Don’t separate my five-year-old campers by gender

By Lauren Apfel

Twins are hard work, but an unmistakable benefit of having them is that, as children, they are never really alone in the world. So many milestones met in tandem; so many potentially nerve-wracking events tempered by the fact of their togetherness. When I signed my twins up for camp this summer in the US, the experience was going to be doubly new for them. At five years old, they hadn’t been to a day camp before where we live in the UK, and they certainly hadn’t been to one abroad. I expected, as I filled out the forms and noted their same-aged sibling-hood in the section that queried “friends also attending camp,” that they would be grouped together—and I admit I was relieved at the prospect. When we showed up for camp on the first day, however, they were separated.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for splitting twins on occasion, establishing discrete identities, encouraging them to forge their own paths. So too I respect institutional policies that, e.g., put multiples in different classrooms for this kind of reasoning. But my twins were not separated because of a theory about how they might best thrive in relation to their twin-hood. They were separated because they happen to be a boy and a girl.

It’s for changing clothes, the director told me, as we walked into the main building on that first day and dropped my daughter off in one room and my son in another. I hadn’t been to the orientation, where presumably the arrangement would have become clear to me—we were still in Britain then. So I just tried to ignore my kids’ forlorn faces, the wave of discomfort swelling in my chest as we all realized this wasn’t panning out to be the summer situation we had anticipated. It’s true. There is a lot of swimming at this camp. Multiple changes of clothes a day. But there are also male and female counselors assigned to each group, and therefore no reason the kids couldn’t split up during those times and still be adequately supervised. The group a year below my twins, the “Minis,” remained mixed. It seemed that those starting kindergarten, the “Tots,” comprised some sort of a cut off—several other gender-segregated camps I heard about drew the same line. Which makes me wonder: why exactly can’t five year old boys and girls see each other naked?

At my kids’ school in Scotland, the boys and girls change for gym together, in the same room, up until about fourth grade. Or eight or nine years old. Maybe even slightly later. I don’t know if this would seem strange to an American, but it makes sense to me, as it corresponds to the moment when some girls can begin to go through puberty. I say girls here, because they are the ones who have been starting this process notoriously early in recent years. But four years old, five, six, seven? Does it really matter if they catch glimpses of each other’s bodies? My twins still bathe together and I imagine will continue to do so for several more years, at least; in the UK, the pools have communal locker rooms with family stalls. And even if it does make some parents uncomfortable, surely what the kids gain from mixing with the opposite sex during activity-time should outweigh any inconvenience of having to organize separate changing areas.

When I canvassed Facebook about whether—and why—other people’s children were separated at day camp by gender, a few of my friends said that their camps cited a “developmental” rationale. The idea that boys and girls have different interests and styles of play (one popular camp I researched had a “typical schedule” that involved six-year-old boys doing “woodshop” and “rock climbing” and six-year-old girls doing “theater” and “crafts”). But this reasoning is both dubious and inherently problematic. The existence of inchoate gender differences is, in my view, even more of a reason to integrate.

Yes, children tend to self-segregate by gender during the elementary-school years. According to Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, boys and girls as early as the first year of school vary in terms of what they play and how they play. But making no attempt to check these tendencies, or to a create an environment in which kids have the space to break out of the stereotypes, can have long-term consequences. It might not seem like a big deal to separate boys and girls for Zumba or soccer, but doing so is yet another rung on the ladder of what experts call “gender intensification,” the process by which the small initial differences that present between boys and girls are magnified “in accelerating spirals” throughout the school years—with all the damage that can do.

We are becoming increasingly aware of what that damage is, of the pernicious effects gender stereotyping can have on children, as it occurs in their toys, their clothes, the subconscious expectations we thrust on them from birth. Same-sex play is a natural result of a young child’s impetus to categorize the world around them (“I am a boy, therefore I play only with boys and do boy things”), but it is also an outgrowth of the way we socialize them, the way we as parents, as a culture, define those categories and what it means to be a “boy” in the first place. The boxes, that is, we unwittingly construct around them.

“Researchers find that preschoolers who spend the most time in same-sex play are the most gender-stereotypical in their behaviors,” says a report from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The most likely to be limited, in other words, by preconceived notions about what males and females can do. Actively encouraging cross-gender interaction at a young age combats this inertia—the same way not segregating toys by pink and blue does. Generally speaking, playing with kids of the opposite sex broadens children’s social competence and helps them develop attitudes of respect and acceptance. It makes them less likely to conform to gender stereotypical ideas, assumptions and interpretations, which is a wholly positive thing.

The problem with splitting boys and girls at camp, though, is not simply about lost developmental opportunities. It can also be about our kids’ happiness. Several responders to my Facebook post bemoaned the fact that their sons (it could have been daughters too) are the sort of kid for whom friendships with the opposite sex have always been easier and more successful. This made being in boy-only groups at camp less fun for them, and lonelier. It needlessly stripped away the choice of who they could spend their sunny, summer days with—a fate my son, who definitely gravitates towards girls, suffered from as well.

Choosing a same-sex camp because you believe that arrangement will best suit your child is one thing. Sending your young kid to a local (and non-religious) day camp—sleep-away obviously presents different circumstances—and having them sex segregated on principle is quite another. Fortunately, at least from my inquiries, this doesn’t seem to be the norm: only about 10% had experience with a gender-streamed camp. And while my own twins were able to make the best of a non-ideal situation, I will be thinking long and hard about our options for next summer.

Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She lives in Scotland, but sent her kids to camp in New York this summer, where they were split into “Tots Boys B” and “Tots Girls C.” She wasn’t happy about it. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter

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