When my now 13-year-old daughter was a toddler, we bought her baby dolls and strollers, Barney stuffed animals, cartons of books, a play kitchen, a little table, sparkly dress-up clothes, and pretend tools. We have picture after picture of her wearing a pink feather boa, high heeled shoes, and carrying a toolbox to go help “fix the house,” she always said. When she was three, she wanted to grow up to be Bob the Builder. Well, actually, she wanted to be one of the machines, but once we informed her she couldn’t become a machine, she chose Bob. For Halloween that year, she wanted to be Bob the Builder, so she was. Door after door, she was greeted with, “Oh, it’s Wendy!” even though Wendy has an entirely different costume and role in the show. She responded with, “No! I am BOB!”
When she got her new “big girl canopy bed,” she wanted nothing more than a Bob the Builder bedroom set. So, we bought her the comforter, pillows, sheets, and decor. And I set out on my first sewing project – making a canopy out of Bob the Builder fabric. When she needed to pick out new underwear, she chose…you guessed it…Bob the Builder. When she picked them off the shelf, it never occurred to her that they were boy’s underwear. She just wanted Bob the Builder. And so, my three-year-old daughter rocked it in her Bob the Builder undies! Some people were shocked that we would let a little girl do such a thing. Why weren’t we teaching her how to cook, hold babies, play with Barbies? The fact is we were, if she was interested. We were also teaching her how to fix things and use tools. Most importantly, we were teaching her that she could play with whatever she wanted, become whatever she wanted, that her gender didn’t matter.
My now 10 year old son came along at the same time my daughter was Bob the Builder. Just like with his sister, my son was allowed to do whatever he wanted without regard to gender roles. Especially having a big sister, he gravitated to things that were deemed “for girls.” He didn’t know, He just liked what he liked.Like his sister, we have plenty of pictures of him in the feather boa and high heels, wearing make up, nail polish, you name it he wore it. His sister taught him how to be a ballerina, and Dora was his first girlfriend. For his big boy room, he wanted Dora. So, we went out and bought the pink Dora sheet, some accessories, and assembled his Dora room. He, too, wanted a canopy, but I couldn’t find a canopy bed at the time. I was secretly thankful because sewing a canopy is no small or inexpensive task! He grew up believing he could be what he wanted to be, do what he wanted to do. Labels like boys and girls are just labels.
Now, at ten-years-old, we have a problem. Other kids don’t agree with our anyone can be anything attitude. He gets picked on for his blinged out NY City t-shirt that he absolutely loves. He got teases for his magenta sneakers. He was told he was too girly when he wore a feather in his hair to school that he had had put in at the carnival over the weekend. It seriously never occurred to any of us that other boys wouldn’t. He paints his nails on a regular basis, but somehow this is considered cool for boys to do. He has multiple pairs of shoes from the women’s department (sneakers and tennis shoes), because he likes the bright colors and the way they fit. He is all about sparkles, flowers, and what feels good.
Even moreso than with his sister, people are downright appalled that we would let him do such things! “Kids will laugh at him!” they say. “Only because their parents haven’t taught them better,” we respond. “People will think he is gay!” my father exclaimed. “We won’t be surprised when he tells us that he is himself. Nor will we care,” we respond. “He’s just looking to get picked on,” one adult leader had the nerve to say, after we reported one of the above incidents.
I tell my son those people who laugh aren’t worth worrying about, but when you are a ten-year-old child, those kids are your world. You are easily influenced, your identity is largely shaped by what your peers think of you. As a mother my heart breaks when my son is drawn to a clothing item or toy, but then puts it back because he doesn’t want to get picked on. I tell him I love him because of all that he is, not despite it. His sister, who normally fights with him like crazy, builds him up, helps him pick things that would be considered more acceptable within his range of likes.
This is just sad. Sad for him. Sad for our family. Sad for society. The message we send our children about gender roles and expectations hasn’t come nearly as far as we think. We, as a society, like to toot our horns and claim we have come so remarkably far regarding acceptable behaviors, but the reality is, we haven’t. Children tease other children because they haven’t been taught any differently by their parents. Children label “girl” and “boy” items because their parents have taught them that there IS a difference. Adults say they are okay with various sexual orientations, but the reality is it still makes a whole lot of people squirmish. It’s time we truly look at where we are as a society, where we want to be, and then take the necessary steps to get there. Before more young children get hurt, just for being who they are.