I think of myself as pretty liberated when it comes to gender norms and child-rearing. I’ve always told my sons that marriage isn’t just between a man and a woman, but can also be between two men or two women. They know that some people identify as a different gender than the sex organs they were born with, and that that’s normal and perfectly okay.
We are constantly talking about how there’s no such thing as “boy-only” or “girl-only” toys, and the same goes for how boys and girls are expected to dress. When my boys were toddlers, and they asked for frilly clothing, Barbie dolls, or pink bows, I was all for it, and didn’t bat an eyelash when my toddler boys pranced around the room in my high heels and a tiara.
But as open-minded as I am, I know that the rest of world isn’t always on the same page. And as my youngest is being ushered into Kindergarten (in less than two weeks, OMG), the idea of other kids being cruel to one another, and of children not always tolerating my boys’ sometimes unorthodox choices, is certainly on my mind.
Because as liberated as I think of myself, I am also fiercely protective, and no one wants their child to be bullied just because they decided to wear the “wrong” color shirt to school.
That’s why I truly ended up kind of tongue-tied in the middle of Staples the other day, when I took my soon-to-be Kindergartener back-to-school shopping. There we were, going down the list of supplies, throwing glue sticks into our shopping cart like it was our job (seriously, what’s with the ridiculous number of required glue sticks?), when my son came across this one particular notebook.
It was one of those marble composition notebooks, and it was totally decked out in colorful patterned hearts. It was cute as anything, but of course my first thought was that it was clearly meant for girls. Not just subtly, but very obviously so.
As in, if my son brought this notebook to school, it was very likely that someone would poke fun or bully him for bringing a “girl notebook” into school. And my heart absolutely sank at the thought of anything like that happening.
So, at first, I will admit, I hedged.
“Hey, hon, let me take a look at that,” I said, holding the notebook, flipping through it, and consulting my back-to-school list.
“Yep, you do need a notebook like that,” I told him. “Let me see. Is it ‘wide ruled’? Yep, it is! Would you like to look at all the wide-ruled notebooks they have here? Let’s see, they have stripes, stars, zig-zags — ”
“Nope,” my son interrupted, “I want this one!” And he clutched the notebook proudly to his chest.
That’s when I saw it, that twinkle in his eye. That look that said, This notebook is a thing of beauty, it makes me happy, and I want to take it home.
I knew right away that there was no way I wanted to crush that pure innocent joy I saw in his eyes, just because I was worried about other kids mocking him for his “girly” notebook.
But I also knew that I needed to be frank with him about what might happen if he brought it to school, because as much as I want him to be himself and not let societal norms about things like gender get in the way of his incredible free spirit, I also know what he’d be potentially opening himself up to. And I wanted him to be aware of that.
I squatted down to his level, holding the notebook in my hand and looking him in the eye.
“You definitely can get this notebook, sweetie,” I said, “But I want you to know something. You know how some things are supposed to be ‘girly’ and some are more ‘boyish’?”
“Yes,” he nodded, clearly following.
“Well, this notebook would be considered a bit ‘girly’ by some people.”
He nodded, again.
“And you know how some kids make fun of boys who like ‘girly’ toys or whatever?”
This was something we had talked about here and there, because he’d picked up on this kind of thing a few times last year in pre-K.
“Well,” I said, “I want you to know that there is absolutely nothing at all wrong with you getting this notebook, but I want to warn you that some kids in Kindergarten might make comments, or tease you because they think it’s not for boys.”
He looked me in the eye, pulling the notebook even closer to his chest.
“Yep, I know,” he said, “And I don’t care. I want it anyway.”
Right then and there, my heart skipped a beat, and I may have shed a tear or two, right there in aisle 9 of Staples. My son’s understanding of his choice, and his confidence in his decision was just so damn inspiring.
“Awesome,” I said, “And if anyone says anything mean to you, they are just wrong, and you can tell me right away.”
My son nodded, vigorously, and then started to fidget, because he was ready to be done with this silly conversations, and wanted to finish shopping.
“High five,” I said.
My son smiled, gave me a “high five” back, threw his heart-covered notebook into the cart, and wandered over to the markers like it was no big deal at all. As if he was saying, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this mom.”
It is so easy to doubt yourself as a parent sometimes. I feel like I’m probably making 300 mistakes a day. I don’t even know for sure if I handled this whole thing perfectly, and I know that other parents definitely might have handled it differently, or maybe better in some ways.
In the end, my son may or may not even be teased or bullied for his heart-covered notebook. Only time will tell how this plays out for him, if at all. But I know for sure that he will be taking that notebook to school on that first day with pride, and that whatever happens, he is learning to follow his heart, trust his gut, and believe in his own choices, whether the rest of the world is ready for them or not.