Like many of those who sew, I have a box full of cloth that leftover from previous projects. I recently went through this cloth, picking up each piece and brainstorming what I could make from it. I ended up with a stack of cloth remnants that were big enough to be made into pajamas. I called the children and began going through the stack, asking which one of them wanted which color.
“Okay, who wants the pajamas made with the pink cloth?” I asked finally.
Both children answered at once.
“No! Pink is too girly for me!” my grade school daughter declared.
“No! Pink is for girls!” my preschool son intoned.
I was momentarily speechless. I had not expected such a vehement response—especially not from both of them. But before I could muster a reply, my daughter gave my son the side eye and uttered a single, impassioned word.
And that is when I burst into laughter. It was simply too much.
I told Sally and Bobby what I’ve told them many times before—that colors are for everyone—and sent them back to what they’d been doing. I set the pink cloth aside; I could put it back in the box. And then I thought about what had been said.
Over the years, I’ve had multiple parents apologize when their sons have made remarks like my son’s. Once this happened when a little boy refused to use a pink shovel in a fossil sandbox; another time it happened when a small boy refused to sit in a child’s chair because it was pink. Each time the child insisted that it was “a girl shovel” or “a girl chair,” with a tone of derision. When these parents apologized, I tried to avoid judging them, though in one case I was annoyed enough that I suggested to the child’s father that he might want to work on that.
And now these same words have come out of my own son’s mouth.
How did this happen? Well, bar homeschooling and denying my children both access to other people and access to popular culture, which would be a horrible idea for obvious reasons, my son is going to come in contact with the idea that “girl” things are icky and gross and definitely not a thing boys should be associated with. Perhaps I spent more time trying to break down gendered assumptions with my daughter than I do with my son. It’s possible. But it’s also the case that the messaging my son receives from the rest of society is different from the messaging my daughter receives.
Boys are taught that girl things are icky and gross and to be avoided at all costs. Girls are not taught this about boy things. Instead, the messaging girls receive is both substantively different and more in conflict. Girls learn that they’re supposed to play with girl things, because they’re girls, but also that girls can do anything, including playing with boy things. Sure, these messages don’t generally come from the same person at the same time, but they’re both out there.
Of course, Bobby isn’t the only one who objected to the pink. Sally did too. Pink, Sally said, was too girly for her. Sally has gone through many different phases in personal presentation and dress. She’s had periods where she is absolutely in love with long sparkly dresses, and periods where she hunts the boys’ clothing sections for the awesome board shorts they never seem to sell in the girls’ section. Lately, though, she’s taken up soccer and moved in a more intentionally “tomboy”because direction.
There’s a difference, though, between “I don’t like pink” and “pink is too girly for me.” Sally’s objection to pink isn’t based on her like or dislike of the color aesthetically. It’s based on the way the color is gender-coded. And yet, when she’s been told in the past that her shoes are “boy shoes” she has always responded by saying “there is no such thing as boy shoes or girl shoes, there are just shoes.” In other words, she’s willing to subvert gender color-codes, but only so far.
As I mused over why this might be, I mentioned the exchange to a good friend of mine. I’m never sure how much of my own childhood experiences I can assume are normative; growing up in an evangelical homeschool community, so much wasn’t. Hence asking friends. Anyway, this friend told me that she realized early, when she was a girl, that if she wanted to be taken seriously, she had to avoid pink. And Sally definitely wants to be taken seriously. She’s a STEM kid, the kind who does her math homework first because it’s her favorite.
Nothing in this post is intended to point fingers at either of my kids. They’re both growing up in a highly gendered sadly sexist society. That’s their reality. Negotiating these norms is difficult even for me; it has to be only that much harder and more confusing for them. Let’s be clear, though—these reactions don’t come from a vacuum. We live in an era when children’s toys are have returned to the same level of gender segregation we saw in the 1950s, if not more. Children’s clothes are more gendered than ever before, and color coding has become so pervasive that it’s almost impossible to find clothes that are gender neutral in big box stores.
We know that children are affected by things like advertising. Heck, gendered clothing is designed to alert adults to the gender of prepubescent children so that they can treat them differently based on their gender. What other role does it play? I should know—as my children’s styles have changed over the years, I’ve watched people incorrectly guess their gender, and, yes, treat them differently as a result.
This. Stuff. Matters. This stuff is shaping the next generation.
Still, as I noted earlier, I can’t remove my children from society and I wouldn’t if I could. It is my job as their parent to prepare them for life in the society we live in. That means I have to prepare them to navigate these gendered divides. It’s not always easy, and it should never be shame-based. It’s all about the little moments when teaching happens, the opportunities you leave open, and the example you set. And if that means the pink cloth stays in the box, so be it.
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