In fourth grade, my husband was quite the dapper dresser. He took his fashion cues from Miami Vice—pink shirts paired with white sport coats with rolled sleeves, well-curated sweaters, and perfectly pinned Girbaud jeans. He spent time each morning spiking his hair on one side and (I’m sure) practicing his Don Johnson swagger. He hung out with the girls (because he has always loved girls), he sang in a boys’ choir, and he was one cocky little shit. He felt pretty great about his 10-year-old situation.
Some boys in his class, who only saw an overconfident kid, wearing pink(!) and enjoying hanging out with the girls, often felt the need to try to take him down a few notches. These bullies would come at him on the playground, yelling and sometimes pushing. But he didn’t care. If they said things like, “Nice shirt,” he would come back with, “Thanks, I like it too,” and then walk back to the girls. He was completely confident in his ability to rock out with his turtlenecks and cardigans.
Fast-forward 30 years and now we have a 9-year-old son. A son who has always gravitated toward pink, and girls, and music, but is, unfortunately, much more sensitive than his dad ever was.
The first of my son’s bullies was a mom. He was around 3 or 4 years old, and he was dressed in a Tinker Bell costume at the babysitter’s house. He was playing with two little girls and, from what I heard later, having a wonderful time. The mom came to pick her girls up and said loudly, “Why is that boy in a dress?” The babysitter said, “Having a great time, I think?”
But the mom continued, pulling her daughters away, as if they might catch something, “Well, what are his parents going to do about all of that?” while gesturing toward all of him. The babysitter simply said, “Embrace it, I’m sure.”
Favorite babysitter ever.
Up until that point, I don’t think our son even knew that a boy wearing a dress might be something strange. He had heard what this mom said though, and he asked me about it later. I remember suppressing my rage, but I don’t remember exactly what I said to make him feel better. He continued to dress up and twirl and channel Tinker Bell for quite a while after, so it must have worked.
Since that time, he has been bullied for skirting the edges of social norms by friends and classmates. I watch as history repeats itself, but this time with someone who is much more sensitive to what other people think. He has been told that he talks like a nerd. He is made fun of for playing with the girls. He was picked on once for his pink shirt.
He isn’t one to stick up for himself, so strategies and scripts are important. He knows how to put his hand up and say, “Stop.” He knows, after a couple of months of not reporting his bullies, that he can and should tell a teacher if he is being kicked repeatedly under the table. But mostly he knows to just avoid the kids who might take from him, whether that be his stuff, his self-confidence, his individuality. He knows what to do.
For the most part, my son has been embraced and loved for everything that he is. His best friend is a girl, and we live in an area that is pretty accepting of his choices. But I do worry that he has let the world and what other people think change him over time. He doesn’t wear pink anymore—only gray, blue, and black—and instead expresses his creative fashion choices by designing dress after sparkly dress on cutout paper dolls, at home.
I think that as parents, we should all agree to push our kids out into the world with the idea that it just isn’t OK to break another kid’s spirit. While it’s important to empower our children to be individuals (in fact, they should fight for that right), it’s also vital that they respect others’ choices.
My child’s first bully was a parent, a mom. Her children saw her and heard her. Our children are watching us and listening to us. We have the power to show them what acceptance looks like.