I’m also going to let my boy be a boy, and my other girl (who, at this time is still a baby girl) be a girl. If they want. I don’t know what else to do.
“Let” isn’t the most accurate word – I have no control over these things in the long run, and letting my five-year-old daughter be herself (whoever that is) and be a girly girl at that is just part of her figuring out everything about being alive. And I should mention that it’s my wife and I raising these beautiful children, herself not an admitted girly girl, not ever.
But as a man, a former boy, and a general over-thinker, I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter what I do to keep my daughter from wanting to play princess and wear pink and purple all the time, it’s not going to work. It’s not something we put on her or lead her toward — it’s just something she picked up on during her five years around other girls and boys and the variations of masculine and feminine in between. We are all pink on the inside, and those veins look baby blue from the outside.
She’s been in tutus and play-heels since she can remember, and knows how to match and accessorize; granted those tutus and heels made their way to her somehow, and never quite presented themselves to my son in the same fashion, so there’s something to that. But I have been and will be reading Pinkalicious to her and reciting lines from Tangled as long as she wants, and I always – upon her request — play Mother Gothel.
I’ve tried my best to level the playing field. My daughter knows as much about chess, soccer, critical thinking, compassion, and Star Wars as my son did (and me for that matter) at five years old; she, of course, is not just a girl and not only a girl, but an amazing, powerful brain with a body, ready for a long life of being a good person first and a female second.
But she knows — and cares—way more about fashion and make-up than my boy (and my wife). Sure, she’ll sit through Teen Titans Go! but we all know she’d rather be cozied up to a Monster High marathon with me all the while, quietly taking notes on fashion and how to be as sassy as those teenage girls. She’ll sit still for any book or children’s magazine, but the a-bit-more-feminine tales just seem to intrigue her, as they should. Don’t we all want to see reflections of ourselves on the pages and the screen?
I catch myself wanting to prevent her from being a girly girl because I don’t want my kids to think in prescribed roles. But those roles are just a part of who we are, and not the “we” in entirety. There is much to be said for biological determinism and cultural influence.
Females are, on the whole, shorter, smaller, and cuter than males. While females are born with and carry their one to two million eggs from birth to middle age, men create and destroy roughly 1,500 sperm cells per second. There are decided differences. Throw in varying levels of testosterone and progesterone as well as geographical, religious, and socio-economic upbringing and access to education, and you have a person, with a brain, who is an individual, who is decidedly a girl. But we all know it’s more and less simple than that. There are words and phrases and color coordination, and even dish-ware choices to consider.
For over a year now my daughter has been yelling at me when I call her or something she’s done cool. “Cool is for boys and pretty is for girls,” she’ll quickly correct. She, of course, is not just a girl and not only a girl, but an amazing, powerful brain with a body, ready for a long life of being a good person first and a female second.
The same goes for “beautiful” and “handsome” in that they have certain designations, although men can be beautiful if I press her enough. Things are just things, I teach my children, and things have beauty. Eyes, hair, faces – can be and are beautiful, whatever gender they are attached to.
This dilemma appears in the affectionate titles we use. My son, who was born first and is two years older, became “buddy” and still is to this day, as are generations of boys. Then when my daughter was born I extended the same title to her until one day she didn’t want me to call her buddy. She wanted something more feminine at the age of three and change. “Bestie” it was. Boys are buddies and girls are besties, dad. Don’t you know?
And our four remaining children’s plates —Iron Man, Sesame Street, Tinkerbell, and Cars — you can guess which ones the girl and boy want most of the time, just like the pink Elsa cup versus the blue Olaf cup, or the orange versus purple cup. But this is where I push back, and declare my gender-free dining association. Plates are plates and cups are cups and water is water; kings wear purple and plenty of women wear blue, and so forth.
And what about the boy? He, at seven, is all “boy,” and decidedly so. He is aware that boys can do “girl” things like ballet and playing with dolls, it’s just that he’s never chosen to engage in those things, although we’ve offered. He is a sharp mathematician, amazing LEGO engineer, and quite the dancer and runner, all things his sister is also learning to be. He is as much of a “boy’s boy” as my daughter is a “girly girl,” minus the worship of athletes.
And I will let him be a boy if he wants. The same goes for my baby girl. Some fathers worry about their children being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered, but for now, I just want them to settle into themselves without the pressure of narrow gender roles that can only be solved by one color or one type of book or t.v. show. I want to prepare my kids to be open to learning from every plot and building scheme, whether it’s a band of female unicorns slaying the dragon and saving the day or a band of male turtles slaying a different type of dragon and saving the day. I want them to try as many good things as possible and know that a person is a person and a brain is a brain, and that we should judge ideas and products based solely on their merits. We are all pink on the inside, and those veins look baby blue from the outside.
No matter the gender, I tell my kids the same thing before school each day — to be and do good, and to be kind and gentle and helpful. I know the boy will most likely play more rough and tumble at recess, just because we all know boys do. And the girl, who can run and jump and be as aggressive, will probably opt for a version of play that will include someone playing Elsa and someone else being stuck playing Anna. As long as she’s safe and sound, then she can be whatever she becomes. If that’s a girl, then it’s a girl — the little girl who I love so much.
(This post originally ran on The Good Men Project.)
About the author: Jeremy McKeen is a high school English teacher, coach, musician, and father of three living in Massachusetts. He writes a weekly column called Bergamot Ink for The Good Men Project as well as is a monthly contributor for Sammiches & Psych Meds, as well as his own site, Nerdy Dad Shirt. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter or around the house holding the baby.