Preschool Gender Rolls

Preschool gender rolls? Sigh. Rubs Forehead.

I’ve written about this before– not that I can find it.

Boys don’t wear pink dresses!
Let me be crystal clear about this: I could give a rat’s ass if either of my sons want to dress up in frilly pink lace, high heels, pearls, while wearing purple eye shadow and magenta lipstick.

No. Really. Do you need some reasons?

The first reason, which should be common sense, but often isn’t– wearing a dress as part of pretend play is not a peak into the future.
Here, let me put it another way– little boys don’t actually grow up to be Spiderman despite wearing a Spidey costume. Most little boys (and little girls, for that matter) don’t grow up to be queens as a result of wearing a frilly pink Cinderella dress.

Then second– and really, how can you be a parent and not feel this way? These are my children. Flesh of my flesh– two beings that I love more than anyone else on Earth. Even if the dress wearing is prophetic it not only doesn’t change my love for them. And since my opinion on the matter cannot change biology– “I forbid you to be blonde. Being blonde is a choice– change it now”– well.

Finally, I don’t wear dresses (often), and I willingly wave a weed-whacker like an illegal weapon, and I’m very much still female.

Now that I have sidelined into all of my pre- justifications, I will also admit that when he boldly looked at me right before leaving for his third day at the new preschool and announced he was going to “get to the pink dress first and put it on that my brain polarized.

–Hell yeah- way to embrace pretend play and be all antidisestablishment at the same time.”
— “Oh hell, 4.5 year old boys (and girls) are SUCH douchebags about this kind of stuff. It’s only the 3rd day of school. He’s going to be so sad if someone makes fun of him. I will be so sad if someone makes fun of him and sticks for the entire year.”

Now, what I said out loud was, “good for you– I liked to dress up like an army man when I was your age, because part of dress up is to totally pretend to be someone else. That’s a really excellent example of a great imagination, Zach. And you’re showing that Scottish warrior heritage of yours. Hey, did you know that all Scottish warriors wore kilts– which some people think are just wool skirts?”

It is with shame that I have to admit that I was prepared for that question– not because of the dozen college courses spent studying gender:

But rather from years of online debates with people whose opinions closely resemble those of:

Courtesy of Mother Jones:

Now, the resulting off-shoot tangent of trying to explain gender roles, only to stumble around, ending up with, “um, it’s complicated–even adults are often confused. But having a penis is what makes you a boy and having a vagina is what makes me a girl. Wearing (or not wearing) a dress has absolutely nothing to do with it. Oh– and while I’m at it, real men cook, clean and care for children. And real women chase voles and build furniture. So. Yeah.”

Thank goodness for the kilt-wearing Scotsmen in the old family tree. Their (bare) bad-assness is a lovely comeback for anyone questioning the appropriateness of a dress-wearing preschooler.
Take That

Raising Boys

In general, and when raising boys, parenting brings many ah-ha moments. You know, those times when you realize something as a parent that your intelligent-self would have noticed long before it became an issue? Like the time where I finally noticed that Elliot was not hot-natured like the rest of us and therefore a good bit of his early dismay was because he was freaking cold. Or that the reason Zach hated haircuts was because I was using scissors that caught and pulled his hair. That kind of stuff.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the fact that I’m not just raising kids, I’m also raising future adults. Then I started thinking about how we are–right now– laying the ground work for those future-selves. There are lots of areas that I hope my example will be enough–a love of reading, for example. Then there are things that I hadn’t seriously considered yet–like how to be a man.

A lot of my musing was prompted by my 3.5 year old, a lover of dress-up play. He’s equal-opportunity about it– my bras and heels, Dad’s shoes and ties. Given the chance he will happily play Fairy Princess with his female friends. He even picked the prettiest dress–black velvet with red trim. I complimented him on how pretty he looked (after all, he was pretending to be a girl) and went on about my day. I will admit to a moment of, “oh jeez” but it never occurred to me that I was supposed to be…embarrassed? Worried? Panicked?

He’s just a little kid playing dress-up, not RuPaul in the making. And if he does grow up to be RuPaul, I wouldn’t love him any less. I wouldn’t think of him as being less anything. Truthfully, I’d be in awe of his fashion sense, being that I don’t have much of one.

It is impossible to raise a child in a gender-neutral environment without putting him/her in a small room without interaction–and really, that’s not cool. Some of the stereotypical “play with trucks and trains” occurred by their own choice. I tried to give Zach my old Cabbage Patch Dolls when I was pregnant (preparation, you know) and I consistently found them stuffed into drawers and under sofa cushions. He Just Wasn’t Interested. But, give him a Spiderman “action figure” and he’ll bathe/sleep/eat with him. (By the way, if your husband, father, father-in-law gets on your case about your son playing with a doll, remind him that action figures are dolls.)

After the Princess Parade (and some tongue-in-cheek comments from friends and an initial wince from Joel) I started thinking about this whole gender-role conundrum a little more. Even though I could care less about my son wearing pink sparkles to play in, I wondered how other moms felt. I did an informal poll on my local online mom support group, asking the question “How do you feel about boys playing dress up in girl’s clothes”. Out of 107 responses, 86% of the moms didn’t care at all; 11% didn’t care, but their husband’s would; and only 6% would forbid it outright.

Good, my laissez-faire attitude about the whole thing trends toward normal. Another poster** made a comment that I loved:

“Boys who are taught there are “girl things” and “boy things” are the same ones who will grow up to believe that women can’t do certain things just because they are women.”

Well, hell– I cannot have that. A feminist simply cannot raise a chauvinist — it’s in the rule book somewhere. And I will not have sons who think that cooking, cleaning and parenting is “woman work”. I’m home because I want to be, not because my husband ordained it so.

An Amazon search resulted in 195 results for the keywords “raising boys”. Oy, if I read all of those I won’t have any time left to, you know, raise my boys. I’ve read one, It’s a Boy! by Michael Thompson and while it was interesting, I didn’t find any of the information to be new (perhaps all of those gender classes*). Male and female brains are structured differently (duh) and the range of those differences for each individual is going to vary on a spectrum. No single child, regardless of their biologically-assigned sex, is going to meet all of the expectations in a gender criteria list. That’s just silly. My oldest son is more verbal than kinetic, that doesn’t make him less a boy. He cries when he gets upset, that means he’s 3.5. Neither of those are predictions that he’s going to be less of a man.

And whose definition of “man” am I trying to emulate anyway? As a child, my male role models were an active duty Army-father and the active duty Army-father’s of my friends. Do I think my Dad was more manly than other men because he was in the Army? As a kid, maybe. As an adult, not really. Do I consider a real man to be one who can change my oil? Or is a real man one who understands that presence in the family–both emotionally and physically–is more important?

For me, the answer is obvious. My definition of a man is not how much an asshole they are, but how much of an asshole they aren’t. In short, I will not raise boys like the ones I dated. I will raise boys to be like the man I married. And the man I married doesn’t change my oil.

Societal expectations be damned. If my son wants to rock a pretty dress, then good for him. He has the curls for it. The thought that some have alluded to, that he’s going to “catch the gay”, is just asinine because common sense should (and science does) discredit the notion that sexual preference can be caught. Homosexuality is as biological as heterosexuality–allowing or disallowing him wearing a dress isn’t going to change what already exists in his DNA (and no, I don’t have any assumptions about his sexuality.) Or even beyond that, the notion that sexual preference can be determined by fashion sense. I’m pretty aggressive, I know how to use my power tools, and I used to love flannel shirts. And I can worm my own hook. Ah…but it’s okay for the girl to be tomboy, right?

*I find the idea of gender-roles in America totally fascinating. I took several gender-related classes for my Sociology degree–my husband and I met in a Gender and Equality class. I almost had a Women’s History minor, too. Lots and lots of exposure to feminism and gender role issues with all of that. It definitely affected how I viewed and judged gender roles.

**Labmom, author of this blog.