Buddy’s old backpack had been falling apart, so I’d decided to take advantage of the back to school specials to get him a new one. I took him to the backpack aisle and pointed out several backpacks from shows he liked. As soon as he saw the purple and blue backpack with Elsa from Frozen on it, his heart was set. Buddy adores Elsa.
I could have said “no.” I could have avoided the gender thing and said that it was too expensive (not that Buddy has an understanding of “too expensive.”) Or I could have said that the Elsa backpack was for girls and to pick a different one. Or I could have shamed him for picking out the Elsa backpack. But with all of those options, I would have conveyed the message that what society thinks is more important than being true to himself. I want Buddy to be proud of himself. Buddy is amazing the way he is, with his Elsa love and all. There’s nothing wrong with liking an Elsa backpack.
So I got the backpack.
For the most part, Buddy wears typical “boys” clothing. His favorite color seems to be red, though sometimes he shows a preference for blue. Occasionally he will fixate on his sister’s hair bows and hairbands and wear them. Fortunately, even though we live in a conservative area, there was only one time when someone shamed him for this.
Buddy was still a baby in a stroller and we’d taken him into a toy store. We were talking to the clerk when she suddenly yelled at Buddy not to reach for something. Buddy drew his hand back, stunned and confused. The clerk explained that he was reaching for something pink and girly. Andy and I stared at her, dumbfounded. She started rambling about how they don’t let the little boys in her family even touch pink stuff. In shock that someone would yell at our child for touching something pink, Andy and I mumbled an excuse and left.
Truth be told, I am self conscious when I talk him out when he’s wearing a headband because I do know how cruel people can be. If I drop him off at therapy wearing one I make a point to tell the aide that he dressed himself. Because I want to emphasize that this was his choice, and I am respecting it, and I expect other people to as well.
As Charlize Theron found when her five year old son was seen wearing an Elsa hat and a dress, people tend to assume that when parents do this they are forcing it on their child. Yet in all my work with children I’ve noticed more than anything that parents are more likely to force their will on a child when they don’t conform to gender stereotypes.
My sister and I both worked in retail and witnessed parents berating their boys or telling them they couldn’t buy something because it was purple. Andy, who for what it’s worth grew up to be straight and identifies as male, got teased for liking The Little Mermaid and was told he had to stop watching My Little Pony when he was growing up (he was a brony before it was popular!) My nephew was shamed by my MIL for reading a book with a female protagonist (and to my nephew’s credit, he made a good argument for why there was nothing wrong with reading Nancy Drew, especially considering he was ten!)
This dividing of toys, shows, and clothing between the genders is problematic for many reasons. People worry about that their sons will become gay if they wear a pair of pink shoes, but this makes it harder both for children who are gay to accept their sexuality without shame and also causes confusion for children who are straight, as Andy had to wrestle with how he could be straight when he likes pink things and My Little Pony.
But second, it implies there is something shameful about being female and liking feminine things. The so called “Tomboy” will brag about how she was always climbing trees and hated playing with dolls, while the girl who played with dolls wishes for a similar boast. As a girl who did both, but ultimate tipped to the frilly side, it took me a while to come to grips with the fact that there wasn’t anything wrong with having gone through a phase where I was crazy about pink and frills and Barbies.
But while I liked frills and Barbies, I also loved hiking, bike riding, and always became indignant if someone suggested that girls were inferior to boys. Feminism is printed in my genes.
Gender doesn’t fall into neat little boxes. My son loves trains, balloons and Elsa and occasionally wears a hair bow. My daughter loves cars and stuffed animals and Anna and hasn’t complained yet about wearing her brother’s hand me downs (and she does like to pick out her own clothes). And there’s nothing wrong with their likes or interests, gender conforming or not.
Some parents see their children as creatures to mold. If you parent right, your child with be a cisgendered straight person who goes into business. I see my children as developing people who I guide through life, by listening and paying attention to them as they tell me who they are. This does not mean I permit them to do bad things. If they engage in behavior that harms themselves or someone else then I redirect them and intervene. But no one is hurt when Buddy puts on a hair band or Sissy plays with a toy car. And by shaming them for it, then I would be the one causing harm, because I would be hurting them for revealing themselves to me.
I don’t fear or worry that one day my kids will tell me they are gay, transgendered, genderqueer, etc. If they are, they are. As plenty of parents who have tried to force a transgendered child to conform to the gender they were born into have found, it’s not about parenting. Further, it isn’t anything to be ashamed about, and I don’t want my children ever, for one second, to worry that I will not accept them because of who they are.
For now, though, puberty and gender identity seem far away, especially when grappling with autism. I have two amazing kids who like various kids stuff, some of which conforms to gender expectations, others which don’t. And trying to figure out now if they are gay, straight, bisexual, asexual, genderqueer, etc, is pointless. They are exploring their world and having fun and finding what suites them. And it’s exactly what children should be doing.