were given to choose their own
projects and to play without close adult supervision seemed largely
to be the result of Mrs. Cowan's theoretical orientation and her
commitment to individualized instruction, even in the unhappy cir-
cumstances of a combined kindergarten-first grade class of 30 young
Another factor that was important in determining the nature
of the social structure that eventually was constructed by the
children was her response to children's aggression, a response that
seemed to be an uneasy alliance between her theory of education
and child development and the fact that she was, by her own admis-
sion, "still quite tired."
Use of physical force by children against one another was a
ubiquitous part of life in the classroom. Though the strongest
force was used outside in the playgrounds it was not unusual for
children to hit, wrestle, twist arms, poke, kick, and threaten
inside the classroom itself. Sometimes Mrs. Cowan was made aware
of the aggression either because of the commotion or because some-
one told her. She considered such activity disruptive and inap-
propriate for the confines of the classroom. It is instructive to
note that her response to aggression or fighting was not signifi-
cantly different than her response to playfulness inside the
class, such as running. All activity of that sort was considered
to be a disruption and a distraction to the teacher.
It must be remembered that Mrs. Cowan was almost constantly
involved in teaching students individually, usually while sitting
in a child-size chair with the student sitting beside her. She
was highly skilled at diagnosing students' learning problems and
had a highly developed theoretical stock of knowledge from which
to respond to help a child academically. The process of individual
instruction was an intense, concentrated, and, so far as I could
assess, an effective one. Consequently, when something inter-
rupted that process and disrupted the teaching and learning the
teacher's conception of what had happened was largely undiffer-
entiated and she was not aware of what had proceeded a situation
by the time she was made aware of it. Getting up and investigating
the matter in detail would have fully disrupted her teaching of
academic material and would have been more tiring and frustrating.
Consequently, she responded to her sense of being disrupted
rather than to the content of the disruption. She did not usually
distinguish between an aggressor and an unwilling participant and
did not inquire about the motives of either. The following event
V Day 7. It is Work Time. Mrs. Cowan is in the front of
the room with Betty, who is reading from a book aloud.
Henry is sitting on the piano bench looking at a book
and occasionally talking to the children who are play-
ing in the adjoining housekeeping area. Shawn, who
has been roaming around the room, shoves Henry off
the bench onto the floor. Henry, startled and crying,
says in his uniquely loud voice, "Stop, Shawn!"
Shawn replied, "Shut up, Henry. I want to play the
piano." He began to bang on the piano.
Mrs. Cowan, hearing the noise, looks up and seeing the
two at the piano and Henry crying says harshly, "I
won't have that in the classroom. It's Work Time not
Choose Time. Henry, have you finished your work?"
Still crying, Henry walked to his cubby, and Shawn
started roaming about the classroom again.
Mrs. Cowan believed that one of the developmental tasks that
children of this age had to learn was how to live in groups with
one another and to develop social skills that allowed them to live
in groups. Her habitualized response to behavior she variously
typified as "bothering me with tales," "tattling," and "bringing
stories to me" reflected this belief, as well as reflecting the
irritation she felt when interrupted by children when trying to
instruct other children in academic skills.
Attempts by children to "tell on" one another were greeted
by annoyance, irritation and, most usually, a harsh reprimand to
the child who was doing the telling. The teacher usually
responded with variations of the theme "You have to learn to get
along." Two events from the field notes illustrate when and how
the idea of "getting along" was evoked.
Day 5. Jimmy and Shelley are walking toward the blocks.
Shelley accidentally and very lightly bumps into
Jimmy. Jimmy goes to Mrs. Cowan, who was teaching
another child, and whines, "Shelley bumped into me."
Mrs. Cowan, without asking what had happened,
answers with annoyance, "Jimmy, don't bother me.
You'll have to learn to get along."
Day 10. Bart and Eldon are playfully wrestling on the
ground outside. Shawn walks by, watches for a moment,
and then kicks Eldon in his back and around his
shoulders quite hard. Eldon, sobbing, goes to Mrs.
Cowan and begins, "Shawn .
Before Eldon can finish the sentence she says,
"Eldon, don't come to me with tales. If you can't get
along then don't play."
The intensity of aggression was not an issue for Mrs. Cowan.
She responded in about the same way when a child was lightly and
accidentally bumped as when one was kicked in the head, an undif-
ferentiated response that came easy as she rarely heard the details
and never sought them out. Nor was justice or injustice at issue
for her. She did not try to adjudicate disagreements and conflict
between children, but tried to get them to deal with the aggres-
sion of their peers without relying on her involvement. "Telling,"
"tattling," and "carrying tales" were discouraged in a variety of
ways, including blaming the teller ("If you'd been doing your work
it would not have happened"), and by blaming everyone equally
("Both of you are supposed to be doing your work now!"), or by
simply ignoring a tale-carrying child.
Sometimes Mrs. Cowan was, or seemed to be, witness to acts
of aggression. There were a number of responses typical of such
times. Sometimes she appeared to be oblivious to the interaction,
as though the children were invisible or as if she saw but did not
understand what was happening. At other times she would criticize
both parties by giving a general command such as "Stop that!"
Occasionally she would single out the aggressor and command her/him
to stop, or would rather severely comment with a remark such as,
"You're not supposed to play in the classroom like that." In a
sense such a remark was a denial of the reality and seriousness of
the event for the children, neither of whom experienced the act as
playful. At other times the teacher was more direct in denying
what the event meant to children. Consider:
Day 13. Mrs. Cowan is at the art cabinet, which is above
the water fountain where Pierre and Ben are waiting in
line to get a drink. When it is Ben's turn, Pierre
pushes him out of line and proceeds to drink himself.
It appeared as though Mrs. Cowan had seen what had
happened. When Ben complained to her, "Pierre pushed
me," she answered, "He didn't mean to. Why don't you
find a place to sit for art?"
Pierre's aggression, which he and Ben knew was purposeful, was
publicly defined by the teacher as accidental and therefore as
something that should be ignored. v
From private conversations with Mrs. Cowan at the end of
the year it was clear that she generally understood which children
were aggressive. But she did not make such distinctions between
children publicly, for instance by criticizing an aggressor, so
that the students would know that she knew. Instead she referred
to the idea of "learning to get along" a maxim she felt to be a
necessary condition in a situation of 30 children with one responsi-
What meanings did the children draw from the teacher's
response to aggression? Did they think that the teacher approved
of aggression? Was ignorant of what behavior meant, ignorant of
socially shared meanings? I tend to think that they basically
understood her behavior as I understood it at one level. The
teacher was too busy and involved with the demands of teaching to
deal in detail or intervene in the social interaction of the
children with one another. The idea that adults did not want
children to constantly come to them with complaints about other
children must have been a familiar one to them despite contrary
admonitions such as, "If someone hits you don't hit them back,
but tell the teacher." In addition the role of teacher was typi-
fied by all the children as a role-type who disapproved of children
fighting in school and the role-type retained its power aside from
the actions of this specific teacher. The children retained some
respect for the threat to tell the teacher because of the role-type
and because of the rare times that Mrs. Cowan did respond to tell-
ing by harshly criticizing the aggressor. Basically, however,
what the teacher's behavior meant to the children was that threats
to tell were without significance. Consider: