There’s a column I read on Slate.com that’s called Dear Prudence. Granted, it’s an advice column, and Emily Yoffe gets it wrong more than half the time (in my opinion). But often the letters are comical, and the real fun lies in reading the comments from readers arguing whether Emily Yoffe got it wrong and why they are better informed or more right or morally outraged or whatever it happens to be.
The most recent column includes a letter from the parents of a five-year-old boy who asked (repeatedly and from Santa as well) for a skirt for Christmas. Now, the parents of said child make it clear this is not an issue for them, but wonder at what point they need to quell his desire to dress up as girl in order to make him more socially conforming for venues such as school, etc…
There’s been a lot about gender expression in the media lately, most recently a large uproar over a blog about a little boy dressing up as Daphne from Scooby Doo for Halloween .
This whole issue strikes a chord for me because, well, I have both a son and a daughter and they are both growing up in this world that still thinks that it’s ok for little girls to be tomboys but not for little boys to enjoy traditionally “girl” things. Look at the word that gets used for them – “sissy”. It’s pejorative. “Tomboy” is often said about little girls with pride – about little girls who don’t mind getting dirty or playing sports or who don’t spend hours with Barbie dolls. A “sissy” is weak. Because “girls” are weak. A boy who acts like or enjoys “girl” activities is going to be gay (like that’s a bad thing). Boys who play dress up are going to grow up and want sex change operations.
I have a four-year-old son. He plays t-ball, basketball, and is itching to be six so he can play football. The kid can throw a ball like nobody’s business. He asked Santa for a marshmallow shooter gun and a remote control car for Christmas.
And that kid loves to wear nail polish.
So. The. Eff. What.
He’ll also play princess dress up with his sister, wear a pink headband with his Buzz Lightyear pajamas, and scream at the top of his lungs at the tv when H’s Colt’s get a touchdown.
Boys get the short end of the stick in a lot of ways in our society. Girls get all the sparkly pretty fun, and Moms and Dads and whoever else “oohs” and “aahs” over them and well, who wouldn’t want to participate in all of that? So a little boy wants a skirt, or wants to wear tights, or paint his nails. Guess what? Chances are he’ll grow out of it. Chances are, he’ll grow up to be a healthy, happy, productive member of society. And that won’t change just because you buy him a skirt.
The danger here is that when you start telling little boys that they can’t have a skirt because that’s for girls, you tell him that there’s a part of him, a part of who he is and what he wants to learn about, that isn’t ok. You send a message that he’s different in a way that isn’t ok to you – the person (or people) in his life who are supposed to love him unconditionally.
The other side of this coin is what if your little boy doesn’t grow out of it? To which my answer is, “And? What if he doesn’t?” As someone with friends who are transgender and friends with people whose children are transgender, I believe that the best thing a parent can do for a child exploring his or her gender identity is to have an open dialogue with the child and always make it clear that you love that child unconditionally.
Does non-traditional gender expression open a child up to teasing? Absolutely. Do we want to protect our child from the stares and taunts of other children (and more disheartening, other parents)? Clearly. Ultimately, though, forcing a child to believe that his or her expressions of gender in terms of halloween costumes and painted nails and hair length will make you love him or her any less is just as damaging if not more so. Bullying is a serious issue in this country, and children are bullied for a lot less than gender identity issues. But a child’s first bully shouldn’t be his parents. And by suppressing or quashing a child’s choice of attire or adornment because of it being traditionally for the opposite gender puts that parent in that role. Making a child feel less than because of his painted nails or her short hair makes a parent no better than a schoolyard bully. Sure, the intentions are different, but made worse because now the child feels unsafe in the one place that should always be safe – home.
My son loves nail polish. He loves to show it off. He likes colors like blue, and black, and yellow, and green. He likes it on his toenails. He likes it on his fingernails. And he throws a mean spiral with those painted nails. One of these days he’ll likely stop wearing it. And I’ll miss the way he’d run up to me to show me what new color the nanny painted them or how sweet his little toes looked all decked out in purple polish because he knows it’s mommy’s favorite color.
Love them. Let them be who they are. Not who you want them to be.