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?
March 27, 2013 at 9:36 am
One of the toughest things about parenting is worrying about how people will treat your kids “out there”. There were certain members of my family and extended family who worried much more about what toys my kids played with than I did. The boys were just as likely to pick Pretty, Pretty Princess as they were Battleship. Our daughter would pass up playing Barbies if she could go ride the Go Kart. Sadly, if kids (actually not just kids, their parents too) want to find something to pick on, they will. What we decided was the best thing to do in our house was make sure they were STRONG (emotionally, not so much physically). I think kids need permission to be themselves, be comfortable in that identity and have the words and moxie to back that up.
Penny at Mom Rants and Comfy Pants
March 27, 2013 at 11:12 am
I wholeheartedly agree! I guess I’m struggling with the best way to instill this in my kids . . . the thought of having to discuss something so hard with them at such young ages just makes my heart hurt. I just wish the world were a kinder place all around. Thanks for reading and commenting. Also, thanks for using the word “moxie” — that made my day. 🙂
March 27, 2013 at 10:46 am
Yes, yes, and yes! It’s a hard double standard, letting girls dress like boys but not letting boys dress like girls. But, fair is fair. I’ve braced myself for the day RealBoy wants Rapunzel panties the way RealGirl wanted (and got) superhero Underroos.
March 27, 2013 at 11:13 am
March 27, 2013 at 12:43 pm
I love this post! First off, my son did dress up in a princess dress….he chose Cinderella with a cowboy hat…..hello? really? he should have put on the tiara….it was much prettier (it wouldn’t stay on his head – lol). Anyhow, he is now 12…..still a boy but he will probably not be happy to see that picture when I dig it out. I know how you feel…..I always tell my kids to be who they are, but there is always that fear and doubt in the back of my mind. Keep calm Mamma ….can everything will fall into place.
March 27, 2013 at 2:43 pm
Thank you for liking my post and for the words of encouragement. 🙂
March 27, 2013 at 2:45 pm
I struggle with this one, too, but on a different level. Having a son with autism and sensory dysfunction means that he frequently follows his own set of social rules. The classroom has even accommodated those rules, but with being in kindergarten now, kids are starting to notice that he behaves differently, and the slightly older ones are not-so-nice about it. We have spent so much of our time trying to explicitly teach him things that come so naturally to other kids. And I am constantly trying to re-evaluate the line that we draw between the things we need to “train out of him” and the things we just let be. He is wonderful for who he is, and too much training might equal him thinking that he can’t be himself (or worse, thinking that being himself is “wrong”). It’s a dance…a terrible, confusing dance.
March 27, 2013 at 3:19 pm
Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I can’t imagine another layer like this on top of it all. We all have these struggles, and I really like how you put it . . . “It’s a dance . . . a terrible, confusing dance.” That it is.
March 27, 2013 at 10:27 pm
We just had this same issue come up the other day. My son likes playing with his sister’s Hello Kitty toys – who would’t? He asked if kids would make fun of him for playing with them. I said, “Probably.” (the truth) Then I said, “But, I don’t care. You play with whatever you wanna play with. They’re fun.” And he said, “Because you love me anyway?” I said, “yes.” And then I thought about my daughter wanting to play with my son’s “boy” toys all the time – and it’s never an issue with anyone, anywhere. But, my oldest son won’t even go down the “girl” aisle at Target. That’s where this stuff starts – at Target – there are pink aisles and there are blue aisles. Okay, I’m not going to blame it all on Target, but it IS an issue. And my 8yo is VERY aware of which aisle he will wait at the end of until we’re done. Where does he get that?? Great post!
March 28, 2013 at 1:54 pm
Thank. Yeah, I saw a toy catalog that had one section for girls and one for boys. What??? It’s hard to instill this message at home when the outside world seems to promote the opposite.
March 28, 2013 at 11:33 am
One of my favorite pictures of Wyatt is of him dressed in a hula skirt, holding a purse and wearing a ladies derby style hat with all the other girls from Shell’s dressed in matchning ensembles.
March 28, 2013 at 1:55 pm
Awwww, we miss you all! Seriously “Saurus” asks about Wyatt all the time (and still sometimes blames him for stuff, lol). Hope you all are doing well!
May 8, 2013 at 7:26 pm
Out there is my normal! Let them express themselves any way they want! As a bonus, you’ll have some fabulous 21st birthday photos! Thanks for Hooking up to the Hump Day Hook u …x2 😉
May 8, 2013 at 9:28 pm
So true! And thanks for letting me hook up twice. 🙂
July 15, 2013 at 10:19 am
You raise great points. My son walked around with a pink toenail for a while because he wanted them painted like me. We definitely got some looks… over ONE TOENAIL! I studied language acquisition in ESL learners and they always told us to encourage the native language because the prevalence of English would get to them and they would end up speaking English. While I will continue to paint the nails pink if he chooses, I know the dominant culture will end up seeping into his brain in some measure and at some point, he will likely not want a pink toenail anymore. Like you, I don’t have answers but I take heart in reading posts like this and others I’ve seen because it is evident that even if our son goes to the grocery store in a princess dress, there will be more and more kids and parents who will let it be instead of giving a look or saying something. It takes time, frustratingly slow, time doesn’t it?
July 15, 2013 at 11:00 pm
Hear, hear! I too take heart reading similar posts and knowing I’m not alone.
July 15, 2013 at 11:13 am
We let the Cabin Boys paint their nails. I was approached by a little girl who questioned me about whether Cabin Boy #1 was ‘really a guy’ because her daddy says that only girls paint their nails. I responded simply with ‘yes, he’s really a boy, and he likes to paint his nails’ and left her to ponder, but it left me with many of the same questions. I figure, I want my kids to grow into themselves with a secure sense of self… how can I let them have it if I tell them they can’t play/look/dress how they want? Be who you want to be, as long as it’s within these guidelines? No thanks. I’ll chance having to stand up to people at the grocery store to let my boys wear pink and have their nails painted in public.
July 15, 2013 at 11:01 pm
July 15, 2013 at 7:38 pm
I love this post!! We are also a mix sex family, two boys and one girl, so there are all sorts of toys here. It drives me crazy that a girl is thought to be wonderful who wears a dress and plays with cars, and gets dirty, or wears a super hero costume and holds a doll. Yet if a boy were to play cars in a princess dress he would get a look. Or heaven forbid if he was to wear the princess dress and play with a doll!!
We have always been very free here, and my youngest son, who has had the most exposure to all the different toys loved dressing as a firefighter or a doctor, just like my daugher, and he also had fun putting on a dress or a funny hat. We think it’s adorable. But like you I have never known how to handle it when we leave the house. I do ask for everyone to put their dress clothes away when we go out. I felt if he was really upset about it I would have to re-think it, but I do feel he is safer not wearing something that will call attention to him. I hate that I feel that way, but I also feel like their are “rules” in society that we wear certain things certain places and I do ask that our daughter follow them too. Of course I have put extra money in both of their Money-fo-therapy-for all the-things-we-did to screw you up fund! Thanks again for a great post!
July 15, 2013 at 11:02 pm
Thanks so much! I need to start one of those funds, too. 😉
July 15, 2013 at 7:46 pm
This reminded me a bit of a situation that happened in our house recently. My son didn’t want to watch My Little Pony in front of me (even though I could tell he wanted to) because he said it was a girl show. I showed him two older boys of a FB friend and told him that they loved the show (which was true) and now he will watch it.
Bothered me that he cared so much, but glad he decided he could like it 🙂
July 15, 2013 at 11:04 pm
My son has really started having a “this is for boys” and “this is for girls” mindset, and I’m trying to explain that it isn’t so black and white. Glad your son decided he could like MLP. Have you introduced him to the Bronies? 😉
July 16, 2013 at 11:20 am
You summed it up perfectly! I know lots of folks that embrace the girl Tomboy- but would not embrace the boy Tomgirl. What is it called? And why is it called a Tomboy? Anyway- thank you! Sharing!
July 17, 2013 at 8:26 pm
Thanks so much! And I appreciate the share. 🙂
July 17, 2013 at 9:59 am
So interesting… Thanks for this. Many times we are ok with girls liking “the boy stuff & boy toys” like trains, etc, but not comfortable going the other way around. Awesome!
July 17, 2013 at 1:35 pm
I loved this post. You’re asking great questions. And I guess your answers/actions will be “whatever feels right in your heart.” But it sounds like you’re raising open-minded, tolerant kids who’ll be more accepting of differences in other people when they encounter them later on in life. What a gift!
July 17, 2013 at 8:27 pm
Thanks Norine. What a fabulous compliment! You just made my day. 🙂
July 17, 2013 at 1:49 pm
We have dealt with this. I have posted about it with my 4yo son. When I wrote that he wears pink shoes I was accused by some of not being a sensitive parent. And I had this conversation with a lot of people trying to decide where we draw the line.
Ultimately I decided that I will let him do what he wants and that telling him to be something less than himself is the worse option for me.
I’ve also been able to deal with this in public around other kids and give him a model for how to cope. It’s kind of absurd how children who are well older than he is (most often kids around 10-12) will ask me if he’s a girl. I have a calm conversation with them saying, “No. He’s a boy.” When they ask about his shoes I say, “He likes them.” This generally stops things right in its tracks. Sometimes they insist they’re girl shoes and I say, “they’re just kid shoes.” This has been my son’s preferred reaction. Not “girl” or “boy” just “kid.”
July 17, 2013 at 8:28 pm
I like that, “just kid”!
June 2, 2014 at 11:21 am
Great post! My son is 4 1/2 and is obsessed with all things princess! He’s already planning his kindergarten Halloween costume- a princess with a pink gown and gold tiara. I know it’ll break my heart if other kids (or worse, parents) make fun of him. But it would completely devastate me if I felt that I, in any way, raised him to be ashamed of who he is, because he’s the best- an absolute gem!! I’m a high school teacher and I know that even when you try to fit in, there are still some people who are not going to like you and criticize you- no matter who you are or who you pretend to be. So I’ll try my best to encourage him to be happy with who he is and what brings him joy, steer him away from “the haters” and give him opportunities to nurture relationships with those who see him like I do- because he’s the best!
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August 26, 2014 at 9:29 pm
My 7yo boy wants to be Elsa for Halloween. I mean who doesn’t want to be Elsa! I said of course, but out comes all the judgement. I need some help on how to handle all these close mided people, especially his Dad and my sister. Help please!
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February 9, 2015 at 4:41 pm
Thank you for the article! My 3.5 year old son also wants to dress up as Elsa for carnival at his daycare (that’s the biggest dress-up festival where we live) – and we will let him. He already wore a dress sometimes in the summer and so far other people have been nothing but supportive and compliment him. It’s only other older children who sometimes tell him he can’t wear it because it is for girls – but he usually just confidently replies “no it’s a boy dress!”. But it is sad that it is always such a fine line between letting them express themselves and being afraid that they might be bullied. My mom had no problem when I dressed up as cowboy and superhero as a kid, but won’t leave the house with him in a princess costume.
July 20, 2019 at 6:24 am
He Wants To Be A Princess https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1080933905/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_i_oSUmDbEK0RT5F
July 20, 2019 at 6:32 am
We had the same thing with one of our foster children.. but we just let him carry on.. we found it was pretty much the same as his other games.. plays for a few days and then moved onto something else… but he was great inspiration for my book😊 He Wants To Be A Princess https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1080933905/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_i_oSUmDbEK0RT5F