We went to a 1-year-old's birthday party last weekend. Just as we were about to leave, the kids got to choose an inflatable guitar to take home, a play off the "rock star" theme. Bennett, who is 1 1/2, bypassed the blues and blacks in favor of a pink one.
Quinn, who just turned 3 on Monday (!), enjoys red's pastel cousin as well, but he has more sophisticated interests in the feminine mystique. Quinn calls himself Melissa or Ashley, two women he adores, depending on the day. We sang "Happy Birthday" to "Ashley," not Quinn. He chose a pink donut on a pink plate for his birthday breakfast. He sat down at a children's museum's face painting station and announced that he was doing his makeup.
Am I causing psychological damage by letting my kids explore and pretend? I don't think so. Some have observed that their constant physical activity and proclivity for dirt make them "all boy." But if my manly boys want to wear my necklaces or high heels around the house, I'm going to let them. The next moment they might be swimming in Daddy's shoes and T-shirts, Quinn proclaiming that as a newly minted 3-year-old, he's eligible to grow a mustache and be a daddy.
They're not confused. They're imitating the people they spend the most time with: my husband, Will, and me.
I grew up a tomboy. I had Barbies but I remember my mother chiding me for not playing with them enough. My favorite way to play with them was to cut their hair or give them a bath.
Dolls weren't nearly as interesting as playing outside on the farm where I grew up. I caught bugs. Ran barefoot. Climbed trees. Tamed feral cats. Coaxed my own little brother into wearing a dress. Shh — don't tell Scott I wrote that.
As for Will, he has been known to switch up his mostly black wardrobe with a smokin' pink dress shirt. And he once made up — and became famous for, in our little circle — a riotous interpretive dance to a Cher song. But shhh — that's supposed to stay quiet, too.
My point is, we don't always follow the stereotypes, so why should we force that upon our kids? People tend to have strong opinions about gender identity in children. The social convention, of course, is that you bring your girl home from the hospital in pink clothes and a hair bow, or your boy in blue. You buy dolls for your girl and cars for your boy. Most people do this and think nothing of it. A smaller group of people still believe there shouldn't be crossover.
There's been pushback in recent years. My first awareness of the movement against gender norms came two years ago with the "My Son is Gay" post from a KC mom who writes the Nerdy Apple blog. She let her 5-year-old son dress as Daphne from Scooby Doo for Halloween. People all over the country praised and chided her. A short time later, the editor of the J.Crew catalog published a photo of her young son painting his fingernails. Then word came out of a new extreme: parents who withheld their children's genders altogether, hoping they could transcend the stereotypes and grow into their true, predestined selves.
I doubt I would let my kids wear dresses or show off painted nails in public at this age. I would make that choice to protect them from the inevitable insults of others, not to suppress some feminine urge. One of my biggest jobs as a parent is to help my children feel secure and build their self-esteem. Setting them up for torture to indulge preschoolers' whims seems shortsighted. If they still want to wear dresses as teens who understand the effects of their actions, then we'll talk.
On a macro scale, there is growing din about the Disney princess effect, wherein little girls come to idolize the characters for their long, flowing hair and beautiful dresses, supposedly cultivating unhealthy self-images. Likewise, people crow that boys need role models other than superheroes. Toy manufacturers are starting to notice. Lego and Mattel have construction sets marketed toward girls this year, according to a New York Times article this week.
My house is equal-opportunity. Some of the boys' favorite toys are yes, the cars and trains, but also their play kitchen and myriad toy vacuums. They're culturally literate about superheroes and princesses alike, but don't obsess, at least not yet. We're teaching them to help in the kitchen, to ride bikes, to paint, to read, to play with sticks, to build with blocks, to be kind to others.
That last one is what I really want them to understand. We all have our differences, our quirks, our anomalies. But every person — including boys who wear dresses — deserves respect and freedom from judgment.