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?