My 5-year-old told another boy “ponytails are for girls”

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.

My kids, partners in ponys from the beginning

“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.

Cuteness overload with Santa

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.

end gener norms
Please and thank you


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



7 thoughts on “My 5-year-old told another boy “ponytails are for girls”

  1. Kate says:

    If your kid is 5 then I would think that is developmentally how is brain is working partly based on how he sees the world around him. Kids categorize and put things into boxes, sometimes it serves them well and sometimes not. One example might be birds have wings, bats have wings, so a bat must be a bird.

    We knew one kid who wore his hair in a ponytail in from kindergarten to high school graduation. I think at the younger end, whether it is right or not, some kids will say things like “ponytails are for girls”. My son is the youngest(now 15). He has always seen his dad with short hair, me with moderate length hair, sometimes in a ponytail, and my daughter with very long hair sometimes in a pony. Maybe at some point he though only girls wore ponytails as well.

    Your children are looking at the world around them and making judgments/observations about the world that may or not be true. Men are taller than women, men have beards, some men are bald etc.

    Growing up I didn’t want people to put me in a box because I was a female. Sometimes there is a twist to talking about gender norms though. People might say “men can be nurses”, but on the other hand say, a woman shouldn’t limit herself to traditional career choices like being a nurse or a teacher. I am a nurse and my daughter is in college studying to become a teacher. Just because we might associate something with a traditional gender norm doesn’t automatically make it bad, or antiquated.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. strivingshannon says:

    Hi Kate! Thanks for reading and responding. I agree that categorizing the world is developmentally appropriate for 5 year olds. My kids at 5 and 3 are certainly trying to make sense of the world around them. Which is why I want to complicate our notions around gender and help them avoid becoming rigid around gender expression. I certainly have struggled with my daughters love of princesses, but I agree that I should support her enjoyment just as I would if she was obsessed with trucks. That point is, gender is a construct and I don’t want my child to be told how they should or should not be based on their assigned sex at birth. Nor do I want them to tell other children how they should be.


  3. Asher says:

    I really love this post soooo much. If all parents could, like you, teach children to be open minded and respectful, we can have a society where nobody is judged by the way they dress or how they look. Reading thisreally made my day


  4. Destiny D Short says:

    I love this post so much, My son is 2 he will be 3 in october. He doesn’t want his hair cut so we keep it long and we get so much from people because its not short like a boys hair apparently is supposed to be. we are going to be starting to pull his hair back for him to keep it out of his eyes.


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