questions for you: allowing/encouraging our children to be different

As regular readers know, I’m working on a feminist book about parenting. Will you help me write a better, more inclusive project by answering some questions?

This week’s topic: allowing our children to be weird:

  • Do you perceive a tension between allowing our children to be ‘different’ (especially but not exclusively in terms of gender norms) and protecting them or helping them become successful? (For instance, think about a boy wanting to wear a princess dress to kindergarten: you may support the impulse but also worry about teasing and other unpleasantness directed at both him and you.) How do you understand or think about that tension, balancing act, false dichotomy, or whatever it is?
  • If you’re a parent, do you draw lines in terms of which non-mainstream behaviors you cheerfully encourage (or allow, or fund)? If so, where do you draw those lines, and how do you implement that decision?
  • Have you ever felt unsure about what to do in this sort of situation? Have you ever made a call that you felt really good about, or not so good about? Tell me the story …

The details:

  • By commenting on this post, you are giving me permission to quote what you say here in my book. Please indicate the age(s) of your child or children, as well as whether you’d like to be identified by full name, first name only, or a pseudonym of your choice if I end up using your words.
  • Feel free to email your responses instead of commenting here, if you prefer: molly at firsttheegg dot com.
  • Please answer any question (or questions) that strikes your fancy, in any way, at any length. Anything relevant to these topics is welcome, even if what you have to say is not really related to the questions. I’m so grateful for any thoughts you offer!

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  1. Posted 10 April 2013 at 1:39 PM | Permalink

    My three year old twins got some late birthday cards with money in them. One asked for a princess dress. I told him that he could choose how to spend his birthday money, so we started an excited search online for a blue princess dress. I steered the searches away from Disney brand dresses (no Cinderella!) because I take great exception to the whole Disney universe; I wouldn’t have encouraged a girl-child to buy one either. Eventually my son found out that he didn’t have enough money to buy a dress, so we looked at skirts. We found a beautiful tulle skirt in a bright teal. My son was ecstatic! His twin came in and decided he wanted a skirt, too, but in purple. So we ordered the skirts and they handed me their birthday money “to pay the bill, mama”. (We make most of our purchases online.)

    They waited with barely contained anticipation for their skirts to arrive. When the package finally did show up, they ripped it open, put the skirts on, twirled around, told me that they were beautiful, then began a game of Crash n Burn (which is when they run at each other, crash into each other, and fall down laughing).

    I feel absurdly proud and forcibly nonchalant about the whole thing. I’m proud because I’m letting my boys wear dress-up clothes that let them feel beautiful regardless of what society dictates. I’m trying so hard to be nonchalant about it because I don’t WANT it to be a big deal. I want children to just be children, no color-codes or dictates.

  2. Posted 10 April 2013 at 3:01 PM | Permalink

    When I worked for a year as a live-in nanny for a family friend who was a pastor, it was my responsibility to get the two girls (ages ~4 and ~7) to church for Sunday School and the service every Sunday morning. The younger daughter was at the age where she wanted to pick out her own clothes and her mother was really bothered by the fact that the clothes didn’t always seem suitable or like “outfits”. This isn’t necessarily gender policing, per se, but there was definitely an expectation about what one wore to church (that for girls would have been gendered things) and particularly what the pastor’s daughters would look like (setting an example).

    I, on the other hand, felt really uncomfortable enforcing a certain dress code with the girls when they were at an age where selecting what they wore seemed more important than impressing the church ladies.

    We never successfully resolved this particular issue, and it stands out in my mind as one of those times where adult expectations and worries about social propriety impinged more on children than really necessary from a child’s perspective (the other kids didn’t care!) … so really the onus should have been on the adults to be less judgy than on the children to conform. But I realize that’s definitely my very counterculture way of looking at things!

  3. Posted 13 April 2013 at 3:23 AM | Permalink

    I have encountered this more with my 4 yo J than with my 2 yo L. L is still pretty little and any non mainstream “quirks” are tolerated, but as J gets older, he is expected to get “how things work” in the world, and his childish departures from “the rules” are less frequently permitted to pass without comment. Other adults love to helpfully reinforce patriarchy by gently, jokingly letting my child know what is and is not acceptable. My son does love sparkles, skirts, and dresses – he has a black tutu with hot pink embellishments that he enjoys wearing, along with fake ballet slippers, fake jewelry, and long hot pink gloves. He’s less into the accessories but really digs that tutu. My parents are very conservative, and I worried about what my homophobic father would have to say about J’s tutu, but as it turned out my mother had the harshest words for my decision to let J have this and wear it. Like your first comment, I wanted the purchase of this item and the addition of it to his dress up clothes box (full of Boy Appropriate items like pirate outfits and dragon and knight ensembles) to not be a big deal. I wasn’t trying to make A Point. But other people force me to make a point by making it a big deal, and then I become That Mother Who is Trying to Foist Her Ideas on Her Child and Make Him Weird/Gay. When it really it’s them who are doing the foisting.

    Adults have teased ME incessantly, along the lines of “just because you wanted a girl, you do this to your son?” My kids also love me a mimic me a lot, as they do their father. When they pretend to shave their faces, that’s fine. When they use a blush brush, or ask me to paint their nails or wear my heels or help me cook (YES HELP ME COOK DEAR GOD), I am expected to gently correct them, and when I don’t, others do. And I am startled at how much grief I get from grown adults for teaching my boys to use anatomically correct words for their body parts.

    We live in the conservative deep South – there are a lot of things to love, but a lot of constraints as well. I have not yet really faced the decision of whether to allow my son to bring his tutu (or his Princess Tiana doll, or his painted nails, or whatever) to school, because he has already learned to self correct. After only a brief time attending his new school (really a daycare run by a methodist church), he became very concerned about what is “cool” and seemed to have been taught that boys doing ‘girlish” things are NOT cool. I’ve been solemnly informed by him that I may not like blue because blue is a boy color – that my favorite color must be purple or pink. I just attended a matinee play in town with him on a school field trip – Cinderella – and one of the other chaperones praised him for being interested in a “girl’s play.” She then conspiratorily winked at me and said – this really is for the girls, we’ll have to do something for the boys another time. That exchange reveals another challenge for me, not just for him – we are new in town, and I don’t want us to be shunned as the weirdos who make everything annoying with their political correctness. This stranger was kindly reaching out to me, relating to me through easy small talk, which can be rare in a tight knit city where everyone here was born and raised and outsiders have a hard time breaking in. Even though it made me shudder, I didn’t want to repel her offering of friendliness and inclusion by giving a tiresome lecture about patriarchy and how it traps and harms both women and men from an early age and boy can like princesses too and anyway what is up with this horrible story where Cinderella sings about how sad she is that no man is coming to save her and blah blah blah. But by accepting her comment with a chuckle and without correction, I let my 4 yo hear it and I reinforced its truth – that there are Girl Activities and Boy Activities, and watching a musical play that happens to have a princess as its lead character is not a Boy Activity.

    I could go on and on here. The gender-shaming in particular troubles me about living in this city. I often think – what if my child grows up gay or transvestite or some other non-mainstream way of life? What will I have done to him by having him live here? We would definitely have to move – maybe the economy will have recovered over the next decade and we would be able to find employment elsewhere. More frighteningly, what if he grows up to have those inclinations, but hides them from the world, from me, and from himself, because he has been so forcefully taught by outside forces that those feelings are incorrect and will be punished?

  4. Posted 15 April 2013 at 9:53 PM | Permalink

    I’ve been thinking about this lately with my daughter. She’s two, and I want very much to encourage her to be herself. We live in an urban area, though, and I’ve been researching our school options. One of those options is the coveted magnet school track which requires testing. I couldn’t help but wonder how much those tests are dependent upon a child meeting the status quo. Am I hurting my kid’s chances at “success” by allowing her to act outside of those norms? If this is already starting when she’s a toddler, how many more instances like this will we face? It all feels kind of overwhelming.

  5. Tertia
    Posted 27 April 2013 at 3:00 PM | Permalink

    I haven’t really had to deal with this yet since my daughter is only 2, and it seems much more acceptable for her to do “boy things” than for a boy to like “girl things”. I would like to think I won’t discourage her from any sort of socially atypical behaviors, though at a certain age I might give her some warning about how and why other people might have negative reactions.

    My mother has always been “different” from other women – she doesn’t wear makeup or dresses, rides a motorcycle, and is fairly outspoken. I think she did a pretty good job at raising us in a non-sexist way, but I had a bit of a meltdown at the age of 13 when it was pointed out to me by other girls my age that I was pretty much of a hideous social pariah because I didn’t dress “girly”, shave, curl my hair, or do any of the other things that were socially expected. I was angry at my mom for not saving me that massive embarrassment, even though she was right to think that none of that stuff really matters.

    A bigger challenge so far than having to deal with my daughter bucking social norms, is how to react to other parents imposing those norms onto her or even their own children within my earshot. Like one of the previous commenters, I feel like I always have to make an impossible decision – tolerate comments that I find to be completely abhorrent (no Timmy, that’s a GIRL toy!), or completely alienate every single parent I interact with at the playground.

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