Silently teaching children about gender

By Kyra Skylark
Flapjack staff

From the moment a child is born, they begin learning about gender. 

Claire Knox is a professor on child development at Humboldt State. Prof. Knox focuses primarily on early childhood development, and possesses a wealth of information on the cognitive development of children in relation to gender.

“You don’t really teach about gender, Knox said. “What happens is that through their interactions with the people around them, children begin to form some ideas about gender. Then because of the way that environments get structured and the ways that we refer to children with language, they begin to construct their own understanding.”

Children construct their views on gender by viewing how those around them act.

“Rather than setting out to teach children topics, which is something that we’ve gone overboard on, we need to back off; in those very early years, what we really are, is support for interpreting experiences,” said Knox.

Adults are supposed to help them understand their world, and we do this by reacting and explaining situations. Over analyzing topics and overemphasizing opinions can confuse children and stunt their own exploratory process.    

Emma Lebell is a student at Humboldt State who identifies as a non-binary trans individual. Lebell strongly believes, that we need to reevaluate how we portray our own views on gender.  

“It’s not really just about changing how you speak to kids, it’s changing how you speak in general conversation about the world,” said Lebell. “Cause kids, they notice shit, they notice how you talk about people and how you talk about things.”

And beyond noticing how you react, they are also learning how they should act. Children mold themselves after what they are exposed to.

“They pigeon stuff. They see it, so they do that, that’s how they learn. You just have to make sure kids have something else to model themselves for,” said Lebell. “So that they don’t just get stuck forcing themselves into the same position because that’s all they know exists.”

Children are aware of how you react, so you should be too.

Erica Siepker, a wildlife major here at HSU, who has worked in the on campus aftercare classrooms agrees that how we react in front of children can greatly influence them.

“Don’t make a big deal about it,” said Siepker.

That was one of the most important things she learned working with the kids. The moment they see something affect you, good or bad, they internalize your response and process your reaction so that they know how they should be reacting. 

“I think the biggest thing is making to big of a deal about it, because that’s when it gets ingrained, that it IS a big deal, the divide between male versus female,” said Siepker. “If they grow up in an environment where nobody is making a big deal about whether a girl does things that boys do, or girls do things that boys do, they’re not going to grow up with the thought that it is a big deal at all.

Gender is not an easy topic to understand even as an adult. There are many different viewpoints on gender which can cause confusion. This confusion translates over when we expose children to our own understanding of gender.

“Basically you really gotta be aware of how you see gender before you can start teaching your kid about that kind of thing. So much of it is unconscious, that you have to force it to be conscious so that you can choose to change it, cause there’s always going to be toxic elements to it, said Lebell.

If a child is curious about gender, if they ask questions or experiment how they present themselves, don’t over analyze their actions. Children are inquisitive about the world and the individuals in it, if they are curious about gender and gendered individuals, let them be curious.

“You need to be willing to talk to them about it and answer questions, kids are curious,” said Lebell. “And if you don’t know the answer, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know, don’t make something up or say, ‘oh it’s not important’.”

If a child has questions about gender, answer their questions, but don’t just give them the your answer. A child is exposed to many different kinds of people and beliefs, accounting for these differences is vital. 

“To be able to talk to kids about-‘you know, people have lots of different ideas about these things, and that’s that person’s idea about it. It doesn’t have to be your idea about it, and it’s not necessarily wrong that it’s their idea but it’s their idea. It’s just an idea about this and we have lots of different ideas,’-and really leaving that door open for children to be able to explore what their ideas about it are,” said Knox.

Presenting multiple ways to think about a topic will help the child to understand it. Beyond simply understanding the ideas we have about gender, providing numerous viewpoints allows for your child to grow into their own opinions on it. As they grow, a child will begin to discover where they feel they fit within, or without the labels we have constructed.

“There’s no reason you can’t talk to kids about gender outright, you might have to simplify your language a little bit, but they can understand it,” said Lebell. “Especially when it is so pervasive in society.”

You can talk to a child of any age about gender, if they are curious about their gender, or gender itself, just talk to them. Everyone has different ideas about gender, and to a certain extent so do they. If they are asking questions, they’ve thought about the topic, so don’t dismiss it with a simply explaining your the anatomy or your own opinion.

What would Knox say to a child, who felt conflicted about their own identity and came to her?

“I would basically say, ‘What does this mean to you? Let’s talk about what this means to you’,” she said. “That might include how people they care about are reacting to them. I don’t think you ever tell someone else about their identity. You reflect. You act as a mirror. You might ask questions to create an interpretive base.”

Allow them to be curious, and explain the different ideas and beliefs relating to gender so that they may find where they feel the most like themselves.

“If gender is something where we’re embracing variety, the idea that it takes time for people to be able to explore and understand, and that there are lots of different ways of expressing who you are, then they’re gonna follow that lead,” said Knox.

The way adults deal with gender in a child’s early development can affect not only how someone interacts with people for the rest of their life, but how comfortable they feel expressing themselves.
“Be very, very aware of how you speak to them and how you speak to others in front of them,” said Lebell. “Always be aware of what possible effects, gender and perceived gender is having on them, because, monkey see monkey do. If your kid sees you talking differently because of someone’s gender than that’s, even without thinking about it maybe, then that’s how they’re going to think and talk about it and that’s going to shape them as a person. So just be aware, and don’t ever shame a child for curiosity.”

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Dialogue on criminal justice organizer seeks change through compassion

By Kyra Skylark
Flapjack Staff

Organizer of a recent HSU campus dialogue on criminal justice, Vanessa Virtiak was born and attended schools in Humboldt. Today she works as the programs coordinator at the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, working to better her community.

“For me it has never been an option to not do that, to not go out into the world and do my best to create change,” said Vrtiak.

She works to repair the criminal justice system because she knows just how broken it really is.

Vrtiak’s mother was incarcerated in 2000.

Upon release, her mother had no money, no job, no home, and no help. Vrtiak and her mother were homeless. Vrtiak’s mother was unable to find work after incarceration and unable to overcome the stigma that followed her her.

She is still homeless today.

The criminal justice system failed Vrtiak and her mother, so she, with the help of many other individuals, is working to change the system. Two weeks ago at HSU, a criminal justice dialogue was held to examine the effects of incarceration on families, how race and gender influence incarceration, as well as other issues within the criminal justice system. The dialogue was one of multiple events organized by Vrtiak; beginning with an art exhibit featuring art from those incarcerated in our local jail, and a Re-entry Fair to bring local employers into the prison. Vrtiak brought people from other programs, to help her start a discussion within our community. She had a vision.

“To bring light to these issues, to the lack of resources in our community, to break down the stigma that exists, and to show that theses are real people that are impacted by the criminal justice system,” said Vrtiak.

The dialogue enabled community members to stand up and share their opinions on our local justice system. In an informative and safe environment people came together to bring about change, and they were brought together by one individual, Vanessa Vrtiak.

Representatives from Prisoners with Children, Project What, Homeboy Industries, and many other criminal justice programs/organizations came to be apart of the dialogue. Vrtiak wanted to show the community, as well as the local officials, some programs and policies implemented in other counties that could exist here in our community.

Vrtiak’s fianc, Ulyses Dorantes watched her plan the event for six months.

“The more I heard about what she was actually able to accomplish, the people that she was able to get all the way up here to speak, and the funding sources she was able to pull together, I was really moved,” said Dorantes.

Many incredible speakers told their stories at the Criminal Justice Dialogue. Children of incarcerated parents spoke out about their experiences, previously incarcerated individuals shared their stories, many people came together to tell their truths, their stories.

“There is power in listening to someone’s story, and the people here, that are sharing their stories, are people,” said Vrtiak.

This is what Vrtiak wants people to understand. The individuals that we label ‘criminals,’ that word doesn’t define them. They have families, they have fears, and they have hopes; most importantly they deserve to be helped.

Tailani Wilson, 17, was one of the presenters for the youth organization Project What!. She told her story on how her life has been affected by the criminal justice system.

“I had never really thought of my dad’s incarceration as an issue, it was just my life,” said Wilson.

It was only after she joined Project What! that she began to acknowledge the impact her dad’s incarceration has had on her life. Wilson’s story explained firsthand what it means to be a child with an incarcerated parent, to be, “in jail mentally.” Listening to her story was powerful. The dialogue was educational and truthful, but it was also painful. There are many whose lives have been forever changed by the system.

Those that attended the Criminal Justice dialogue were apart of an incredible event. Vrtiak worked for six months finding the speakers, setting up the dialogue, and the other events. Those who know her saw her commitment and passion.

“I was really happy to help in any way I could; not just as her partner, but as someone who deeply cares about positions as well,” said Dorantes. “I have been moved to care tremendously more so, because of everything I’ve learned in my experience here.”

Vrtiak inspired people.

Vrtiak’s desire to change the way the incarcerated are treated brought together individuals of similar ideals. Able to come together and discuss the problems within the criminal justice system, our community has taken steps towards change.

“The value of listening, that, is truly the greatest gift you can give someone. And it breeds compassion, which I think is ultimately missing from this conversation,” said Vrtiak.

Political activist & producer Jeff “The Dude” Dowd talks about film as activism

By Kyra Skylark
Flapjack Staff

Inspiration for the character, “The Dude” in the cult classic “The Big Lebowski,” Jeff Dowd is in Humboldt. Dowd, writer, producer and political activist, came to Humboldt to promote the new movie adaption of Humboldt County’s original musical, “Mary Jane – A Musical Potumentary.” Dowd was shown the film by a friend involved in the project and believing in underlying messages of the film, offered to help promote it.

“The values of the movie speak to how people create their own economy,” said Dowd.

Additionally, the film focuses greatly on the environmental degradation involved in marijuana cultivation and according to Dowd, how to live a sustainable lifestyle. To bring awareness to the film, multiple presentations, a bowling night, a movie screening of “Mary Jane,” as well as a screening of “The Big Lebowski” and few other functions have been organized.

With so many events planned to honor “The Big Lebowski” and publicize “Mary Jane,” Dowd’s visit to Humboldt State University went unnoticed by many. However, the few lucky students who saw flyers up around campus attended a discussion where Dowd gave a very different talk then those scheduled formally.

While Dowd did talk briefly on “Mary Jane,” he spoke mostly on current issues faced in the United States and allowed students to ask questions about his life. The informal Q&A touched on various intense topics on the student’s minds.

Amy Belteran, a sophomore at HSU from east LA, asked for Dowd’s opinion on the controversy over Netflix’s upcoming show, “Dear White People.” The show is based off the film released in 2014, focusing on racism and white privilege. The trailer for the show was released two days ago, and has already received intense backlash from some of the public.

“If Netflix can create a film adaption of ‘13 Reasons Why,’ a show centered around teen suicide and mental health issues, why are people boycotting Netflix because of ‘Dear White People?’” said Belteran.

Dowd surprised her with his opinion of the backlash.

“The first thing you want to do when promoting a film is to get it banned,” Dowd said.

He went on to explain that debate over a film is always the best publicity, as well as a sign that the piece is important. Controversy and debate are what Dowd wants when he is working on a film. He explained that he specifically tries to choose films that push buttons and focus on relevant issues.

Dowd was the co-executive producer for the children’s movie “FernGully,” where they worked to explain the environmental sustainability and protection to kids. There are numerous other films he worked on because of their controversial message.

Dowd’s films are acts of activism.

As the Q&A came to an end, a girl in the crowd asked what Dowd would recommend the youth do in response to the issues arising as a result of the election.

“Get involved, continue the emotional discussion and stay active,” Dowd said. “You’ll feel better and you’ll make the world better.”

After Dowd left, Roman Sanchez, the events coordinator from Dell’Arte (organizing the “Mary Jane” events,) provided valuable insight on the differences of the Q&A in comparison to the official presentations Dowd came to Humboldt for.

“Everywhere he visits he finds the local University and talks to students. Because he has such a wide range of experience he talks in many different classrooms,” said Sanchez. “One of Dowd’s greatest passions is enlightening the youth.”