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.
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 …
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.