In Practice

‘I had made a huge mistake’: Gender, assumptions and the water bottle

This article has been in a small storage compartment at the back of my recharged mind for a few weeks. Let’s call this particular compartment in my head the ‘Shame’ or ‘Regret’ compartment, or the “I can’t believe I just did that” compartment!

I am not proud of it but I feel it is something I need to fess up to in order to further advocacy work for children. In fact, my recent trip to the Early Childhood Australia Conference in Sydney inspired me to do so, thanks to a session I attended called “The Gender Elephant in the Room” presented by Jennifer Ribarovski and Angie Day.

Here goes (inhale and exhale slowly)…

The other week I was working in the Toddler room as I do sometimes, when I heard some toddlers voices progressively increasing in volume. I walked over slowly to position myself close by, but not too close as I did not feel the need to intervene and was consciously observing the children. As I sat there for a while, I noticed the children were arguing about a water bottle.

There were a group of children, who all happened to be girls, sitting on the floor in the reading area. There was a child (a boy) kneeling on the cane chair holding onto a water bottle. The girls were asking for him to give back the water bottle, to which he replied a firm, “No”. They continued to ask him and he would reply with the same “No!” and hold the water bottle further from their reach.

As I sat close by observing this happening over and over, louder and louder, wondering when and indeed if I should intervene, I heard the child on the chair shout out, “It’s my water bottle!”. At this point I felt the need to intervene as I did not think the water bottle belonged to the child on the chair. Why? Because the child on the chair was a boy and…..

(here is the part that is locked in my “Shame” compartment……)

…the bottle was pink.

It turned out the bottle did belong to the boy as his name was on it.

Right then and there, I had to deeply reflect on what happened and immediately apologised to the child and told another educator in the room – perhaps to take accountability for what just happened.

I had made a huge mistake and for what ever reason, my moral compass went a bit haywire. What had happened to me?

‘The Gender Elephant in the Room” discussed the prevalence of gender stereotypes in our society but noticeably in early childhood (and we are the ones trying to eradicate this!). Angie, the presenter, talked of her study and outcomes when she positioned herself in the foyer of a couple of early childhood services and observed how the educators greeted the children, and whether there was a difference in the way girls and boys were greeted.

Surprise, surprise, there was. Think high pitched voices welcoming girls, calling them ‘darling’, ‘sweetie’, ‘don’t you look pretty today’ and noticing muscles on the boys and asking them ‘what type of adventures will you be getting up to today?’.

This does have an affect on children as: “Gender stereotypes influence the way children develop and engage with the world. From a very young age, children begin to learn about the attitudes, values, skills and behaviours that are ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ for their social context” (Sala-Roca, J., Biarnes, A., Garcia, M. & Sabates, L. (2012) Socialization process and social support networks of out-of-care youngsters).

So what can we (I) do to avoid falling into the gender stereotype trap? We need to talk about it and look at our own interactions with children. We need to stop pigeon-holing children based on what we think is right or wrong based on gender, we need to watch how we talk about our own image and be mindful of the language we use to and around children.

We discuss equity in early childhood and challenge gender stereotypes on a regular basis. We work very hard to promote an all inclusive environment at Treehouse and ensure that all children and their families, no matter what their abilities, culture, religion, economic status, family structure, language, lifestyle choice or gender are included and are made to feel welcome at all times.

Fortunately I am fully aware of what I did and it has been a massive re-learning experience for me. The early childhood education and care profession promotes a culture of deep reflective critical thinking and we are encouraged to write down what we know, what we want to learn and strategies on how we can make small improvements on a day to day basis.

We are often confronted with ethical dilemmas and at times need to seek advice from each other or. This is one error that I will not be making again and now that everyone is aware of my experience, I hope not one educator from our team will make the same mistake I made.

And breathe out…


  1. Hi Sarah. I just stumbled across this accidentally. I didn’t see you at the ECA Conference when I was presenting this session with Ange. I’m sorry I missed you! Thanks for sharing this reflection so honestly and bravely. I still catch myself making assumptions based on gender, and having to do some fast back tracking on occasion. Keep up the great work:)

    Jennifer Ribarovski

  2. Sarah, thanks for opening the discussion. There is an urgent need for EC people along with families to begin to talk about gender and how we as adults continue to overlook the opportunities to engage children in ways that will support them in becoming aware of gender equality in all matters. We are all guilty of socialising children into gender specific roles, we just need to raise awareness with our colleagues and children and families. Gender inequality (and the power associated with that) is at the heart of family violence. It really is up to all of us to help interrupt this awful spectre and maybe bring about change.

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