Forget About Gender Norms: I Want My Son To Be True To Himself

by Erin Palmer
gender stereotypes
Erin Palmer

My 5-year-old son has experienced being mistaken for a girl more than the others, most likely because of his long (glorious!) hair and pretty face.

One time on the bus ride to school, a woman said to me and my son, “Your daughter has beautiful hair.” I smiled and replied, “Thank you. He sure does.” Her smile turned to a frown, and she shifted away in her seat.

Another time, I caught a boy pointing his finger at my son and taunting, “You’re a girl.” All I had to do was look at him with my fierce mom eyes and say sternly, “Hey!” and he scurried away.

My son has been told “boys don’t have long hair” or “boys don’t do this, that, or the other thing” countless times.

As a woman, I know the ways in which my gender has been used to tell me what to like and how to be. And when you are thinking about or have kids (or maybe even before then), you realize that this attempt at forced conformity starts immediately, even before birth. Girls wear pink; boys wear blue. Girls have long hair and wear bows; boys have short hair without adornment. Girls play with dolls and kitchen sets; boys play with trucks and superhero figures. And on and on and on. (My thoughts about superheroes and why I dislike them are reserved for another time.) I always felt that girls were taught from the youngest age that they would be mothers, caretakers, and homemakers. And throughout my life, I have resisted being limited to only these roles and I have rejected being told “my place.”

But having boys has highlighted the struggles that men must face in terms of gender norms. My son at a young age liked to wear dresses and paint his nails. We had to have long talks with the daycare provider, not just about how to address kids who might taunt him, but to make sure that they themselves would not make him feel that there was something wrong with him.

My husband, wonderful man who he is, painted his own nails to be an example for my son. My son has continued to exhibit so-called “feminine” interests in other ways. While recently shopping, he picked out an orange-and-white-striped shirt with eight (yes, eight) decorative pockets. It’s a really weird shirt. (Okay, I actually think it’s really ugly.) I’ve never seen anything like it. But he absolutely loves it. And I love that about him.

Some things give me hope that our generation is finally starting to prioritize equality, diversity, and choice over gender stereotypes. Boys can play will dolls, and — surprise! — not all dolls are girls.

Ann Fuentes

Ann Fuentes

Take the rising company Boy Story, for example, which is putting out a line of boy dolls. They will have an uphill battle to beat the current stereotyped market, but they believe in our kids, and so I believe in them. Other examples of fading gender categories in toys and clothes emerge daily, and this is real progress.

When we talk about gender, I have never understood attempts to stuff people in boxes. My husband is a constant reminder to me that men can be the most amazing caretakers and parents. In many ways, he is more maternal than I am, and he has leaps and bounds more emotional intelligence than I do. He would, circumstances permitting, stay home with the kids, while I would never choose to do so unless absolutely necessary. I would never for a millisecond judge anyone who stays home with their kids. It’s just not for me, and I resist any expectation that it’s my “role” to do so.

And that’s the thing. Why can’t we just be the people we are? Isn’t that the way to confidence and happiness? And isn’t that the way to ensure that people spend their lives doing the things they care deeply about, thereby allowing them to be the most productive members of society they can be? If my son ends up wanting to be a fashion designer and has a real love of design, isn’t that what he should be doing? (Or whatever else he wants to do, however “feminine.”)

Ultimately, I can’t control the world and the pressures that my son will face. All I can do is my best to help him have the confidence to be his truest self. And I believe his truest self will be truly amazing.