Parenting and gender norms: part two

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I’ve had a few more thoughts about parenting and gender norms since writing this post. Not terribly long ago, a friend of mine shared a photo of her young son on Facebook, and in it he was wearing a dress and playing with a toy toolbox and a truck. She mentioned something about “raising a feminist boy” and it made me wonder if gender neutrality or gender non-conformity is synonymous with feminism (in this case, anyway). When I asked, she replied:

I think it’s feminist because we’re teaching him that there is no one right way to be a boy and hence no one right way to be a girl. To me, that is very feminist. I suppose it’s also gender neutral, but I personally embrace the term feminist, and it feels more political and more intentional. I think also not denigrating when he chooses things that are more traditionally feminine such as dresses or saying he wants to be a ballet dancer feels feminist to me because we’re not suggesting those things are “bad” by not allowing that choice.

I really like that answer, and it made me think. In the week or so before this exchange, Jonah asked me if boys could wear dresses. I told him that they could, and he asked, “Can I have a construction vehicle dress?” I told him that was kind of a tall order but that I’d see what I could do. I’d never even seen a construction vehicle dress, and I do all of the kids’ shopping.

When any of the kids do something somewhat gender-non-conforming of their own accord, I’m often both thrilled that they haven’t been trapped in a social construct yet, but also a tiny bit concerned that we could be doing them a disservice by not telling them the truth about America. It reminds me a little bit of a conversation that happened at work between two colleagues, both men of color, about the best way to prepare young people of color for the world. One of them felt that to teach young people of color how to behave in a way that will grant them acceptance by a white supremacist society (as opposed to affirming their authentic selves and culture) is an act of racism, while the other colleague felt that not doing so, not teaching them how to “play the game” and stay alive in the country that they live in right now, is an act of violence. It’s not nearly that extreme, of course, whether I allow our young boys to wear dresses, but for some people in some places gender non-conformity can ultimately be a matter of life or death.

I’m impressed when others don’t react with as much rigidity as I might expect. We took the kids shoe shopping awhile back and as we walked in, Jonah spotted some glittery sneakers on a sale table out front. They were in the girls’ section and weren’t his size. When it came time for him to be fitted and find some shoes, I asked the woman helping us if they had anything glittery in his size. She said, “I’m sure we do. They might be pink.” I told her that wasn’t a concern, and she went off into the back room to find him some options. She returned before long with five or six pairs of glittery girls’ shoes, even going so far as to bring some silver mary janes. We didn’t end up buying any, since the ones he loved were light-up sneakers and Kristin hates light-up shoes of all sorts (she thinks they’re tacky and distracting and I can’t disagree completely). But the fact that the salesperson didn’t bat an eye at our request, and that she enthusiastically brought him so many options was so heartwarming somehow. It gave me hope for America.

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Jude in Vivi’s bathing suit, which he emptied her entire dresser to find

Longer ago, before the construction vehicle dress request, we told the kids that we were all going to be attending a wedding reception (it’s this Saturday, actually). All of them were excited, and Jonah said something off hand about getting a fancy dress for the occasion. I was surprised, because despite all of this philosophizing I’m doing, I don’t think that Jonah identifies as anything other than a boy, full stop. He’s never implied otherwise. What I know to be true, however, is that his only experience with weddings and wedding receptions is seeing his moms wear dresses to attend them. Here’s another example of that: I took him shopping last night to buy an outfit for this weekend’s reception, and he initially told me that he didn’t want to get an outfit because he doesn’t like white. I had to explain that guests at a wedding can actually wear any color they want, and that yes brides often wear white but not always, and they usually wear dresses but not always. He seemed relieved, and ultimately picked out a cool button up shirt with space designs on it and some bright colored shorts.

So much of what they believe about the world is because of what we show them and tell them, and when we tell them what we want them to believe about gender not being restrictive, we aren’t telling them the whole story. Jonah is starting to pick up on it, as all of them would have eventually. One night in the bathtub he said to me, “Mama D? I think that maybe there are girl colors and boy colors just a little bit.” I could tell that he added that diminutive out of concern for my feelings. I asked him why he thought that, and he told me that it was because every girl at his school loves pink and purple. Hoping to poke holes in that theory, I started naming off girls one by one, but I don’t think we ever found one who doesn’t love those classic colors. I tried to explain why that might be, the way toys and clothes are marketed, but I didn’t have a well-thought-out answer in the moment. It made me realize that I need to start getting into the nuances of why we believe what we believe, and why others might disagree, and the effect that has on people. We don’t encourage colorblindness, so I suppose we ought to move beyond the idea that gender isn’t a thing.

One of the things that occurred to me during that Facebook exchange with my friend weeks ago was how much the oppression and degradation of women also oppresses men and boys. I hadn’t given that a ton of thought before. All of our wondering about whether or not it’s OK for Jonah to want a dress or glittery sneakers wouldn’t even be a thing if traditionally feminine choices and qualities weren’t so looked down upon. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself whether most people would worry at all over a little girl who preferred pants and trucks and the color red, over dresses and dolls and the color pink. I know people who actively celebrate those kinds of preferences, they almost push them. Being a girl who likes “boy” things is completely OK, but boys who like “girl things? Not so much.

What I discovered following the construction vehicle dress request, was that it’s actually relatively easy to find cool, progressive, somewhat gender-norm-bucking clothes for girls these days, but it’s nearly impossible to find something for a boy. You just have to buy it from the girls’ section, and even then a dress with construction vehicles on it is not easy to come by. If you’ve never searched the web for a dress for a boy, and tried to decide for yourself what the least “girly” dress style might be for a boy, you can’t even imagine what mental acrobatics it requires. By this point I’d decided that I was fine buying him the dress, it was a matter of finding one. I found one on Etsy that was specifically marketed as a “unisex play dress” but while I loved the concept and the politics of it all, I thought that the cut of the dress was actually sort of ugly. I finally found one I liked on some random site I’d never heard of, purple with yellow construction vehicles of all kinds. I was excited about it and showed it to Jonah with Vivi sitting nearby. Immediately she said, “I want a truck dress!”. As I showed him the options, he realized that they also sold shirts and pants in the same pattern, and he told me he’d rather have a tank top and leggings. “Are you sure?” I asked him, “You can have a dress if you want one.” I was worried that maybe he’d picked up on our hesitation somewhere. He told me he was sure.

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So Vivi got her truck dress, and Jonah got a matching shirt and pants, and I need to strengthen my kid-accessible explanation of feminism and sexism and why it’s important to think for yourself.

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