Turns out it’s hard to buy a boy a pink shirt

Quite a while back, I wrote about the importance of pink shirts.  Actually, that post is about how I don’t want “gender equality” to mean “girls can be like boys, but not vice versa.”  Pink shirts for boys are just one of the more obvious examples; still, it became important to me that Little Boy have one.  He’s too young to care about his wardrobe—why not offer him a wide selection?

It should’ve been so easy.  Walk into store.  Buy pink shirt.  Dress baby.  But it turned out to be a lot harder than that.

In the store, I got whacked in the face with my own ingrained gender biases.  I couldn’t bring myself to buy my Little Boy a ruffly purple shirt or a sweater with pink sparkles.  I don’t like that, I thought.  And it’s true, I don’t tend to wear sparkly ruffly things myself.  But if my child were a girl, would I have bought it?  How much was my conception of “boy” getting in the way of me purchasing some cute stuff for my kid?

It wasn’t entirely my fault.  A plain ol’ pink T-shirt, it turns out, is a surprisingly rare commodity.  The toddler boys’ section of the department store is filled with staples—T-shirts, jeans, thermals—in a good set of basic colors.  Toddler girls, on the other hand, get to choose from the aforementioned sparkly ruffly things.  “Basics” don’t seem to be a part of girls’ clothing.

After putting it off for far too long, I ordered a couple of shirts for Little Boy from Primary.com, a website promising basic children’s clothing in a variety of colors.  I still had to order from the “girls” section of the website—as if 18-month-old children didn’t all have the same body type!  And the girls’ clothes, of course, run small, so we had to order a size up.

On Monday, Little Boy wore one of his new shirts, in a pleasant lavender, to daycare.  The other new shirt is a jewel-toned pink.  They’re not the most outrageous colors in his dresser drawer; that honor belongs to the blinding plaids given by a well-meaning relative.  Nevertheless, I found myself rather unreasonably nervous.  Would anyone notice?  Would anyone care?

If anyone did notice, they didn’t care.

Encouraging diversity (and knitting!) through children’s books

Not long after I posted my thoughts on raising a boy in a world of gender stereotypes, I received an unexpected email.  Like everyone online, I receive quite a few unsolicited emails—typically spam-blasts offering fraudulent part-time jobs to students and equally fraudulent requests to attend fake conferences—but this one seemed more relevant than usual, so I took the time to read it.

The email turned out to be from singer Craig Pomranz, who is also the author of the children’s book Made by Raffi.  He’d seen my post and thought I might like his book.  He was right: I like it a lot.  So much so, in fact, that I want to tell you why.MadeByRaffi-small

(Full disclosure: When I expressed interest in writing a review, I was provided with a free PDF copy of the story.  I intend to purchase a physical copy of the book when Little Boy gets a little less vigorously interested in ripping pages.  All of the opinions expressed in this review are my own.)

Made by Raffi is the story of a boy who feels a little bit different.  He likes to hang out by himself at recess, preferring quiet solitude to rowdy games.  During one of these recesses, a teacher shows him how to knit.  Raffi’s classmates react to his enthusiasm for knitting in the way you might expect, until they realize that the ability to create beautiful costumes is actually pretty cool.

The message, of course, is that boys can and should be encouraged to be themselves and do the things they enjoy, regardless of gender stereotypes.  One part in particular stood out to me: when a concerned Raffi asks his mom if he seems “girly,” she doesn’t say, “Yes, and that’s OK.”  She says, “No, Raffi.  I think you are very… Raffi.”  Because knitting and sewing and arts and crafts aren’t girly, they’re just activities that some people like to do.  (Fun fact: at certain points in history, knitting was an exclusively male occupation.  The idea that it’s somehow intrinsically feminine is entirely a construct of modern society.)

There’s another message here, too, one that applies to kids of all genders, which is that it’s OK to sit on the sidelines and do your own thing.  Raffi’s happy ending isn’t about running off to play soccer with the other kids.  He continues to sit alone, knitting, now comfortable in his own interests and accepted by his peers.  As an introvert, it took me until my late teens to begin to realize that being mostly uninterested in social events didn’t mean there was something fundamentally wrong with me.  I still struggle with this feeling sometimes.

Major credit is also due to illustrator Margaret Chamberlain, whose bright, lively artwork is filled with a diverse cast of children and adults.  Knitting and sewing look like a lot of fun!  (Which they are, I might add, speaking from experience.)  When Raffi sews a cape, the text and illustrations provide enough detail on the process that I can just imagine a child jumping up from the book to make his or her own cape. 

I look forward to finding out what Little Boy thinks of Made by Raffi in a couple of years.  In the meantime, I highly encourage other parents and gift-givers to check it out.

Unpretty in pink

My piece about my hopes for combating gender stereotypes generated some great responses, including this piece by a mother of two boys. It’s amazing how early children recognize the division of colors/toys/interests into “boy” and “girl.”

Finkelstein & sons

In response to Crazy Grad Mama’s post on Raising a boy in a world of gender stereotypes

Sweat was dripping down my forehead. I had just finished ironing a little oxford shirt in piqué cotton, in the most stylish baby pink color. It matched so cute with the gray herringbone vest, blazer and dress pants. This was the outfit for my plus-one for the wedding I had been invited too. I felt pretty pathetic having a three-year old as my plus-one, but hey, back then, being a single mom I Iearned to quickly get over myself.

I turned to my son and started dressing him, fidgeting with those tiny buttons of his shirt, tucking it as neatly as I could in his dress pants. If Instagram existed back then, he would be SOOO #ootd #boystyle #cooltoddler #hipsterboy and any other popular hashtag I don’t know the existence of. Now it’s…

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Raising a boy in a world of gender stereotypes

During a recent conversation with my parents, the subject of college-branded baby clothes arose.  (My parents live near my alma mater and are fond of purchasing such themed items.)

“Little Boy’s going to need a new college onesie,” I said.  “He’s already nearly outgrown the one you gave us for Christmas.”

“We’ll keep an eye out,” they promised.  “Mostly what we’ve seen in stores lately is baby cheerleading outfits, and those aren’t for him.”

They’re not for him.

Why not?

For this particular question, the answer is personal taste.  I wouldn’t go out of my way to dress my hypothetical baby daughter in a cheerleading costume, either — it’s just not my style.  And lest you get the wrong idea about my parents, they raised a boy who played with dolls and a girl who won science competitions.  They would be appalled to think that I was using them as an example of sexist behavior, however unconscious.

But our exchange brought up a topic that I’ve been struggling with since Little Boy was born, namely, how do we raise a boy in a way that supports gender equality, without setting him up to be teased or pushing him to be someone he’s not?

The discussion around gender biases in American culture revolves around women.  We talk about how to encourage girls to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).  Parents of daughters talk about their choice to allow, or not allow, all things princess-y and pink into their homes.  These discussions are necessary and important, because despite all the progress we’ve made in the last 50 years, idiots are still saying stupid things about women’s capabilities in science and women still face systematic hurdles in breaking into these fields.  Not to mention all of the other countless ways in which sexism affects women’s lives.

We don’t talk as much about breaking gender stereotypes for boys.  There are no major campaigns to encourage boys to go into nursing or early childhood eduction.  We focus on guiding girls away from pink, not boys toward it.  When a woman wears men’s clothing, it’s unfashionable at worst.  When a man wears women’s clothes, it’s national news.

I am not — I repeat, I am NOT — trying to imply that boys have it harder or any such nonsense like that.   My white, male, middle-class child was born into a world built for him to succeed.  He will be “playing on the lowest difficulty setting,” as John Scalzi puts it.  Whoever Little Boy becomes and whoever he discovers himself to be, he will have a supportive and loving family behind him.

No, what bothers me about our culture’s current approach is that it still very much implies that there are “girls’ things” and “boys’ things.”  Now we say, “Hey girls, you can do boys’ things too!”  Which is great.  It’s progress.  But it’s not equality.

Let me elaborate with a specific example.  If Little Boy had been born a Little Girl, I might dress her in a frilly pink dress one day, baby blue jeans the next, and nobody would think anything of it.  But how would they react if I put Little Boy in a frilly pink dress?  Most of my friends and family could probably wrap their minds around the idea of allowing an older boy to wear a pink dress if he requested it, but a parent choosing a dress for a baby son would just be …

Weird.

Unnecessary.

Trying to make a statement.

Because “girly” things, pink dresses included, are for girls only.

Hidden in this cultural gender divide is the persistent notion that “girly” things are inferior.  American society can begin to process the idea that girls might want blocks and trains and video games, and that women might want to be firefighters and astronauts and CEOs.  Those are “male” things.  They are “better.”  Of course everyone would want them.

“Female” things?  Dresses and high heels and makeup?  Child care and sewing and ballet?  We don’t encourage boys to try these things to see if they might like them.  We assume that boys could never be interested in such “lesser” things, and so we never even offer.

As with most parenting choices, it’s hard to know what path to take.  I want Little Boy to grow up with as few “X is for boys, Y is for girls” opinions as possible.  I want him to feel free to be himself, whether that means playing on the football team or painting pictures of flowers — or both.  I want him to approach other people not as “men” and “women,” but as individuals with personalities and preferences and feelings.

But I’ll be fighting the heavy weight of culture, and I don’t want to transfer too much of that weight to Little Boy himself.  Children can be cruel to the strange ones.  His peers wouldn’t notice if he wore a pink skirt to daycare tomorrow, but in a few years they will.  I don’t want him to stick out like a sore thumb before he’s ready.

Little Boy will definitely grow up knowing how to cook and clean and do laundry, with a father who does all those things as his role model.  We’ll teach him how to knit and sew, and run and read and mow the lawn.  I’ll dig my dolls out of storage for him, to go along with trains and books and LEGOs.  Maybe I’ll buy him a nice boy doll of his own.  Or many boy dolls, if he shows interest.

Pink shirts?  Yeah, I think that’s going to happen.

Pink dresses?  I don’t know.