Over the past year, I’ve chronicled my successes and struggles with making space for my four-year old son to explore toys, clothes and accessories away from stereotypical gender norms. Inside our home, we are doing a pretty good job. Our dress up bin has dresses as well as Spiderman, Ironman and Hulk costumes and our son and 18-month old daughter wear these garments interchangeably. My husband and I never utter the phrases “that’s for a boy” or “that’s for a girl” to our kids and I see how fluid their play is without these set limits. During make believe games, my son assigns family members to play characters with no regard to gender and we always just go with it.
Outside of our home, however, we have faltered in allowing this same freedom of expression to occur. I hesitated in letting my son dress up as Elsa for Halloween because I was scared about how he would be received in his classroom and in our neighborhood. More recently, my husband and I steered him away from choosing a pink pair of shoes at a local store based on that same fear, which sparked a much-needed conversation on our parenting choices. My husband and I agreed that moving forward, we needed to do a better job at respecting and supporting our son’s choices around dress and play outside of the home, even when those choices bucked traditional gender norms.
As fate would have it, I was quickly afforded another opportunity to support my son’s self-expression in the outside world. He’s asked to wear barrettes in his hair for the past couple of weeks while playing at home. He doesn’t do it often, but will usually request one as he watches me try to use barrettes to manage our daughter’s huge head of hair. Last summer, he similarly wanted to wear his hair in a ponytail because our daughter wore her hair in ponytails. It’s been no sweat for me to let him wear these barrettes in our house, but last week he specifically asked to wear one to the park.
I was chasing my daughter around with a comb and two barrettes, when my son ran up to me and said, “I want to wear one too, Mommy! Can I wear a barrette to the park?” I immediately agreed and showed him the clips: one was pink and one was blue. He said, “I want the pink one, because pink is my favorite color.” Here we go, I thought, as I helped him pin back his hair. Somewhat miraculously, his sister came toddling up beside us and pointed to my son’s barrette and then to her head. For the first time ever, I placed a barrette into my daughter’s hair without having to wrestle her like a wild alligator. This felt like a good omen.
Off we went to our neighborhood park, and I’ll admit I was a little anxious. Just as before, I worried what a kid might say to my son or even worse, what a parent might say. But I kept those fears hidden to make space for my son’s self-expression. When we arrived at the park, my son saw a group of older boys, about six or seven years old, playing a ball game. I had never seen the boys before nor did I recognize the adult with them. My anxiety spiked as my son said, “I’m going to go and introduce myself to those little boys and see if they’ll let me play with them!” “Okay, sweetie. Good idea,” I replied, choking back my fear for him.
I watched as my son confidently bounded over to this group of boys, pink clip and all, and introduced himself. They all stood around sort of sheepishly, as little people do, and they each said their names. Then they invited my son to join their game. My son played with them for a solid 20 minutes and not one of them made mention of his hair accessory. He finally ran over to me, rosy-cheeked and sweaty, and asked to remove the barrette because it was starting to fall out. And that was that.
In a recent Huffington Post article, 11 women were interviewed about raising feminist sons. Author Anne-Marie Slaughter said:
I don’t think of it as raising feminist sons. Now I think of it as, we need to raise boys who are as excited about challenging traditional masculine stereotypes as our daughters are about challenging traditional feminine stereotypes.
This quote reminded me that challenging gender norms is not only achieved through rejection; it can also be achieved through embracing and celebrating what’s been traditionally reserved for the opposite sex. As a parent, my goal should not be to push my children towards gender neutrality, which seems to mostly represent an absence of femininity. Instead, my goal should be to let my children self-express in whatever way they want, regardless of gender stereotypes. Period.
I recognize that in scale and scope, allowing my son to wear a small, pink barrette to a park was not revolutionary. But it was a step in the right direction for me as a parent. I have always let my son dress himself and play however he chooses …as long as we’re inside our house. I’m striving to make sure my anxiety and worldview no longer inhibit his freedom of expression from flowing just as freely when we step outside. I am proud of myself for keeping my fears in check this time and I was happy for my son that he had a positive experience wearing the barrette. Onward.