So much against the mettle of your sex

Nugget has become very opinionated about what he wears. I try to let him make his own decisions whenever possible, so I stifle my desire to put him in the preppy little polos I adore. He favors his cousins' old t-shirts featuring characters from Pixar movies. At least he's saving me money.

Of course, there have to be some rules. Appropriateness for the weather is the obvious one. But how much do I let societal norms and expectations dictate what he wears? He would wear pajamas all day or, even better, would go pantless if I let him. I don't. But it bothers me when I deny him something he wants simply because I'm worried about what people will think of me.

Gendered expectations are particularly difficult. They are completely beyond him at this point. One day I took him shopping for clothes at Target. While I begged him to reconsider his complete refusal to consider the plaid flannel mini-lumberjack shirts I coveted on his behalf, he headed for the girls' clothes. "Cute!" he said, pointing to some dresses. I steered him away, feeling simultaneously guilty and ridiculous for feeling guilty.

Another day we were discussing the fact that mommy wears dresses and Nugget does not. "My get bigger, wear dresses." He said. "You can if you want," I told him, "but you know, usually boys don't wear dresses. It's mostly girls who wear dresses." He got upset and insisted that he would wear dresses when he gets bigger. "Okay," I said. I certainly hope that Nugget grows up to be the kind of kid who wears a dress to school because he wants to and doesn't care what anyone thinks. That is the epitome of cool, to me. But it doesn't always work that way in middle school. I'm not looking forward to helping him navigate the social minefield of those years. I've already failed miserably at navigating them myself. I was the worst possible combination: I tried to act like I didn't care what anyone thought, but I did, desperately. I went back and forth between flouting peer pressure and caving to it, usually at the worst possible moment for each.

For the most part I stick to the conservative line of teaching my boy to be a boy, indulging his idolization of Buzz Lightyear and quietly avoiding Dora the Explorer and her pink-themed accessories, and laugh off my guilt as the overwrought liberal intellectualism of a parent who needs to get over herself.


Trent sent me this article from Smithsonian Magazine about how our expectations for what little boys and girls should wear have evolved. Ladies Home Journal advised moms in 1918 to dress their boys in pink: “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

The most interesting part of the article to me was a comment by Jo B. Paoletti, author of the forthcoming book Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America. She explained that kids don't become conscious of geneder until 3 or 4 and don't understand that it is permanent until 6 or 7, "[s]o they think, for example, that what makes someone female is having long hair and a dress." I was suddenly proud that Nugget knows that men have penises and women do not.* But I'm still terrified every time he points to someone at the store and identifies them as a man or woman. Aside from the usual concern that he will misidentify someone and thereby cause offense, I worry that he'll decide to explain, in his too-loud toddler voice, what sort of equipment the man or woman has beneath his or her clothing.

* And yes, it has occurred to me that I've defined sex exclusively with reference to a male trait and now he's going to grow up perceiving women as Other. But I think he can wait to learn about vaginas, at least until he's mastered the ABCs.


Jo said...

When my son was three, he announced, "When I grow up, I am going to be a mommy. And when I get old, I will be a daddy." Kids this age often "theorize" out loud about how they think the world works, in order to get feedback from other kids and adults. He had an older sister, a mommy with brown hair and a daddy with gray hair. From his point of view, it made perfect sense.

That's how "gender impermanence" works in toddlerland. Glad you enjoyed the Smithsonian article.

Anne said...

Poor daddy!

Erin Davis said...

Well, as long as you don't paint his toe nails pink and put him in the J Crew catalogue, you should be ok. :0)


Anne said...

That whole J. Crew thing is so baffling to me ... the hubbub of hate those conservative talking heads stirred up is so much more damaging to kids than painting toenails. Why can't they understand that?