My son’s favorite sweater looks like something out of the Muppet factory — it’s a riot of orange, brown, and pink thread. For a while, these were three of his favorite colors, but since going to school he’s switched his allegiance to blue, because, you know, he has now learned that blue is a boy color. “That’s not true,” I told him. “People can like any color they want.”
Sure, he agreed. But still, he likes blue, just as he enjoys playing superheroes with his friends in school while the girls don dresses and pretend to be princesses. In the pre-K classroom, or at least my son’s, there’s very little crossing of gender divides. The girls want to be with the girls, and the boys follow one another around like a pack of puppies. Things change outside of the classroom. On the way to school, for example, my son often walks with a girl classmate, but once they hit the classroom I’ve rarely seen them talk with one another. Why would they? They come from different worlds, one where boys like blue and superheroes and roughhousing, while on a planet far far away (or at least the other side of the room) girls like pink and princesses and pretending.
I often think about how I can resolve this gender divide in my young son’s life. On Slate, however, Allison Benedikt writes that maybe parents need to chill out about gender and color and preferences for princesses or superheroes. She wonders if the discomfort some parents have about their daughters loving pink isn’t some kind of female self-loathing, that by banning pink because it equals a soft, passive, frivolous form of femininity we are in fact empowering a male-centric worldview in which we’d prefer our kids to chase after bad guys and dress in blue or black.
She also, quoting Yael Kohen on New York Magazine’s The Cut, reminds us that we don’t worry about our sons growing up to be vigilante crime stoppers, so why should we care what our daughters are wearing or playing? They’re just kids.
On Role/Reboot, Ariel Chesler ponders this question as well, after his nearly 4-year-old daughter went to a birthday party where she had her nails painted purple and dressed up, along with all the other girls, as a princess while the boys put on — of course — superhero costumes. Chesler admits to often fretting over his daughter’s appearance, the very thing he hopes that she doesn’t do as she grows older. He comes to a similar conclusion as Benedikt, that maybe your fashion choices don’t actually say much about your abilities or self-esteem, writing:
While I do not want my daughters to be limited by a focus on their appearance (both their focus and others’), or by the fantasies they are offered, it is also true that, just as many women before them have, they can stand up for themselves and other women and strive to fulfill their dreams, all while wearing a dress.
I understand the frustration of how corporations market to children, and how they’re sold on overly simplistic images of gender. But as Chesler put it above, there have been plenty of strong, powerful women who wore dresses and concerned themselves with fashion (Queen Elizabeth I comes to mind, or Princess Leia, or the Khaleesi). Those attitudes come from the environment the children are raised in, and whatever innate personality they were born with; does what they wear really matter that much? We should be looking beyond the surface when we make estimations of other people, whether those people be grown-ups or children.
I would add to this that our young children make very gross, big distinctions about our world. As I wrote earlier this month, their sense of right and wrong is basic, and unless they’ve encountered death and disease directly, they believe that no one they love will ever be hurt that badly. It’s sweet, in a way, though of course some of their thinking is simplistic if not flat-out wrong. They’re only little kids! They’ll learn more with time, and develop the brainpower for more complex thought, and perhaps more interesting fashion choices.
They’re doing the same reductive reasoning with gender, figuring out what boys and girls do, and how they’re different. It is of course important, I think, to expose our kids to a variety of images of masculinity and femininity. But I don’t think we need to worry too much about they’re ideas on the subject at this point. That concrete is still wet, and those understandings will shift and change again and again over the years, and sometimes it might become rigid and set for a while. Growing up and forming an identity is a time based thing. Eventually they’ll realize that pink and blue are just colors, but for now they hold some power for them. That doesn’t mean they have to be important to you too.