Swedish School’s Big Lesson Begins with Dropping Personal Pronouns

John Tagliabue, New York Times, November 13, 2012

At an ocher-color preschool along a lane in Stockholm’s Old Town, the teachers avoid the pronouns “him” and “her,” instead calling their 115 toddlers simply “friends.” Masculine and feminine references are taboo, often replaced by the pronoun “hen,” an artificial and genderless word that most Swedes avoid but is popular in some gay and feminist circles.

In the little library, with its throw pillows where children sit to be read to, there are few classic fairy tales, like “Cinderella” or “Snow White,” with their heavy male and female stereotypes, but there are many stories that deal with single parents, adopted children or same-sex couples.

Girls are not urged to play with toy kitchens, and wooden or Lego blocks are not considered toys for boys. And when boys hurt themselves, teachers are taught to give them every bit as much comforting as they would girls. Everyone gets to play with dolls; most are anatomically correct, and some are also black.

Sweden is perhaps as renowned for an egalitarian mind-set as it is for meatballs or Ikea furnishings. But this taxpayer-financed preschool, known as the Nicolaigarden for a saint whose chapel was once in the 300-year-old building that houses it, is perhaps one of the more compelling examples of the country’s efforts to blur gender lines and, theoretically, cement opportunities for both women and men.


The model has been so successful that two years ago three of its teachers opened an offshoot, which now has almost 40 children. That school, named Egalia to suggest equality, is in a 1960s housing project in the Sodermalm neighborhood.


The result, after much discussion, was a seven-point program to alter such behavior. “We avoid using words like boy or girl, not because it’s bad, but because they represent stereotypes,” said Ms. Rajalin, 53. “We just use the name—Peter, Sally—or ‘Come on, friends!’ ” Men were added to the all-female staff. With Egalia, Nicolaigarden sought and obtained certification from an organization for gay and bisexual people that its staff is sensitive to their problems.

Criticism was not long in arriving. “There are a lot of letters, mail, blogs,” Ms. Rajalin said. “But it’s not so much arguments; it’s anger, basically.”


At Stockholm’s immense brick town hall, the moderate-conservative coalition government fully supports the gender policy. “The important thing is that children, regardless of their sex, have the same opportunities,” said Lotta Edholm, the deputy mayor responsible for schools. “It’s a question of freedom.”


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