I have a son who is a portrait of kindness and sensitivity. He doesn’t really like sports or getting too dirty. He usually prefers pretend play with dolls instead of superheroes. He can be very particular about his clothes. This year for Christmas, he’s asked for a dollhouse.
Until my son was about five years old he was seen simply as a sweet, sensitive boy. But recently I’ve seen the unforgiving stigmas of society weigh on him with a pressure to fit in no matter what, and his age is just shy of double digits.
I’ve fought hard to instill in all my children their worth as individuals. I encourage them to be confident in who they are and what they love no matter what others may think or say. I tell them there is no such thing as “girl colors” or “boy toys.” They say they understand, and I know they do. But away from the security of home, they are challenged with the contrary. The world tells them pink things are for girls and boys are supposed to like trucks and guns and definitely not Barbies. And heaven help you if what you like or who you are conflicts with what’s “normal.”
Many children naturally fall in line with societal norms and thankfully fall under this particular, intolerant radar. I’ve been blessed with children on both sides of the line.
My other son is equal parts sweet and rabblerousing. He loves sports (preferably contact ones), is unapologetically dirty, and feels a deep connection with worms, snakes, and frogs. His heroes are ninjas and Marvel characters. He is what has been described to me as “all boy,” and his antics are often dismissed by others for this reason alone.
My daughter embodies the classic image of what a little girl should be. She loves everything in pink, has a bedroom full of baby dolls, and maintains a flair for the dramatic. But, she also thinks fart noises are hysterical and gets just as filthy playing in the dirt as her brother. She is both “sugar and spice” and “snips and snails.” No one bats an eye.
But my oldest son wants a dollhouse. And some will say that’s not okay.
Ordinarily I do a pretty decent job of thumbing my nose and biting my tongue when it comes to the parts of our mixed up culture I disagree with. But when I see my son’s magnificent, carefree spark turn to fear and anxiety over what others might say to him about his clothes or his interests, this momma has a problem.
You see, an unfortunate double standard exists wherein girls are encouraged to like and do anything their hearts desire, while boys are expected to fit inside a much smaller, tougher, black or blue (never pink) box. If a girl wants to be on the football team instead of the cheerleading squad, she’s strong and brave. If a boy disses football for a spot at the bottom of the squad pyramid, he’s either in it to get a girl or because he wants to be one.
And while I certainly think today’s culture is more accepting than ever before, we still have a long way to go. There have been considerable movements over the years empowering girls and women to break into areas traditionally reserved for men. This is both excellent and important, but I see a glaring lack of support for boys and men looking to do the same. What about boys interested in cheerleading or ballet? Sure, they can be permitted to participate in these activities, but not without stigma. Women who dare to take on historically male-dominated jobs or sports are hailed as heroes, breaking through the glass ceiling, blazing a trail for others. Yet men who dare to be included in what society would tell us is a feminine role are ridiculed or have their sexual orientation illogically assumed.
So I find myself asking what our communities are so afraid of when it comes to sensitive, compassionate boys and men. As parents, do we not want our children, both boys and girls, to grow into kind, loving, and successful adults? Social norms tell us men are supposed to be strong and impassive, but what is the limit? How many women look for a man without compassion or at least some degree of sensitivity? What woman wants the father of her children to take a backseat through childrearing because “it’s a woman’s job”? We have to ask ourselves what kind of husbands and fathers we want to raise, and realize the risk we run as a society when we tell boys from a young age that they can’t cry or play with dolls.
Now I know there are many people out there (myself included) concerned about raising a generation of “snowflakes” too sensitive to accept criticism or properly function as independent adults. Believe me, I get it. But we’re talking about allowing a child to choose their playthings, their clothes, and their hobbies based on natural interest. We’re not attempting to shelter them from the cruel pressures and realities of the world. In fact, being different from the status quo is the ultimate introduction to just how cruel their world can be.
As a mom of what the mainstream would tell me is an “atypical” boy, I can tell you there is nothing wrong with or broken about my son. I see his genuine empathy and preference for playing dolls with his sister as positive attributes that will serve him well as a future husband and father. And, let’s face it, the job market for teachers, counselors, and caregivers is far bigger than the market for professional football players, wrestlers, and ninjas.
So if you’re the parent of an “atypical” boy or girl, I see you. I understand the challenge of staying strong for your child when sometimes you just want to cry with them when they’re made to feel unworthy. I know you love and believe in them even when it’s a strain to avoid conformity. And to you amazing parents I say, buy your son the dollhouse (or whatever other “girly” thing interests them). Keep standing up for your child and for the way our society should look but doesn’t just yet. Take comfort in knowing there are other parents out there in your same boat, pushing against the waves.
And if you happen to be someone who buys into the hard line in the sand between boys made from snips and snails and girls of sugar and spice, I challenge you to think for just a few moments of what goes through a child’s mind when told what he or she loves is “not for them.” Imagine being told the hobby you love or the stuff you enjoy defines your worth more than your character. And remember that bias and stigmas aren’t instinctive, they are learned.
This year for Christmas my son wants a dollhouse. And you know what? He’s getting one. Because this mom isn’t concerned that my son playing with dolls will negatively affect his future….and neither should you be. My job as a mom is not to usher my kids in any certain direction based on their gender. I’m not here to deter them from their natural interests just because they might be socially unacceptable. I am here to love them unconditionally, support what brings them joy, and equip them to manage in a world that may not see things the way they do. I will prepare them for what this world might offer when they go against the grain, but I will also encourage them to challenge the idea that certain toys, sports, or careers are for one specific gender. Typical or not, all of my children (and yours too) are fearfully and wonderfully made.