On Christmas day, a video of Lewis Hamilton circulated in which he blasted his own nephew for playing dress-up in a pink princess gown. The British race car driver apologized soon after, but his nephew still heard the words “boys don’t wear princess dresses!” as many boys around the world do, too.
Just as it felt we were making progress to help children play freely and embrace their individuality, a rant like this rewinds us to the 1950s.
Are we still that fearful of boys and princess gowns that we have to shame little boys? What do we think will happen?
Let’s Give a Hand to the Celebrities
On the positive side, several celebrities’s children have criss-crossed gender lines pretty openly in recent months. Almost always they are met with both praise and criticism.
On Halloween, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s son dressed as Skye from Paw Patrol. Skye, it’s worth noting, is the only female lead dog in a Nick Jr. show with at least five other male leads. Even dogs can’t get equal representation. Don’t get me started.
But the fine people of Canada were wholly unfazed. A U.S. President to commit such a crime would surely be impeached by now.
Then, Jessa Duggar Seewald of the “19 Kids and Counting” Duggar clan posted pictures of her son that sparked conversation. Jessa’s son sat happily, playing with pieces of a modern dollhouse. You know, a house, just like the ones that countless kids live in.
Megan Fox and Brian Austin Green have been both lauded and slammed for their son dressing in princess gowns, like Elsa from Frozen.
It’s frustrating that we still have to applaud these celebrities. But we do.
When parents DO allow their children freedom of expression and free play, public criticism falls into a few categories. Interestingly, most critics never articulate the “WHY” clearly, and instead use veiled concerns like these:
I don’t want my son to be bullied.
Sadly, this is probably the most legitimate concern. Parents know that children learn gender divisions at a young age, typically around pre-school. As children learn about themselves and the world, they’re eager to match, categorize, and divide.
When they learn about gender, they generally want to fit in. And they police each other. Mostly because they’re trying to make sense of the world.
Parents worry that if their son wears that Elsa dress to the grocery store, other kids will beat up on him for engaging in “girlish” behaviors, no matter whether that same boy ALSO loves trucks and baseball.
On the contrary, we support traditionally feminine girls who also love karate and space. We tell girls they can be a princess AND save the day, with extra praise if they hang on to their tiaras and beads.
But it doesn’t go in the other direction.
Boys can be boys only.
Traditionally feminine stuff has no place in the narrow confines of boyhood.
Solution: We need to teach our children to respect differences among their peers. Kids learn discomfort in differences from adults. If we ease up on categorizations, they will not be so quick to box in other children.
We also need to teach them kindness and compassion for others; two qualities that could eradicate hatred and bullying in this world, if we let them.
People might mistake the boy for a girl.
If my daughter isn’t wearing something pink or purple, people frequently mistake her for a boy. With a navy blue hoodie and sneakers, adults address her with a boisterous “hey buddy” or “what’s up, pal?” expecting the utmost confidence in return.
This doesn’t bother me. It actually makes me chuckle.
If a boy is mistaken for a girl, however, it’s a much bigger sin.
On my niece’s 5th grade field trip, a few bottles of nail polish swirled through the crowd, adorning the nails of both girls AND boys. School officials summarily banned nail polish from future field trips. Why? Because the parents of boys called to complain. They were less than thrilled when their sons came home with polish-streaked nails, even if they WERE blue.
What’s the problem? Why did the parents get so riled up?
The answer is simple. We value, both socially and monetarily, so-called masculine traits such as leadership, boldness, and earning power. Traditionally feminine traits such as caregiving, compassion, sensitivity and kindness are undervalued.
Solution: If we keep telling our boys that feminine qualities are bad, that they should stop crying, then they will view feminine qualities as inherently undesirable. In turn, they will view themselves as superior to girls, both in childhood and adult life.
Parents of all genders need to show respect for women and girls. Chuck phrases like “throw like a girl” or “don’t be a sissy” or “only women are babysitters.”
We need to fill our boys’ lives with more female characters and role models in books, television, and movies. And real life. Parents and teachers tend to assume boys won’t be interested in a story that features a girl. Why? We expect girls will like Harry Potter and Charlie Brown and Thomas the Tank Engine and Superman. Why shouldn’t the interest go in both directions?
It’s science. It’s biological. Let’s not confuse our children.
A rigid adherence to gender roles prompts this criticism. But a wave of homophobia also underlies this “concern.”
Saying we don’t want to “confuse” our boys usually means we don’t want them to be gay. Homophobia is obviously disturbing and could fill an entire post on its own. This concern, however, is not rooted in any logic. Sexual orientation is widely considered to have a genetic component and cannot be “taught” to children.
Research shows that 85% of children who engage in “gender-bending” behaviors turn out to be cisgender and heterosexual in adulthood. Whether part of this is due to societal pressures, it seems clear that giving a 5th grade boy nail polish won’t make him want to be a girl.
Solution: Check yourself first. What are your beliefs about masculinity? Are you or your partner scared that your son will be gay or transgender? Even if you can acknowledge that a pink tutu won’t cause either, what worries you about those scenarios? If you and your partner are open about your concerns, you’re less likely to push those insecurities onto your child.
Second, let’s embrace a different perspective on masculinity, one that doesn’t hinge on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Justin Baldoni recently created Man Enough – an online series of conversations he explores with fellow celebrities, family, and doctors about masculinity. What does it mean to our society? How is it trapping and stifling men?
“I was never told not to cry, but I got that message from… media and social norms.” – Matt McGorry.
“If I want to cry, I should be able to do it. That’s courage.” – Prince EA
It even has a discussion guide for guys to get the conversation rolling with their friends. Let’s all encourage the men in our lives to get this dialogue started. Only then can we help the next generation.
Check it out and leave your thoughts below.