Not too long ago, my sister-in-law started a conversation by expressing frustration over her daughter’s first trip to the dentist. Already anxious to take my son, who’s due for his first visit, I expected to hear a tale full of kicking, screaming, maybe even biting.
But, to my—and my sister-in-law’s—surprise, the appointment actually went off without a hitch. Three-year-old Sylvia allowed the dental team to examine, floss, and clean her teeth without any fuss. Tantrum avoided. Challenge met. Rite of passage reached.
But, just when my sister-in-law thought she was in the clear, Sylvia’s newly widened world closed in on her a little when the hygienist offered her a new toothbrush. Though there was a rainbow of colors to choose from, Sylvia was given only two choices: pink and purple. Confident and composed, Sylvia didn’t outwardly object. She simply pointed to the toothbrush she wanted: the yellow one.
Hey, that’s a girl’s toy!
No big deal. Right? As an isolated incident, no. But my sister-in-law says she’s familiar with the brief wave of discouragement that washed over Sylvia’s face that day in the dentist’s office. She’s seen it before—at the doctor’s office, at the market, at Sylvia’s school, even in her own home.
I’ve seen it too. On many more than one occasion, I’ve watched my two-year-old son, Gryphon, go from spirited to subdued after failing to meet an adult’s gender-specific expectations. In the end, he’s been able to brush off each of the comments, including “That’s a girl’s toy!” and “But ALL boys like football!” and “Aren’t those girls’ shoes?”
But I’ve started to wonder—even worry—about what happens when these moments add up.
Girls must be girls and boys must be boys
At one extreme, Sylvia and Gryphon, once they tire of asserting themselves, will neatly fill predetermined gender roles. She’ll sashay around in a sparkly, pink world full of tutus and tiaras and tea sets. And he’ll lumber around in a matte, blue world full of neck ties and baseball caps and train sets. When their worlds meet, she’ll do the vacuuming and he’ll do the mowing.
At another extreme, certain aspects of their personalities will be lost forever. No astronaut aspirations for Sylvia. No dancer dreams for Gryphon. Girls must be girls and boys must be boys. As a result, whole swaths of the real world will be inaccessible to each of them.
It’s that inaccessibility that distresses me. I don’t want the lining of my son’s proverbial oyster to be tinged a little too blue or my niece’s a little too pink. And, furthermore, I don’t want to stifle my son’s potential to be a well-rounded, sensitive adult.
Someone please buy my son a tea set!
Plagued by the possibility that my son will be forced to find happiness only on the playing field amongst circles of sexist frat boys, I began to wonder just how often my son’s elders, including my husband and me, unwittingly push him to live up to established gender roles.
I thought back to his second birthday party. The festivities began with my son choosing three balloons—one pink, one purple, and one blue—to tie to the porch. They ended with him in the backyard trying out some of his gifts. Wearing a hard hat and a tool belt, he maneuvered a dump truck and a digger between turns at a t-ball set.
I don’t mean to blame. After all, this issue only recently showed up on my radar. Looking back, I realized I’ve put up barriers, too. I refused when Gryphon asked to have a doll, prevented him from coming home from the doctor’s office with Hello Kitty sticker, and redirected him when he gravitated toward the shiny purple-haired ponies and their pink stable at play group.
And I don’t mean to be or to encourage Gryphon to be unappreciative. He adores each of the construction and sports themed birthday gifts. We play with them together every day. But I can’t help but wonder how adding a tea set, a doll house, or a personalized cupcake-appliqued apron to the mix would have changed things. Ultimately, I worry that he’s missing out on character-building experiences. Why shouldn’t a boy learn manners at a tea party, practice familial role-play with dolls, or don proper kitchen attire and make eggs and toast for his playmates?
What’s more is that the gray area was almost completely avoided. There was only one gender-neutral gift among the mix: a bean bag toss game from my gender-role-sensitive sister-in-law, who intended to help channel Gryphon’s boyish tendency to throw everything he picks up.
Trains, trucks, and faux-fur boots
After reviewing my parenting choices over the last three years, I’m glad to have found that I have taken some steps toward maintaining my son’s full access to the world. During his first few months of life, he napped peacefully in a flowery pink infant swing. One of the first toys my husband and I purchased for him is a play kitchen. Last fall, he traipsed around town in Cousin Sylvia’s hand-me-down faux fur boots. Last month, he picked out a set of pajamas with pink and purple stripes.
And though I know his playroom will continue to fill with trains, trucks, and airplanes, my husband and I decided to continue to be sensitive to his preferences—whatever they may be.
Just the other day, he peeked over my shoulder while I was browsing an online sale. He watched for a minute or so as I scrolled through travel accessories, then asked me to stop when a sparkly, purple and pink, cupcake-shaped backpack popped on the screen.
“This one?” I said, just to be sure.
“Yes. I wear cupcake?”
“Why not?” I said.
But before clicking the ADD TO CART button, I consulted my husband. And by the time the three of us gathered in front of the screen, my son was over the glittery cherry-topped cupcake. He was more interested in the strawberry-shaped backpack. And, boy, does it fit him. The kid has been eating strawberries by the bowlful all summer long.
I can already see the scene: Gryphon walking in to town sandwiched between the toy lawnmower he won’t leave home and the backpack he had to have. All I can do is hope our purchase turns out to be a fruitful way to support our son.