Last weekend, we had some friends over to our new place. My friend asked me a simple question, “What do you think about little boys having little strollers?” I told her I thought it was fine. “Me too,” she said. “As long as the stroller is blue.”
It was a simple, unremarkable exchange. But it reminded me of a question I have been pondering off and on for a while now, namely whether we parents should try to “encourage” our children toward “gender appropriate” objects and behaviors. Please note that I use scare quotes here very purposefully as I am not sure where encouraging ends and pressuring begins and I am not sure whether I believe that there are such things as gender appropriate objects and behaviors.
I remember the moment well. Toddler, two at the time, had just made the foray into potty-training. To celebrate this progress, we went shopping for big girl undies. At the store, we stood there, mother and daughter, in front of the display of baby briefs. Another mother and her daughter stood next to us, also perusing the merchandise. As fate would have it, both of our little girls zeroed in on the Diego underwear. Yes, in the boys’ section. This other mother was horrified. “You cannot have those!” She yanked some princess panties from the rack and whisked her girl away. Toddler’s interest in the Diego underwear didn’t wane. Very politely, very articulately, she told me those were the ones she wanted.
I didn’t give it much thought. I bought her two pairs.
To this day, my little girl wears these undies under her little purple outfits. She loves them.
So what? I am not sure, but I have always believed that we should let young kids be who they are. My little girls play with dolls and strollers and trucks and trains. Some nights, they sleep in blue pajamas covered in cowboy hats. Some nights, they sleep in pink pajamas covered in twirling ballerinas.
I let them choose.
Thanks to Lisa Belkin of the NYT’s Motherlode, I became aware of a recent controversy surrounding this ad wherein a little boy is depicted wearing his mother’s high heels and trying her lipstick. In the corner of said images are advertisements for a karate school. The message, presumably, problematically, is Let us toughen your boy up. Apparently this ad, arguably prime evidence of stereotyping and gender-shaming, was published online without the karate company’s consent. Click here if you are interested in the details.
I have a good friend with a little boy. He is a wonderful little boy – exceedingly intelligent and kind. He does like to try on his mother’s heels and necklaces and is an amazing dancer. I see this little guy and smile. I applaud my friend for raising such a charismatic character. Never in a million years do I think anyone should try to change this little creature into something he isn’t. Never in a million years do I think that this little boy at age four is emblematic of who this man will be at age forty. And if there is a connection? He will be an awesome forty-year-old.
Now, I am biased. I grew up an unapologetic no-frills tomboy. I lived for sports. When I was eight and attending soccer camp, I was called “Rambo’s wife” (I was tough and could compete with the boys). I wore a Larry Bird jersey to fifth grade more often than not. And my parents? They let me do my thing. They bought me autographed basketballs for my birthday. They came to my games. And when, in high school, I suddenly started wearing skirts and makeup, they rolled with it. They did what I think a good parent should do (within reason): They stayed out of my way.
But is it this simple? It never is, is it? We parents are doing the best we can. Each and every day. And in each of these days, we are faced with decisions. Some as simple as pink or blue. Some far more complicated, nuanced than that. And so. I don’t pretend to know what’s right and what’s wrong here. All I can do is draw on my own experiences as a child, and now as a parent, in this big, bad world.
- Do you think we should steer kids toward “gender appropriate” activities and objects?
- Is there such thing as “gender appropriate” activities and objects?
- Are there certain toys you wouldn’t let your little girl or little boy play with?
- Do you believe that we parents should, in many respects, “stay out of our kids’ ways”?
- Would you have bought your little girl the Diego briefs?
- Do you agree that the karate school ad was offensive?
- As a child, did your parents steer you toward certain activities rather than others presumably because of your gender?