This is a topic that’s been on my mind a good bit lately. The other day, at our corner park, a couple of little girls berated my son for several minutes because they simply didn’t believe him when he said he was a boy. “Are you sure?” one of them asked repeatedly. I wanted to go over there and point out that he had a penis. BalletBoy, in his infinite sweetness, just chewed his long hair and looked at them like they were on some other planet, which to him, I suppose they were. However, he’s been getting it from the kids in T-Ball as well. And he’s been getting it out in the world more and more. I notice that he’s either grown extra oblivious to people calling him a girl or weary with correcting people because I rarely hear him even bother anymore. If he’s pressed on it, he simply says, “I just like girls more than boys.”
I think that nowadays, in the homes of white, well-educated, middle class families, it’s pretty common to let toddlers and preschoolers play dress up in their sisters’ princess costumes. I think it’s even pretty common to let them dress themselves however they wish, and that includes little pink dresses. I know that’s not everywhere, but among the people I know, it was pretty common to see little boys, especially little brothers, in dresses, with genuinely nonchalant parents who know that a dress doesn’t make their sons girls any more than a superhero cape gives them the ability to fly.
But then most of those kids head off to school, where gender conformity is enforced through peer pressure, especially for boys. The husband and I have often lamented that while there are plenty tomboy role models in literature and TV for girls, there’s not even an equivalent word for boys who like stereotypical girl things. Thankfully, BalletBoy isn’t headed off to school any time in the near future, because if he did, I’m sure his hot pink Keens, purple T-shirts, and maybe even his love of ballet would all go the way of the dodo. Kids would tell him there was something wrong with the things that he’s chosen to make up his sense of self. He would begin to believe that he couldn’t love pink or needed to get his long hair cut. He would be changed. As it is, homeschooling is protecting him from that, at least until he gets some maturity and has to deal with that mysterious animal called the “real world” more. Almost none of my sons’ playmates have ever even been to school. They think BalletBoy’s look is totally normal because they have known him for ages and see him as an individual. While they might exert peer pressure in some ways, they’re mostly pretty positive ones, encouraging the each other to play together, to share, not to be mean.
Having a son, especially a twin, who doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes has been an eye-opening experience for me as a parent. For one thing, it makes me furious every time I hear a parent say something like, “I always thought it was how they were raised, but then I had my son and he only wants to play with trucks and my daughter just loves all that Disney princess stuff no matter how I discourage her, so I guess it’s all just hard wired into them!” And trust me, I’ve heard that a lot since becoming a parent. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with how my kids are “wired” and I think it shows that gender simply isn’t the only determinant of likes and dislikes in life. My kids like a lot of “boy” things, but they also love their baby dolls and they used to love their play kitchen. I’m sure some boys are born with some innate desire to push wheeled toys around, but I’m also sure that’s not every single one because both BalletBoy and Mushroom seem rank toy cars near the bottom of the toy ladder. They like building materials a lot more. And so did I when I was their age.
Second, watching how people react to BalletBoy shows me how completely we rely on the most crude external clues to inform our understanding of gender. He has long hair and pink shoes, therefore, people assume that he’s a girl. Never mind that he looks identical to his twin brother. One look at the hair and even though he’s in a baseball shirt and a pair of jeans and their opinion is formed. I don’t mind that and I don’t fault them for it. But I’ve realized that our expectations of children fitting into gender stereotypes are even more set than when we look at adults. I think this is because we expect adults to make choices about their appearance, but many people don’t see children as being capable of controlling their own appearance or making those kinds of decisions. I think our society expects children to be very simple in every possible way, not fully fleshed out individuals, and that absolutely includes our ideas about gender.
Finally, let me just say that I have almost no doubt that my son’s propensity for pink and frills is more about defining his identity as separate from his brother’s than anything else. Yes, he does actually like flowery things and ballet and the color purple. He gets all doe eyed at me when I put on a fancy dress because he thinks it’s so amazing. But he also has claimed these things very clearly as his own, not his twin’s. My two boys share a lot, but this is one way that I’ve seen them carve out separate space. You should have seen the look of relief they both gave me when I suggested to them more than two years ago that they didn’t have to have the same haircut. BalletBoy decided to leave his long, thus heading down a path that has eventually led us to his borderline heavy metal length hair today.