Backpacks, Gender norms, and My Son

Yesterday, I had my first piece published on the Huffington Post. It’s about my daughter’s backpack.

The boy came down the hall just as I was arriving at preschool with my daughter, Ellie. In a voice filled with excitement, she said, “Michael [not his real name], come look at my new backpack! It’s the Avengers!” Indeed it was, or at least the four male heroes. Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and the Hulk, in vivid color, charging forward to fight evildoers.
Michael responded with far too much skepticism for a 5-year-old boy. “You mean, you like Avengers? Or is that your brother’s backpack?”
Ellie completely missed it. “No,” she said, “My brother got Minions. I got Avengers!” Then she raised her arms in the air, blasting laser beams out of her hands at the bad guys, and ran off to her classroom. Evil doers, beware.

In the essay, I talk about parenting against the grain. It’s not enough, I argue, to just provide choice, because all of society is telling children that they must conform, conform, conform. The process of gender norming accelerates once they start school. There is no free choice. Instead, we push gently against that dominant message, hoping to create enough space for Ellie to choose whatever she likes.

The clever reader will have noticed, “My brother got Minions.” I’ve been repeatedly asked – what about boys? Do you push Nico towards Hello Kitty or whatever? Do you push boys against the grain too?

Off to school, backpacks rampant!

These are good questions. I, like my questioners, have the sense that a lot of people push girls towards boy stuff and push boys towards boy stuff too. Boy stuff is powerful! Girls wearing boy clothes are powerful! Boys wearing girl clothes …?

The lack of balance reflects and intensifies the patriarchal nature of our society, rather than fighting it. On the other hand, I could never advise a parent to push a boy into a dress, because that’s not a gentle parenting against the grain. That’s trying to smash the barriers. The problem is that a girl in “boy clothes” is pretty standard. A boy in a dress is a target. How far should we go?

I have two thoughts.

First – “Against the grain” is about gentle pushing, not creating targets for bullying. For boys, I think, the key is to focus on behaviors. Soraya Chemaly, one of my favorite writers, writes about these issues a lot, such as in “the problem with boys will be boys.” We need to enable our sons, we need to push our sons, to exhibit behaviors not typically associated with masculinity. When they cry, we need to comfort and love, not say, “boys don’t cry.” I think that’s what parenting a boy against the grain looks like.

Second – I have no idea what parenting a boy against the grain looks like, because Nico has Down syndrome.

People with Down syndrome are by no means immune to gender norming, but Nico has very limited verbal skills. He’s not getting the kind of language replication of gender norms that our daughter has been showing for years now. “Pink is a girl’s color,” she says. Nico is as likely to pick a pink, blue, purple, or orange bowl. Moreover, when he picks a bowl, our goal is to get him to say a two-word sentence like “purple bowl,” rather than focusing on gender issues.

Moreover, our primary goal with Nico is to find things that stimulate him, and then push push push for reaction, speech, enjoyment, development, engagement. So whatever it is that grabs him, that’s what we go for. We have played with baby dolls. We have played with trucks. Right now, though, it’s a pretty equal balance between Frozen and Minions. You should see him stand in the middle of the room, swooping his arms around, singing to “Let it Go.” I think the gender issues are going fine there.

Would I send my son to school in a Hello Kitty backpack? Absolutely. But I confess I’d be very nervous about it. Nico is already so marked as “other” by his disability and we – teachers, parents, Nico, his friends, his sister – work very hard to make sure that otherness doesn’t become too pronounced. If he had picked one with Elsa, he’d be wearing it today.

But right now, Nico really likes minions.

4 Replies to “Backpacks, Gender norms, and My Son”

  1. Angela says:

    It's very true about the power balance. I watched a great documentary about advertising and the doctor made an observation that men are always in positions of power over the women – even in children's catalogs/child's advertising UNLESS the man/boy was an ethnicity other than white. Then white was dominate. In ad after ad after glossy, subtle, brain-searing message it was shown. So insidious.

    I don't know that the solution is to dis-empower boys so much as to equally empower ALL our children.

    Angela England –

  2. Anonymous says:

    I have a couple of takes on this, but, y'know, #notaparent, so pinch of salt.

    choices are good. and there is, I absolutely agree with you, a current of thought intended to sweep the child into one way or another, which would remove choice. against the grain, in this way, makes sense to me.

    I'd be as wary of trying to push anything, though. Given parents are also a huge force in reinforcing the ideas kids pick up.

    Re: this – " The problem is that a girl in "boy clothes" is pretty standard. A boy in a dress is a target. How far should we go?"

    I hope the former is true now, but it wasn't when I was a kid. (I'm 30). I wore "boy clothes" and had "boy interests" and many of my friends were boys (due to those shared interests).

    I got bullied somewhat because of this, and one teacher invited my parents to the school out of concern I was not properly acting out my prescribed gender norms – that I was 'confused'. Some of that followed me into high school when some of the same kids moved up, was called a transvestite, etc.

    (it also landed me with some internalised misogyny in my pre-teens)

    So while I do agree that it's far more normalised for a girl to wear trousers than it is for a boy to wear a dress, it also depends on how regressive the individual institution is.

    I quite liked these stories on this (re letting a son wear a dress or not) –

    (and I find it interesting that halloween and costumed pageant type stuff might be in a unique position to transgress, but it was still apparently frowned on)

    I think it is a fine line, in fairness, to tread between wanting to support your child and offer them as much freedom as possible to grow and make choices, and wanting to protect them from bullying or becoming a target.

    Thing is though, while I wasn't keen on the censure I received at school, I could've conformed if I'd wanted to. I was stubborn, and I didn't. If I got home and my parents were also criticising me by telling me I'm a girl so should do and like girly things, and that I shouldn't be making myself a target by not doing so, I would've found that far more difficult to deal with.

    (I completely take your point re: having a totally different scenario with Nico than most people do, wasn't meaning you specifically, just talking far more generally about my ideas here. and #notaparent).

  3. Pierre Thierry says:

    I'm a man wearing skirts a lot of the time, so it's a sensitive issue, one I'd like to progress faster in society. But I admit, even if I, as an adult in my specific environment, have received rather positive reactions to the skirts, I'd be nervous too suggesting a kid to wear them.

    There has been an example in Germany, though, of a kid that liked dresses and stopped wearing them when he eventually went to kindergarten (actually it started fine in Berlin and they moved to Munich, where he was teased at school).

    The solution was for the dad to start wearing dresses in public with his kid. It showed him that it's OK. After that, the kid started wearing them to school again, explaining bravely to other boys that they the reason they wouldn't wear dresses is that their dads were afraid to wear them. Love it!

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