I still remember the moment. I remember the moment when the ultrasound tech told me that I was having a son. I remember fist punching the air. I specifically remember the tech telling me she’d never seen someone bounce up off the table so high.
I’ve always been a tomboy, the “guy’s girl” who has a lot of male friends. I grew up in the 1980s with a wide array of light pink and lavender, elastic waist-banded wide wale Healthtex corduroys. At some point, I turned into the Girl Who Hated Pink.
Hearing that I was giving birth to a son solidified my excitement about not being inundated with the two most traumatizing colors in my life. The fist bump and bouncing were less about sex or gender role and much more about my excitement over not having to see all. that. pink. and. lavender.
Until my son started to make his own decisions. At first, I thought his love of these colors was simply to be a bit defiant and annoying. I mean, after all, he was a BOY. What BOY loves pink with this much vigor?
Mine. Mine does.
I spent the first five years of my son’s life working through my pink issues. At some point, I even opted to watch, ugh, princess movies. The girl who had always climbed trees and refused dresses as a kid, here I was watching princess movies and wearing costumes.
Because my son could like whatever he wanted. If I was still upset for not being allowed to like boys’ toys like Transformers as a kid, then how could I deny him “girl” things because he was a boy? That would be a ridiculously inconsistently illogical level of hypocrisy. If there’s one thing that I can safely say I am? It is logically consistent. Probably to a fault.
My son loved pink. He loved My Little Pony. He had no idea for the first five years of his life that this was “wrong”. He couldn’t read. He didn’t see a problem with the toy aisles. He went up and down each with an equally vigorous greed, as small children are wont to do. We bought him a slew of Elsas. I mean, fair enough. SHE SHOOTS ICE OUT HER HANDS. For the love of all things good and green, what kid wouldn’t love that?
We collected My Little Ponies. He preferred Fluttershy for the most part. Of course, as he began rounding five and a half, he began to recognize that liking Fluttershy at home was okay but in public it had to be Rainbow Dash. She was athletic. She was loud. She was brassy. That was the one that it was okay for a boy to like.
Then he hit Kindergarten. Slowly, over the course of that first month, I watched the five years of carefully constructed gender equality lessons crumble like one of my continually over-baked cakes.
The girls refused to play with him. Even if he liked ponies or princesses, he was a boy. They refused to acknowledge him.
The boys teased him. He stopped wearing his Rainbow Dash shirts because the boys told him that was only for girls. He refused to wear his Elsa shirts anymore because only girls could like princesses.
He came home worrying about one student in particular who mercilessly teased him and called him a girl.
He started playing sports at school. Only sports. Because boys play sports.
His ponies and princesses started to languish in varying locations in the house, collecting dust.
His princess and pony shirts got shoved to the back of the drawers.
His ability to feel confident expressing himself got shoved to the back of his mental drawers.
Summer came. He picked out the most awesome pair of leopard print, pink and purple and blue and green Doc Martens high tops. He wore them in 90 degree heat and humidity.
Summer went. School started up. The same boy who teased him mercilessly on the playground in Kindergarten teased him again. Apparently, in his fear of this little bully, my son had sided with the kid, and teased a friend of his saying the friend’s hair looked “like a girl’s.” I found this out from his friend’s mother. (My livid response, complete with cartoon-esque racecar driving through town to bring my son to the principal’s office to yell at him and force him to have an in-school punishment as well as at home punishment is a story for another day.)
A few nights later, coming home from his hip hop class, my son started spouting things I knew he’d heard at school from the little bully. I pulled the car over on the side of the road. I informed my son that if he wouldn’t say something about his black friend that would make the friend feel sad for being black, why would he say something like that about girls? I explained sexism. I might have even, at that point, called the bully in question a misogynistic little sexist four-letter-word-for-excrement. I watched his eyes grow wide in fear over the tone of my voice, a tone he knew meant business. After assuring him that I wasn’t angry with him specifically, I then went on to explain all of those words except the last one. He already knew the last word because I’m a pretty brilliant parent.
All of these things that my son has to live with? These aren’t coming from the toy manufacturers alone. These are coming from us, parents. We need to be working together to teach our children that what someone likes is fine. A boy likes princesses or a girl likes hockey, that’s good. That’s fine. Who cares?
Here’s the thing though: I am in 110% total agreement that our toy aisles and our society need to change. I don’t think that all girls like pink. I sure didn’t. I still don’t. I’m slowly coming around to purple mainly because it looks good as a hair color and I’m vain.
Toys should be integrated in our toy aisles. They should be organized logically by brand and style and genre within a brand. Boys should see the Rey action figures next to the Finn action figures next to the Kylo Ren action figures. Girls should see the 12 inch Finn doll and Kylo Ren dolls in the same aisle as their princesses. We can yell and argue with our toy manufacturers all we want.
But what about the playground? What about the soccer field? What about the playdates when other kids come to our homes and they tease our children for being different? What then?
Then, we are responsible. We are not responsible for making boys like princesses or making girls like Star Wars. We are not responsible to force girls to play football or to force boys into ballet. We are not responsible for changing what kids like simply because people worry about a gender divide.
We are responsible to give them freedom. We are responsible to teach our kids that freedom to choose is a freedom everyone is guaranteed. We are responsible to tell our kids that they can like football or princesses or superheroes or ballet or Star Wars or pink or blue just because they like it. Regardless of what some long standing tradition says.
We are responsible because our children are our future a la Whitney Houston. We are responsible, as parents, for teaching more than tolerance and acceptance. We are responsible for broadening our children’s minds and making them more than we are. We are responsible to the world to making our children understand that not everyone is the same, that not everyone looks or thinks or loves the same. We are responsible for teaching then that even when you do not understand another person, you need to respect that person.
We, parents, are responsible. We are responsible to raise our children to be the change we want to see in the world. We are responsible for teaching our children that fairness means fairness to everyone, in every way. We are responsible for leading the rebellion.