Ponytails, Elsa and my 3-year-old son

My 3-year-old son loves to run at breakneck speeds, climb impossibly high and jump without fear. He is obsessed with planes, cars and trains in that order. I often hear the phrase “he’s all boy!” from people who meet him. But he also loves Disney’s Frozen, the color pink and ever since his younger sister started sporting them, wearing his hair in a ponytail.

The first time my son asked me to put his hair in a ponytail I was admittedly surprised, but in that moment I made a conscious decision to not classify wearing a ponytail as something “for girls” and anytime he asked I would do his hair without further comment. This is not the first time I have avoided assigning gender to objects or behavior. I agreed to call him a princess, rather than a king as I originally did, when he came home from a fairytale themed day camp wearing a crown. And when we’re playing make-believe, there is a 50/50 chance he’ll choose a female character or assign me a male one and I never question his designations.

When these moments happen, I roll with them and so does my husband. I love looking at the world through my son’s eyes and right now, in this time of his life, he knows there are boys and he knows there are girls. He even knows the anatomy behind these classifications (we haven’t delved into the transgender topic yet). But that’s where gender stops for him. He doesn’t think twice about pretending to be a girl or a boy. He just chooses to play characters he thinks are awesome. Period. I mean, isn’t that a beautiful thing? With gender assigned to just about every toy out there, I know this won’t last forever and I have a strong desire to preserve his innocence for as long as possible.

Society is waking up to the fact that being “gender neutral” is really a luxury reserved for girls. Amazing strides have been made to empower our young girls to make choices through dress or play that aren’t covered in pink sprinkles, even though we still have a long way to go. Target recently announced they would do away with color coding in their toy section. GAP is launching a gender neutral clothing line that markets to little girls. As a mother to a one-year-old girl, this makes me incredibly happy. But what about our boys? Where is the support for little boys who want to play out the princess fantasy, or wear a print that isn’t a truck or fire engine? I loved reading this article, which directly addresses my concern and our societal conundrum. As the author points out, “gender neutral” really means devoid of femininity, so for the little boys who appreciate the pinks and purples and frilliness that’s been designated as female, outlets are few and far between.

My son’s love of Disney’s Frozen has only been nurtured by me, my husband and a few close family members. Even though Frozen items were on his Christmas list, his stockings were filled with cars, trucks and trains. But as all parents know, Halloween is fast approaching and my son has suggested several times that he wants to be Elsa. Sometimes he says he wants to be Spiderman (which is what he was last year) and once in a blue moon he mentions a pirate. But more often than not, it’s Elsa. And despite all that I’ve expressed above, I have hesitations. I love that my son thinks Elsa is awesome for her magical powers. I love when he corrects people who assume Olaf or Kristoff, the male characters, are his favorites with a somewhat disgusted, “No, Elsa is my favorite.”

The world we’ve created for my son inside our house doesn’t necessarily reflect the real world, however. A perfect example of this is when my son’s Aunt and Uncle asked him what he was going to be for Halloween and he said Elsa. His Uncle said, “Wait, Elsa, as in the queen character?” mainly confused but also disapproving. My inner mama bear emerged and I quickly and sternly replied, “Yep! That’s the one!” to make it clear that my son’s choice was supported by us and not to be questioned. This was a relatively benign encounter, but it made me realize I won’t always be there to correct an adult or child or reaffirm his choice. I worry that if I send him off into the world wearing an Elsa costume, without any warning about what people might think or say and why, I’m in some way setting him up for a negative experience.

It would be so easy for me to sway him to be Spiderman. Then I read this awesome article about a Dad who encouraged his daughter’s desire to be Hans Solo for Halloween because again, girls should feel unencumbered to play the part of an awesome male character. When she asks her Dad to be Princess Leia, he realizes saying no would weaken his message, so he rocks the costume and not in a drag-queen, ironic, “I was forced into this” way. This story has inspired me to let my son follow his heart. If I can create a safe space for my son to play with baby dolls, pretend to be Doc Mcstuffins or wear ponytails to school, I can do my best to create a safe space for him to be Elsa for Halloween.

My plan is to take him to a Halloween store and let him choose his costume without any feedback one way or another. He can select what he likes and we’ll stick with that choice, which is hard enough in toddler land. If he chooses the Elsa costume, perhaps I do need to have a conversation before he goes to school or trick-or-treating.

Has anyone navigated a similar path with their son? Is anyone else attempting to avoid reaffirming gender stereotypes in their kids lives? What would you say if you saw my son in an Elsa costume on Halloween?

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17 thoughts on “Ponytails, Elsa and my 3-year-old son

  1. annabec says:

    First off, I love your blog and I commend you for addressing those topics that make us uncomfortable as parents. I completely understand your reaction to your son’s costume choice. I have three year-old twins (b/g) and the boy is constantly choosing “girl” stuff and the girl is constantly choosing “boy” stuff. The amount of time I spend reassuring them that they can be anything they want AND that the boy character and the girl character are equally wonderfully and valued is outrageous. I think first you should congratulate yourself for not taking the lazy approach and pushing him towards the Spiderman costume. Second, I think that the more we as a community encourage our kids to be bold and be themselves, the better the outcomes are for all children as we are raising kids to be less judgmental and more accepting of “different”.

    Truth be told. If I saw your son in a Elsa costume my immediate reaction would be “ah-that’s different-but not really because I’ve seen tons of boys wearing girl’s costumes before and I am cognizant of the fact that the world is different and man I’m so freaking glad of that, and that kid must have a super cool mom and a really cool dad because I think that’s awesomely badass and it makes me feel safer for my boy and girl to grow up in a place where we are bending the “normal” rules” Truth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. strivingshannon says:

      Thank you for this! I definitely find it so fascinating having a kid of each gender and noticing what toys/books/activities they are attracted to. But it takes constant vigilance to try and not influence their choices and when holidays and birthdays come and family members or friends give gender-biased presents it’s certainly an up-hill battle.

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  2. Sara JCW says:

    My former boss used to say – we’ve come so far in how we raise girls but we really haven’t made any changes to how we raise boys. He used to point to the “boys don’t cry” “be a man” language that still gets used. And its true. How do you balance being supportive of the Elsa costume without setting him up for potential hurt feelings from backlash from his peers (or adults)? Something as a mom who’s already heard the “all boy” comments about my son that I will continue to think about and monitor.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Catherine Gordon says:

    My son is constantly role playing in female roles around our house. Puppet shows, playing Doc Mcstuffins, and the whole princess role play. It is natural for a child to imitate the roles in tv shows or movies we watch. If he wants to be Elsa, let him do it. If people say things about it then it will show you who you should distance yourself from. Anyone that makes fun of my child in more than a playful manner is cut off from our lives. I don’t have time for that, and should not have to deal with things like that. Period.
    My husband was the Grandmother from the big bad wolf last year for Halloween in a family matching costume. He rocked it and was so happy all night long because we were doing it as a family.
    Wearing his hair in a ponytail is fine. He is doing the same thing as his dress up and role play. He sees you pull up his sisters hair and does not think twice about it. It’s role play. And the man bun is in, my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. strivingshannon says:

      Thanks, Catherine! I worry less about friends/family and more the random person walking by while trick or treating or an older classmate at school outside of the ears of his teachers. I love the way he sees the world and I want to preserve that innocence for as long as possible! Thanks for the vote of support.

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  4. Ginger Birdsey says:

    Go for it…when our grandson, was 3 he wanted a to have a fairy birthday party. He wore a tutu and pink high heels and sparkly dust all over. His mom and tal and all the grandparents decided to go all out, pink cake, covered with flowers, fairy sticker books.. a wand some wings the works…he loved it and then it was over and he was back to playing fire rescue..just go with it ..and let it run it’s course. Your instincts are right.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Amp says:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I love your approach and think you’re an inspiration. I’m a mom of a 1.5 y/o boy and 1 month old girl – while we aren’t quite at the talking stage yet I already notice the difference in how people talk to them. (“Tough guy”, “sweet little girl”, etc). I think it’s important to pay attention to how we talk about gender and sexuality in front of our children from a young age. When my baby boy becomes friends with a new girl, sometimes parents will joke and say they are “boyfriend/girlfriend”, and I always like to say “I don’t know what he’s into yet,” which gets a giggle – but I believe that the more kids hear comments like this, the more they think heterosexual relationships are the expectation, and anything else might be different or wrong. As unrealistic as it might be, I want my kids to grow up in a world where they can choose their own path untainted by stereotypes.

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    1. strivingshannon says:

      Thanks for these thoughts! I often say something similar when someone tries to do the boyfriend/girlfriend game. Even though I know the intent is to be funny, I find it odd to put those type of labels on kids so young! I commend you for bucking the norm.

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