I wrote the following for the Chicago Tribune soon after the boy started kindergarten; in two hours, he’ll be graduating from 8th grade. If you’re wondering, it happened in the blink of an eye.
A mom’s guide to dealing with a little boy’s life
For a 5-year-old lad, wearing dresses and playing Barbies can be just another part of growing up
My kindergartner was on the computer the other day, doing his thing on disney.com. I walked in looking for something, and he immediately shooed me away. I glanced at the screen as he tried to hide it: princesses as far as the eye could see, and a great deal of pink. I said “I’m just getting something. Bye!” and there it ended. But I thought “Hunh.”
This is the boy who had a pink backpack for two solid years of preschool. The walls of his room are lavender, because he wants them that way, and he has a heart-shaped plate in the cupboard, featuring three of those very princessi. About a year ago, he said to me that he sometimes wishes he were a girl “because they get to wear pretty clothes,” and, given half a chance, he loves to play Barbies at his friend Stephanie’s house.
As you might have guessed, this is a boy who has never in his home heard the words “boys don’t fill-in-the-blank.” In fact, the “pretty clothes” comment led to a typically tortured, early-21st Century maternal response: “Well, you know, most boys and men don’t wear skirts and dresses, but some do, sometimes, and if you really want to, you can”–a response, it should be noted, that later won full approval from his father, as well. We are very clear on this: He can love whomever he wants, wear whatever he wants, do whatever he wants. As long as he’s home for the holidays.
Or, more to the point, as long as he’s happy. And there’s the rub. If pink makes him happy, even if only now and then (because mostly he plays superheroes and builds with Legos and reads), then I want him to have access to it.
I am not, however, the only one in his life, and neither is his dad. He goes to a public school, and while this is the kind of public school where some of the coolest 8-year-old boys come to class with their Beanie Babies every day, it is still public, which is to say, in the world. The real world, not the world as his father and I would shape it, but the world that struggles daily and mightily with the push and pull between individuality and collective consciousness, between political correctness and political neanderthalism, between what really matters and what we only think matters.
Ultimately, that’s where I would have him, right in the thick of it. To me, this is human, to be in society, slogging away at these questions, wringing out what is best for oneself while fighting that which would diminish us all. The trouble is, he’s 5.
He doesn’t know he’s part of the grand arc of civilization, carving the shape of humanity with the very act of living. No, he’s in kindergarten. He wants the kids he likes to like him, he wants them to think him “awesome.” He wants to be safe. Gender identity, I would wager, is pretty low on his list.
So when he chides me, as he has, for not dressing his little sister in pink, I know that what he’s really doing is figuring out how to be a boy. And that’s fine. We all have to do that kind of figuring out, and it never really ends.
The question for me is: How do I allow him the space to do that in the real world, while still teaching him to blaze the trail that he needs? Today it’s pink, but later there may be tattoos to assay, or a popular war to protest.
I don’t want to tell him that what other kids might “say” doesn’t matter — it does, it matters a very great deal, to him if not to me. At the same time, neither do I want to teach him to hide himself away, protect his less conventional faces through subterfuge. If I have one child-rearing motto, it might be: “No closets, ever.”
So how do you teach a very small boy that the only way to love yourself is to be yourself, in the full knowledge that some people might not like you at all? That sometimes you don’t know who you are until someone laughs at you — that sometimes being yourself requires courage, and there is no courage without fear.
Personally, I fake it. I respond as things come up, hoping that in his little head, my bon mots are being knit together in some sort of cohesive, butt-kicking whole. Hoping that he will see in his parents’ lives a decently maintained balance between enjoying the group and striking out on our own, and that he will know that, no matter what, he will always have us. Even if he grows up to be a pants-wearing, woman-marrying surgeon, or something.
The other day, out of nowhere, he asked me why he has that princess plate. “Uh, you wanted it,” I said, swiftly riffling through my mental files for just the right response to the impending machoization of my firstborn, “so we gave it to you.” He looked past his pizza to the pink, the ribbons, the fluttery eyelashes and the birdies and said, “I shouldn’t have this!”
And then, before I could even begin to react, he said, “But I still like eating off it,” and did. Ah, hope.
Chicago Tribune, February 13, 2005