When I came to pick up my 5-year-old from school the other day, I was delighted to run into one of his classmates, a 4-year-old boy, sporting a mini-ponytail atop his head. I leaned down and told him, “I love your hair like that!” He gave me a toothy smile and ran off to go and play with his friends.
My 5-year-old has long experimented with hair clips, ponytails, finger nail polish and more so I was happy to see another little person flexing their gender expression in this way. Especially since my son had been teased at school for his choices in the past.
In the car, I said to my 5-year-old “I loved Timmy’s* ponytail! That’s so cool there is another little boy who likes to wear his hair in a ponytail!” I expected my child to return my excitement, but instead he responded with, “yeah, I told him ponytails are for girls.”
Screeeeeeach, went the record player in my head. Come again?
I was so disturbed, I ended up pulling the car over to the side of the road so I could turn around and fully face my son.
“Honey, what did you say to Timmy?” I asked, with a little too much emotion in my voice in retrospect.
“I told him ponytails are for girls!” he reiterated. When he saw my face, he quickly added, “but I was just kidding.” My mind was racing. This was not my child. My child challenges the gender binary! My child rocks barettes and ponytails and paints his nails! I took a deep breath to calm myself down.
“I’m so surprised you would say that, especially because you wear your hair in ponytails and clips sometimes. Do you remember that?”
He paused for a moment and said, “yes, I remember.”
“And do you remember how it felt when people told you hair clips are for girls?”
He surprised me again when he responded with an emphatic, “No, I don’t remember.”
There was so much I wanted to say, but my 3-year-old began to melt down over a dropped gold fish, so I tabled the conversation in order to get home.
Later that day, I asked my son to come over and look at the pictures of him with his hair up in a variety of different styles, all of which were born from his imagination and creative direction.
We voted on which style we liked the best and mused at the fact his latest haircut was so high and tight there wasn’t much hair left to style.
I took his hand in mine, wincing as I looked his silver painted fingernails and said, “it’s so important to remember that there is no item of clothing or hair style or toy that is just for a girl or just for a boy. Everyone gets to decide for themselves how to dress and play. Look at your nails! What if someone told you nail polish is for girls?”
“People do say that to me,” he responded. I winced again.
“And how does that make you feel?” I asked gently.
“Not very good,” he admitted.
“I bet. And I bet Timmy didn’t feel very good when you told him ponytails are for girls. We want to make other people feel good about themselves. Next time Timmy wears his hair in a ponytail, what do you think you could say to him?
He paused and said, “I could say, ‘I really like your pony!'”
“That would be nice,” I affirmed.
In the past week, I’ve circled back on this incident and gender norms in general several times. And I find myself thinking on it a lot. What I’m sitting with most is my child, who has been teased for wearing his hair in ponytails and painting his nails turned around and did the same thing to another child. He didn’t remember his own hurt from when it happened, he only remembered the message conveyed: ponytails are for girls. He internalized it and repeated it.
That he would repeat this message despite never hearing it at home troubles me so much. In fact, we push back against traditional gender norms regularly. It illuminates what an uphill battle I have as a parent to raise a child free from the antiquated restraints society places around gender. My child, who is encouraged to express however he wants regardless of gender norms, still called out a child for wearing his hair in a ponytail. Argh!
I have so much work to do as a parent. This is more clear to me than ever before because my best efforts will only take me so far when I’m up against peers who are being taught differently in their homes and media that reinforces traditional gender norms. My heart broke for the little kid who was told ponytails are for girls by my child. Just the way my heart breaks for my kid when someone tells him his hair or his nail polish is for girls.
I’m thankful my son was honest with me about what he said so at the very least I have the opportunity to challenge his thinking and prepare him to be a better friend to his classmates in the future.
What’s your take? How would you have handled this situation with your child?
*Names have been changed