I’ve been writing about gender norms and gender identity a lot lately, mostly due to the fact that my nearly 4-year-old preschooler is trying to make sense of gender within the world around him. He’s curious about body parts. He comes home from school talking about boys chasing girls and vice versa. I do my best to create a safe space for my son and daughter to play and express themselves however they want inside the safety of our home. When we recently discouraged my son from buying pink shoes, however, I was forced to acknowledge how much gender norms still influence me and my decision-making as a parent.
The history linking pink to girls and boys to blue is not a linear tale. An excerpt from Ladies Home and Journal from 1918 stated, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” After World War II, the color designation switched to blue for boys and pink for girls, but the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s created a market for more unisex clothing options. When technology was created to detect gender during pregnancy in the 1980s, pink for girls and blue for boys became a fad yet again and obviously, this trend has only grown through modern-day in large part due to clothing companies and baby product marketing.
I usually purchase kids clothes online without my children’s input, but include pinks and bright colors that are not traditionally designated as “for boys” for my son and incorporate hand me downs from my son for my daughter. My son has stopped asking me to put his hair in a ponytail, but sometimes he’ll ask to wear a pink sun hat that was a gift for his sister or want to wear a dress from our costume box and I comply without hesitation. Even though he’s almost four, my son still doesn’t think of articles of clothing or toys as things reserved for boys or girls.
As a family, we ventured out to purchase shoes at our local outdoors store. I showed my son the selection of Keens and asked him to select which pair he liked best. He immediately pointed to the electric pink shoes and said, “I like these ones!” My husband was right behind us and responded, “No, not those shoes,” before I had the chance to react. My son didn’t miss a beat and replied, “okay, what about these green ones?” and those were the shoes we ended up buying.
I could easily pin this whole parenting moment on my husband, but the truth is he voiced what I was thinking. My internal voice said, “oh no! not those shoes!” I felt anxious about what he might experience should he select the bright pink shoes. While my son doesn’t think of clothing as for girls or for boys, his friends do and I wondered, would he be teased?
Since this encounter, my husband and I have had several conversations about our knee-jerk reaction to the pink shoes. We both agreed we worried about how others might react to his choice and that he could have a negative experience amongst his peers or even other adults. We also acknowledged that if our son had been adamant about wanting the pink shoes, it would have been easier for us to support that choice in the moment. My husband and I have agreed that moving forward, when we give our son the choice to select an article of clothing, shoes or an accessory we are going to respect and stand by his choice no matter what the color or print of the item might be. And should those choices lead to certain experiences with others, we will help him navigate those interactions.
Giving children choices is developmentally appropriate. It helps them build respect and flex power and control over their environment. Our instinct was right to give our son the option to select which shoes he liked best, because it was an easy opportunity for him to exert his opinion over a low-stakes choice. We redirected him due to our own understanding of how gender is tied to the color pink. But as parents, we’re making the conscious decision to not fear pink or any other item that has been designated as for a girl should our son take an interest.
Parenting is so humbling because every day brings new situations for which no book or article on Huffington Post could prepare me. This experience made me realize that I feel comfortable allowing our children to self-express away from the confines of gender norms when we are home. But I need to push myself to make space for that same freedom of expression outside of our house.
Have you ever experienced a similar situation? How would you react if your son wanted bright pink shoes?