I’m at a point in parenting where a lot have come before me and many will follow, and I’m left with a ton of questions and am not sure why it has to be so hard. This post is my way of trying to sort through these questions. I warn you now that this post does not take a straight path to its conclusion. And I don’t have any grand revelation at the end or a lesson that I learned. For I am still looking for answers and grappling with how to deal with all of this . . .
My husband and I have three children: 1 girl and 2 boys. As such, we have all manner of toys and whatnot in our house: We have princesses and ponies, dinosaurs and matchbox cars, dolls and trains. Not to mention an entire wardrobe of dress-up clothes. We have tutus and dresses, superhero capes, and firefighter and police officer uniforms. So pretty much a good mix of everything stereotypically “girl” and stereotypically “boy.”
But, as I know is the case in many houses, there are no rules in our house about who can play with what. There is no rule that only my daughter can play with the toys meant for girls and only my sons can play with the toys meant for boys. (The fact that I just had to write about toys being “meant for” one sex or another is so very irksome to me!) Same goes for dress up. Although they do tend to stick to gendered norms, they don’t always. Sometimes my daughter wants to be the male superhero and sometimes my son wants to be a princess. My daughter likes to put on makeup and paint her nails like mommy, and so does my son. And we’re ok with that.
What I’m struggling with now, however, is the double standard our society places on even our youngest members–namely, that it’s ok for girls to play with “boy” toys and dress up in “boy” clothes, but not ok for boys to play with “girl” toys or dress in “girl” clothes. Why is it more acceptable for my daughter to wear her hair short, get dirty playing sports, and dress up as Spider-Man for Halloween than for my son to wear his hair long, take ballet, and dress up as a princess for Halloween? Why is it when a girl does anything traditionally male she is considered tough, but when a boy does anything traditionally female he is considered a sissy?
I ask these questions in earnest because I don’t know the answers to them. Is it because our culture respects men more than women so that a girl dressing as a boy would be considered an “upgrade” in status, whereas a boy dressing as a girl is considered a “downgrade”? Is there a worry that boys playing with girl toys and dressing as girls might mean there is a question about gender identity? That these little boys either are already showing signs they are gay or might somehow turn gay if allowed to continue playing or dressing in this manner? And why aren’t these same concerns raised for girls? (Not that I’m suggesting in any way that they should be!)
Most importantly, how the hell are we supposed to address these issues with our children?
I like to think that I have a pretty open mind about things, and we preach equality to our children in all things–we are all people first and should be treated equally no matter what. Period. End of story. “Do what you want kids and don’t worry about what others think!” I’d like to practice what we preach here, BUT unfortunately, it’s just not that easy in real life. I’m learning that just because our family holds this belief, that doesn’t mean everyone does. We do not live in a bubble, and as much as I wish everyone felt the same about it as we do, they don’t. How do we teach our kids to be themselves and not worry about what anyone else thinks when there are so many people out there ready to tell them exactly what they think?
What do we do, for instance, if one day our son wants to wear a princess outfit out of the house? Part of me couldn’t care less what the kid is wearing as long as he’s not naked. But the other part of me knows that there are bullies and haters and people around every corner just waiting to tear down anyone who thinks or acts differently from the societal norm. The thought of my kids being subjected to ridicule or hate, even, makes me ill. All this mamma bear wants to do is protect her precious little cubs.
I can say with great conviction, for instance, that I’m going to allow my kids to be themselves and do and wear whatever the hell they want and f#ck the rest of the world if they don’t like it. But it’s hard to actually do that in real life. In an ideal world, no one would blink an eye if my son went to the grocery store in his princess outfit. But we don’t live in an ideal world. How do we deal with the looks? The snickers? The teasing and taunting? The suggestions that maybe we need to get our son some more masculine clothes? And how do we explain all of this to our kids?
Do we teach our kids that there are societal norms that they need to follow in public, but they can do whatever the they want in the privacy of our own house, or does his somehow promote hiding their true selves or shame them into following the norm if they are inclined not to?
Do we use this as a lesson that people have different opinions about everything imaginable, including gender norms, and that even though we don’t care, for example, what our kids do or wear, other people might? And they might make a big deal about it?
Do we instill these lessons early on, or do we go along minding our own business, doing our own thing and try to protect their innocence as long as we possibly can?
As much as I want to shout, “Keep calm and let your son dress like a princess if he wants!” do I actually have the courage to heed my own advice?