My son is a car loving, hello kitty bike riding, tutu wearing, underwater swimming, rough and tumble caring boy who is as eclectic as he is lovely. When he was younger, although the sexist comments bothered me I was able to protect him from much of it. I made sure that the way I raised my son gave him the choice to be who he wanted to be – whether that was wearing a tutu or bouncing a basketball in the park (turns out he loves both). As my son gets older, it’s harder. I’m starting to see what it means when they say kids enforce gender norms. It’s not only the kids though, some adults are overly interested in what my son chooses to wear or play with, you see my son wears a skirt as often as he can. In all honesty it makes me feel a little uneasy. My son lacks a male role model so whilst I want him to be free to be him, I don’t want to unintentionally encourage him to mimic me to the extent that he gets bullied by his peers (or old men on the bus). Sometimes it can seem like a hard line to walk, especially when he’s having meltdowns about wearing a skirt to nursery, but I know there will be comments if he does. These are a few of our recent experiences.
The jumper was beautiful, and it was in the sale. Grey with colourful patterns – pink, purple, green, yellow. Multicoloured fun. It happened to be hanging in the ‘girls’ section but what did that matter. It looked pretty unisex to me. He wore it for a party, paired with his party hair (sort of like this but nowhere near as impressive because I did it). We had hardly been there before the first gender police kid rocked up. He returned to ask me the same question at least ten more times before the party ended.
“Why does she look like a girl if she’s a boy?” A 4 year old boy at a child’s birthday party
My son begged to wear a skirt. Over and over he begged. “I want to be like mummy. I want a skirt”. Eventually after trying three charity shops we found a skirt in his size. He loved it, put it on right there in the shop and slept it in that night. The next day we went to a party. He wore the skirt and his ‘party hair’. He looked beautiful.
“Did he want to wear that skirt?” A question asked by a number of other parents at the party.
We were walking back from the park when we saw a bike left out for someone to take (a common occurrence round my end). My son loved it, so much in fact that despite it not being his size he insisted on ‘trying’ to ride it home. The next few days over and over he would go to look at it out of the back door. He asked to put his dolly in the baby seat at the back (just like how mummy carries him on her bike) and loved the hello kitty badge on the front. I mended it for him and then we took it for a spin at the local park.
“Psst, look that boy is riding a girl’s bicycle”, sniggered a seven year old to her friend in the park.
Over the summer I had some time off work so I looked up which toddler class was still on. It was ballet. I figured it would be fun. Surely he wouldn’t be the only boy anyway.
“Oh, it’s a boy. I wasn’t expecting a boy today, I was going to do fairies and wands.” Toddler ballet teacher in a disappointed voice.
On the way home from a friends party my son was sitting up front on the bus all alone, very proud of himself.
“Why you dress him like that? He looks like a girl.” Man on the bus.
Years ago, or so the stories go, girls were similarly mocked for wearing trousers. It’s pretty universally accepted that’s absurd nowadays. Will we feel that way one day about boys in skirts? How can we expect girls and boys to value and respect girls when we are sending such a clear message out that it’s OK to be like a boy, but it’s not OK to be like a girl?
I want my son to dress how he wants, but I don’t want him to be bullied, either now or in the future for how he dresses. On the whole my son chooses things which feel nice to wear; soft trousers like leggings and joggers. And skirts because he loves making them twirl and he gets to dress like his two idols – mummy* and his cousin.
People often talk about boys being full of energy, implying they have more than girls. Let’s be honest, I don’t know the real answer. I’ve not done any definitive study into it all, I’d hazard a guess that if gender does have an affect on a child’s energy levels (and behaviour), it’s just one of many influencing factors like diet, personality, parental influences, environment and opportunities. Knowing how differently my son can be treated because of his clothing though, I do wonder if there’s been a study that looks into how clothing affects children’s behaviour.
When my son is in a skirt people comment on his looks the whole time, and it certainly makes him more self-conscious on public transport (meaning he’s more likely to sit still – bonus!). It’s not only adults, children also interact differently – after all they learn their behaviours from the adults around them. The other week my son went to a film club at the library wearing a skirt. Two other similarly dressed girls quickly attached themselves to him, I’m not sure they would have had be been dressed very boyish (though of course I’ll never really know that, it’s just it doesn’t tend to happen when he’s in ‘boy’ stuff). They, and their parents, assumed he was a girl. It didn’t bother them to know he was a boy. They had already clicked by the time they realised that. They ran riot around the hallway whilst waiting for the film to start and then kept getting up and dancing at the front during the film (much to everyone else’s annoyance – especially their mums). It was interesting to see how people treated them though, they thought they were cute little girls dancing around – even when they ended up sprawled on top of each other – yet had they been ‘boys’ I’m sure they would have been seen as boisterous boys wrestling their friends to the floor. The skirts did encourage a bit more twirling action than trousers would have, but beyond that I’m really not convinced they behaved any differently to my son and his male pals would have. Aren’t all toddlers just bloody energetic and love running amok and driving their parents mad whatever they choose to wear?
Have your children done things ‘typical’ of the opposite sex? What reactions have you got from others? How do you handle it? Do you think it makes a difference if you are a solo parent and they only have one gender role model around the home?
*Not that I always wear skirts, I practically live in jeans but he knows that I wear them sometimes.