Honors history elective observes childhood development

Dr. Gurtler’s Sex, Science, and Culture class on December 8, 2022 – Courtesy of Billy Rayer ’24

With growing awareness around the difficult topic of sexuality and gender comes more discussion of how to deal with it when speaking with children and adolescents. Dr. Bridget Gurtler’s History of Science, Sex, and Culture* elective is working on a capstone project around the topic.

“Throughout the semester we have been exploring how people in different times have dealt with issues particularly related to gender and sexuality,” Dr. Gurtler said. “This project is meant as a way for students to reflect on their own experiences growing up at Haverford, particularly within single-sex education.”

Specifically, Dr. Gurtler’s students are working to create a 21st-century parenting guide that looks at developmental milestones from birth to high school graduation. Dr. Gurtler tasked students with observing students across Haverford grades to see how they interact with each other.

“This year I wanted students to have a chance to work across divisions and look at life and sociality across different age groups,” Dr. Gurtler said. “They went into the center, which is kids under five [years old], and worked with some preverbal kids all the way up to the chatty four and five-year olds to look at how they thought about color choice or sharing.”

All parents of observed students were notified and gave consent prior to this exercise.

Prior to observations, students learned not to ask questions that pushed personal boundaries. Each student was then assigned a specific age group to create a parenting guide. The groups used their observations and scientific literature from medicine, history, sociology, and many other fields of research. 

Sixth Former Arnav Sardesai was assigned to observe children from the ages of 1-2.

“I found it surprising that there were nearly no gender norms at that age,” Sardesai said. “There were dresses that the boys would put on without hesitation.”

Sardesai also observed that the role of daycare has changed and has a large impact on young children. 

Sixth Formers Aiden Bridell, Dylan Kao, Ethan Chan and Owen Yu in Sex, Science, and Culture class – Courtesy of Billy Rayer ’24

“A lot of the kids couldn’t talk, so I was mostly talking to the adults there, and they said that the expectations on them were higher now then they were fifteen years ago in terms of teaching their kids life skills,” Sardesai said. “I didn’t realize that daycare had such an effect on kids, as stuff that happens there is just as important as the stuff that happens at home.”

Sixth Former Ethan Chan visited both a first and third-grade class.

“I was surprised by the difference in the responses of kids when asked simple questions about gender,” Chan said. “I asked the kids ‘Do you have any friends that are girls?’ and the responses were very different. The third graders said things like ‘eww’ and ‘gross’ and had to think about it for a while whereas the first graders just said ‘Yeah, my sister’ or something like that.” 

Chan found that with the addition of technology in the classroom, kids have had to mature faster.

“When I was their age, I wasn’t as mature, but now with the addition of technology in the classroom and social media, they have a wider worldview than I did,” Chan said. “I think third grade is about the age when they become less oblivious to what there is in the world and social norms begin to kick in.”

The project has evolved in its three years in the upper school curriculum.

I think our students are very savvy in understanding the role that technology has played in changing student knowledge of issues of gender and sexuality.

Dr. Bridget gurtler

“Things were a little disjointed during COVID in all of our classes,” Dr. Gurtler said. “The richness of in-class conversations was missing, which is often where I find leaps are made in these discussion-based classes.” 

A main difference, especially after COVID, is that technology has become a larger part of our lives. 

“I think our students are very savvy in understanding the role that technology has played in changing student knowledge of issues of gender and sexuality,” Dr. Gurtler said. “I think [students] have really good advice for thinking about how to build trust in relationships for families and communities to come to healthy and safe outcomes when it comes to hot-button issues.”

Dr. Gurtler has found that students enjoy talking about these issues, especially as mature seniors. 

“There is this really cool launching moment at the cusp of adulthood where students can think of what they make of their growing-up experience at Haverford,” Dr. Gurtler said. “Girls tend to get a stronger voice on these issues, and I hope that our boys can now be a deeper part of these conversations in society.”  

Author: Ethan Lee '24

Ethan Lee is a Managing Editor for The Index, a position he took in May 2022. He has previously edited the News section of The Index. When not writing, Ethan can be found on the squash court or in a crew boat, or working on an art project.