The other day, I pulled into our neighbors driveway to pick something up with my 5-year-old son in the car. Parked outside their home was a large pick up truck. My son peered through the front windshield and said, “Wait, I thought we were going to Ms. Perri’s house. Ms. Perri is a girl.”
“That’s right. This is her house,” I replied.
My son, appearing confused, responded, “but there’s a truck in the driveway. Girls don’t drive trucks.”
I have some version of this conversation with my 5-year-old daily, if not weekly. Despite all of our best efforts to be proactive and ensure our children’s world views on gender and gender identity are expansive beyond the boy/girl binary, my son is receiving and absorbing messages from his environment and his peers.
I’m feeling stuck, because I know research supports that by age six, most children play with kids who share their own gender identity. We are definitely seeing our 5-year-old prefer to play with boys for the first time in his life. He’s also repeating gendered stereotypes to us and his friends, which troubles me since we are a feminist family. The newest challenge is my son has learned how to respond when we interrupt the stereotypes or generalizations he makes. The above conversation ended like this:
“Honey, why do you say trucks are only for boys?” I asked, turning my body to face him in the back seat.
“That’s what my friend at school told me. His Dad drives a truck.”
“I see. Well what do you think now that you see a truck in Ms. Perri’s driveway?”
“I guess that girls can drive trucks?” he questioned.
“That’s right. And remember, there is nothing in this world that is just for girls or just for boys. Everyone gets to decide for themselves what they like.”
This is a line we often say in our house, and it triggered my son’s new and improved, automated response.
“Mom, I was just kidding! Don’t worry, I know there’s no such thing as for girls or for boys.”
For folks that know me in real life, I rely on humor and levity a lot in my parenting. It does not surprise me, therefore that my 5-year-old is now attempting to use humor to get out of conversations he doesn’t really want to have.
“Well, I do worry, honey, because saying ‘trucks are just for boys’ could make someone feel bad. How do you think a girl who likes trucks would feel if they heard you say that?”
“Not very good,” he replied.
“What do you think you could say to your friend if he says trucks are for boys again?”
“That I don’t think that’s true.” He paused. “But what if he doesn’t believe me? What if he still thinks trucks are for boys?”
These questions hit me like a dagger in the heart. My 5-year-old is already feeling the pull and pressure that come with peer relationships, How do you fit in and develop friendships while being true to yourself and your values? As a 36-year-old I struggle with these concepts, for Pete’s sake, so hearing my little one be so vulnerable and astute reminded me this is a life long journey for all of us as a family. Deep breaths, Shannon.
“That is the challenge, isn’t it?” I said. “What do you think? Imagine responding to your friend, ‘I don’t think trucks are just for boys.’ If he said ‘yes, they are’ what would you say back?”
He thought for a moment and said, “maybe, ‘well, I don’t’ and that’s it?”
“I think that would be a great response.”
The conversation ended there, but I knew the next one would be right around the corner.
What do y’all think? Am I doing enough? It feels like such an uphill battle to raise little people who see beyond the gender binary. But I can and will continue to have proactive and reactive conversations about gender and gender identity. The work continues.
P.S. In seeking images for this piece, I typed “boys trucks” into google image followed by “girls trucks”. If anyone wants to witness what we’re up against, go take a gander.