It’s true that nowadays people are more accepting of the wide breadth of gender expression that people feel, rather than the strict gender binaries of yore. And while I fit into a fairly conventional gender role myself, I think it is really important that people have these freedoms. But I worry that our kids are being forced to define themselves much more narrowly than us adults. That while we dream about every colour of the rainbow, big business seems determined to tell how children how they should look.
Have you been into a kids clothing store recently? Where is the green? Red? Orange?
It’s pink. It’s blue.
And it isn’t that I think there is anything wrong with blue or pink. Or boys who like trucks, and girls who like ponies. My son has a very healthy obsession with various modes of transport. When M was born I quite happily stocked up on baby clothes from the boy section, mostly in blue, lots of cute puppies and robots. I love blue! I love robots! But as my son has grown I find the clothes are less cute puppies, more Angry Birds. I bought him a Batman t-shirt, but Batman looks quite frowny. My son loves flowers and cooking, and cuddling his little sister; he worries about growing up and being old enough to go for walks on his own because he will be ‘alonely’. It seems crazy to dress him as though his default emotion is rage.
Now I have a daughter, and my eye wanders over to the girl department, and they glaze over. I find myself frightened to enter. I swear those sparkly ponies are waiting for a chance to stampede. I swear if I squeeze through the aisle of pink frilly skirts I’ll get lost and end up in Narnia.
But what about when she is older? I want her to dress to please herself, not other people. I want her to know that she doesn’t have to look a certain way to be accepted. That she doesn’t have to look a certain way to have her bodily autonomy respected. I don’t want her to think she should look like a Disney princess. Or that looking like a Disney princess is somehow a reflection of inner character, and that all the baddies she meets in life will look like Ursula. That looking like Ursula means you are bad. Though tentacles would be unfortunate…
I want my children to know they are loved however they express themselves. I want them to wear a riot of colour, or black from top to toe. They can be as conservative or not as they like. But the messages all around them are so strong. The boys’ side, and the girls’ side of the clothes store. The shoe shop. The toy store.
And it’s hard. It’s hard to swim against the flow of that message.
And before you say, it’s just clothes, don’t you have bigger things to care about? The answer to that is ‘Yes’. I do have bigger things to care about than if dressing my daughter in too many of her older brother’s hand me downs confuses people. I have more important things to do than to shop once for a boy, and then do the same thing three years later when I already bought clothes that size, just because of a double X chromosome. I have more important worries than if a stranger thinks dressing my son in floral t-shirts because he loves flowers is ‘a bit gay’. Because frankly if he decided he was gay that wouldn’t worry me in the least. And also, that’s not how it works.
The wonderful thing about small children is how accepting they are. They are so curious, and can ask awkward questions, but when we show them things are normal, acceptable, they accept it. But they also take small samples to representative of the whole; my son saw one train driver, and since then every duplo train has a female duplo figure driving it. We need to stop dividing our children into dichotomies of girl/boy, beautiful/boisterous, nurturers/adventurers. Because if we teach them that this is how it should be, how can we expect true equality for them when they are adults? If we teach them these rules matter, how can we expect them not to conform?
I could choose to push hard myself against it. Choose to dress them defiantly. But them I’m forcing that. It has to come from them. I think living as immigrants makes it harder. M is the foreign kid at daycare; with foreign parents who, as one child charmingly put it, understand nothing (but I understood that!). He is a foreign language speaker, and although he is pretty fluent, danish is still his second language, and he has a slight accent. He gleefully wears his pink Hello Kitty glasses; even on dark winter mornings because actually they are eyeglasses, and ‘oh-oh everything is blurry.’ He wears t-shirts with dandelions and other flowers on them, because he loves them. How much more do we let him stand out before the wolves start circling?
It’s too early to know who my kids will be when they grow up. A is only eight months and her preferences are pretty limited so far. Three year olds change so quickly too. Every winter I quietly worry over how much my boy will change. So far each spring when the buds break through the soil my little florist returns to me. He wants to pick every flower. We are barely able to go for walks we spend so long collecting dandelions.
And this is how I want to parent. I don’t want to tell my children how to be. I want them to be. I want to nurture the best of them. To embrace and cherish what makes them unique. To keep it safe. Not in a glasshouse. Not dried between pages of a book. But wild, fresh and blooming for all the world to see.
New Zealanders – looking for gender neutral clothes for kids? This online store Freedom Kids is awesome.