Gender Roles

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My son “Smacky” is at a strange place in his four-year-old life. In many ways, he is like your typically developing boy – loves trucks, trains, wrestling and, somewhat unfortunately, video games (I am simultaneously proud and ashamed of how good he’s become on the Wii). But in other ways, he isn’t. He loves getting his finger and toenails painted. His favorite colors are pink and purple. He loves doing his mom’s hair, at which he’s becoming pretty good using those deft-fingered hair-ties. In short, he likes a whole lot of “girl” things.

And he is constantly processing things about gender. At the skate park the other day, he asked my wife a few times, “Why does she speak like a boy if she has girl hair?” “That’s a boy with long hair,” she replied. Silence. He recently asked that we stop buzzing his hair because he wanted to grow it out. Not sure if it’s because his younger brother “Peanut” has longer hair or because he wants to see how it feels to have long hair, which he innately believes to be “girl hair”.

What’s crazy is that he has the acumen and presence of mind, even at his young age, to know that some of this behavior isn’t socially accepted by everyone. So he continues to try to hide it. If left to his own devices, he will usually pick out a pink or purple plate/bowl, but when he’s in a group of people, or if those ones are dirty, he’ll take a green one apathetically and say, with little emotion, “I’ll take green, it’s my favorite color.” He’s told me in the past that boys can’t like pink and purple. I asked why and he tells me that they’re “girl colors.” I try to reaffirm that anyone can like any color they want – hell, my favorite color is orange. I’m probably not the best person to ask that question. I digress. Smacky has requested that my wife paint his fingernails and toenails, only to immediately say “But we can take this off before I go to school, right?” And why is that?

He’s getting insulted at school. And unlike the very heart-warming and charming story that a blogger famously wrote about, it’s not adults who are making it tough for him, at least none that I have heard of. Despite the school having some conservative teachers, they all support him no matter what he chooses (the owner has spoken a bit about it at times with us). That is a large part of the reason we love his daycare. But as for the teasing, it comes from kids themselves. My guess is it’s probably mostly his best friend “Marcus” – apart, the two of them are great kids. However, once they get together, their bad behavior is amplified all the way up to 11. From what I’ve seen of Marcus, he’s a boy’s boy so I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the teasing comes from him. However, Smacky has told me that it’s some of the girls in his class too that call him a ‘girl’. It clearly bothers him.

Friday is a theme-day at daycare: Teddy Bear Picnic. They’re encouraging everyone to dress up in “tutus and tails” and bring their favorite teddy bear. It was immediately clear that Smacky wanted to wear a dress, and my wife even started talking about using some gift certificate money we had to buy him one. But Smacky retracted immediately solely because of what everyone at school would think. He’s subsequently put aside the dress-conundrum and concentrated on the teddy bear one. (He doesn’t have teddy bears, he has monkeys – go figure. After searching around the house, he finally did find a teddy bear, a purple Care Bear. He grabbed it and put it aside but continued to look for a different one. Maybe he genuinely didn’t like that Care Bear, but my guess he opted against it because it was purple and certainly ‘girly’.)

Finally, after a few days of processing this (and of course the remote-control truck he has had his eye on that we just purchased and have to wait for delivery), he comes in to say goodbye today and tells me that he figured out what he was going to wear to the party on Friday.

“My dinosaur suit. With a tail.”

It does have a tail. I’m pretty impressed with how brilliant the kid is. (I later found out that I had had the gist of the theme day a little off – they supplied the girls with tutus and made paper dragon “tails” to give anyone who wanted one – mostly the boys.) But the point remains that he was choosing to wear a dinosaur suit more than the tutu because what he really wanted was something he wasn’t “supposed” to do.

It crushes me as a parent, and as a father, it’s downright weird. In Reno vs. the suburbs of NY where I grew up, there’s definitely more of a sense of needing to be a “man’s man”. While I’ve never had that pressure in my life (other than having parents who I am certain were relieved that I was straight), I can see how it could be overwhelming in a place where they have stuffed dead animals in their sporting goods stores and in their airport. When I moved here, I was shocked at how there is still some pretty strong homophobia in these parts. (I will say that Reno has a tremendous underground movement of tolerance that is growing exponentially, and that’s fantastic to see.)

Despite growing up in white-bread middle class suburbia, I also found a niche early on in the theatre – our school had only two black kids, and I was friends with one and used to carpool the other one home. Very few kids were out as gay at that point, but those that were were my performing peers and friends. If there’s anyone who would be sympathetic to what Smacky’s going through, it’s me. And as far as someone born and raised in the Reno area, Smacky is fortunate in so many ways to have his mother. He’d be hard pressed to find more supportive parents.

Since he was two, my wife and I noticed these effeminate tendencies were extremely strong and they seemed to be more than him just following in his older (female) cousin’s footsteps. It seemed like, whenever he was outside of the World of Sodor (Thomas the Train), he was happiest in the World of Girl. His parents support him 100%, no matter what he chooses. And who’s to say what that will be? He’s four. Right now he’s enamored with a live-action show about mermaids. But he’s also gone through spells where he watches the Spiderman cartoon from the 60’s and goes around “pewing” (shooting) everything until it’s dead. If it’s just him trying out different things (for the record: he REALLY wants to go fishing) that’s fine. If one day he sits us down to have a coming-out-of-the-closet talk, that’s fine as well. We support whole-heartedly. I just wish everyone else would get on board and, further, to stop spreading the toxic beliefs of gender stereotypes ad nauseum to their kids. Or, worse yet, to other people’s kids.

Or next time maybe we can get him a dinosaur tutu for his suit.

3 thoughts on “Gender Roles”

  1. Much love and support to Smacky!! I hope he somehow just figures out that its ok to be who you are and that dinosaur tutus are awesome! Miss you guys!!

  2. Well-written, Bro. Society certainly does tend to step in and it doesn’t mince words at times. Try to be a happily married couple (who are teachers!) who just didn’t want kids of our own. Totally unacceptable! (See this week’s Time Magazine cover.) SOOO glad you and Ash are his parents and will provide love and support no matter what his choices/intuition/self.

  3. You are an awesome dad, still an incredible writer, and Smacky sounds like a fantastic kid. He’s also a lucky kid, and more and more people (children included) are realizing it’s about ACCEPTING everyone because of their differences, and celebrating them, instead of “tolerating”.

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