A pink barrette and my four-year-old son

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.






13 thoughts on “A pink barrette and my four-year-old son

  1. B H says:

    This is wonderful. Please indulge me as I share my toddler grandson’s story.

    I am the luckiest grandfather in the world (IMHO) to have been able to care for my grandson during the week when his parents were at work beginning when he was 8 weeks old. He is now approaching five years in age, and he is with me two days a week, having started nursery school part time a few years ago.

    Since about the age of one year, he has been fascinated by everything construction, even to the point of joyfully enduring hours outside in 30ish degree weather to watch heavy equipment create a new neighborhood nearby. When “Frozen” came out, he identified with Queen Elsa – I think it is her determination and her ultimate realization of her inner strength that captured his fancy. One day as we were going through a large discount store, he spied a “Frozen” dress on a display rack, and he asked me to buy it for him. I did so without another thought, and he began wearing that dress around the house. His parents saw this, and his mom told him he was beautiful; his dad said very little. One day my grandson said he wanted to wear his dress to the playground in my neighborhood. I was a bit concerned that we not take this step without him being told of some possible consequences, so I told him that some people might think he looked like a girl and might tease him for wearing a dress. He didn’t care, so off we went. Soon he was wearing the dress to the grocery store and other public places we regularly visited. My friends and business associates found him delightful regardless of his attire. On the rare occasion that a stranger complemented me on my beautiful granddaughter, I would smile and say, “He’s actually my grandson, and sometimes he likes to wear a dress.” The almost universal response was an authentic smile.

    Several months ago, he began asking me to buy him another dress, which I finally did – a yellow one that reaches almost to the ground (great for twirling.) He happily wore this everywhere. He also talked about it frequently to his parents, pestering them to also get him a dress and more importantly (to him) to let him wear a dress to his nursery school. One day I got a call from his parents, telling me that they do not want me to buy him any more dresses and that they do not want him wearing a dress in public. They also told this to their son, recognizing that it was only fair that he know who was making this decision. He asked me why I didn’t ignore his parents’ new rules and let him wear his dress outside of our house (as he calls it), and I explained that it would not be right for me to ignore his parents’ wishes, even though I might not agree with them. Not too long after that development, when we were talking about his growing up and he wistfully said that he wished I could get him another dress, I said in a rather off-handed manner that when he was grown up, he could buy dresses if he wanted and no one could stop him. That brightened his day considerably.

    A year or two ago, when it became apparent that his pleasure in wearing a dress was not a short-term phenomenon, I researched issues relating to gender identity in young children, wondering if that subject might be relevant to my grandson. After doing my research, I occasionally and very casually posed questions that would allow him to indicate if he felt like he is really a girl, or wants to be a girl, and he never did. My take is that he’s just a boy who sometimes likes to wear a dress. He is also a boy who tears through the house, finds nothing more fun than playing in and with mud and getting covered from head to toe in it, and driving (with assistance, of course) a relative’s small tractor/front loader when he can. At one time, his favorite color was yellow, and then it was pink, and now it’s purple/blue/red/pink/yellow/orange/green/black.

    He seems to have figured out how to deal with different viewpoints and rules without much difficulty (although he does keep asking me why he cannot eat in my car when he is allowed to do so in his parents’ cars.) He has no apparent inner conflict with wearing a dress in the morning and a bulldozer T-shirt with shorts in the afternoon. He’s just a happy little kid.

    PS He recently found a couple of simple metal hair clips (hidden for years in one of my daughters’ bedrooms) and asked me to get him some, which I did. He puts them in his hair, he connects several of them to make snakes and fish, and he puts two together, proclaiming it a heart and hands to me, saying “I love you.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. strivingshannon says:

      Thank you for sharing this beautiful story with me. I found myself emotional throughout. Your grandson sounds so much like my son. I’ve brought up gender identity with him before and for now, it appears he is a boy who is attracted to princess stories, occasional dress wearing and hair accessories. His favorite color also switches by the day. I commend you for supporting his self-expression and am sorry his parents stopped him from wearing dresses in public, although I can certainly appreciate their fears and worries. I’ve been surprised by how fearful I am for my children and my hesitations from allowing my son to fully express himself, whether it be through bright pink shoes, an Elsa costume or pink barrettes, stems from my fierce desire to protect him. But I’ve come to realize that I’m stifling him more than anything else. The work definitely continues. Be well.


  2. David Cofrin says:

    The best thing about this process is that even though he will likely never be permanently interested in “feminizing” his attire, he will likely become more naturally tolerant for all the different lifestyle and/or gender choices he will encounter in his life and thus have empathy and tolerance as part of his DNA —which is the true goal.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Leticia says:

    I feel as if I could have written this post myself…..up until the point where I let my son go to the park with the pink barrette in his hair. My 4 year old son has asked on a few occasions to buy pink shoes or a dress while we are at a store. I am saddened to say that I have said ” no, that is for girls”, although inside I feel terrible. Recently he has been wanting bows and flowers in his hair every time he sees me put one in his 18month old sister’s hair. I really struggle with this! With all of this! I want to accept him just the way he is and allow him to express himself in any way he chooses, but I feel scared for him. Scared of what people might say to him or how they might make him feel…….and then I realize how I make him feel each time I tell him he cannot be who he is or express himself the way he wants to.

    So here’s a question: I’m glad your son had a good experience with the pink barrette, but how would you have handled it if things had turned out differently?


    1. strivingshannon says:

      Hi Leticia! This post was written so many years ago. My son continued to play with non traditional gender norms and did receive negative comments or questioning comments in public and at school. We had to begin to role play and practice what he might say if someone commented on his expression while also validating his choice as completely normal and okay. He’s now 8 and mostly chooses traditional gender norms when it comes to his expression. Although he does still like to have his nails and toes painted.


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