Stop Shooting Your Brother With Your Sandwich, Dear

When I was pregnant with M, we didn’t find out if he was a boy or a girl until he was born.  It wasn’t a big deal really.  But you’d be surprised at how agitated some folks got with that.  “How will I know what to buy?”  was the question I was asked over and over  And over.  “Um, baby stuff?”  I’d offer.

I don’t recall this whole gender divide being such a big deal when I was a child.  Legos were for everyone.  So were tinker toys.  And Lincoln Logs.  And I didn’t need a special pink set so as not to confuse me into thinking I might be a boy.  Honestly, it makes me crazy. 

I have read plenty of essays on how parents didn’t believe in gender determinism until they had kids, that they had only gender neutral clothes and toys, and their kids still went down the frilly pink or gunpowder blue path.  And I have no doubt that many kids do, more or less, fall along those lines.  But really – unless your child has never seen a toy catalog, has never seen the boxes toys come in, never seen TV, never heard the radio, and was never exposed to, oh say, any other humans, then he or she has been enduring gender deterministic indoctrination. 

Look – you may think otherwise, but when perfectly normal people were worried about buying my child gender appropriate clothes and toys before he was born,  that’s indoctrination folks.  We just fail to see it because we have all been indoctrinated.  Me included.

When M was little, he could happily spend his hour in the church nursery dressing Barbie.  That is, until some bigger girls joined him and let him know that those toys were not for him.  He’s a pretty rough & tumble kid too.  I have heard “Oh, he’s all boy” more times than I can count, largely because he has a lot of energy and struggles with self-control.  (And I always answer, as sweetly as I can, “Well, he’s all M—“).  And yet, he still liked picking out that party dress for that buxom doll.

M happily played with most toys and many other kids – until he started pre-school.  He attended a great pre-school, one I’d recommend to anyone.  And he had the most awesome teacher on the planet.  There was one little girl, however, who was always telling the boys that they couldn’t play in the dress up area, and no matter how many times the teacher corrected her, she’d tell them it was for girls.  There was one little boy who was all ready espousing that boys were better than girls (though not in those exact words).  And from the impact of those 2 kids – 2 kids out of out of 20 – I had to do plenty of damage control.

A girl M had happily played with in the past, he began to spit on.  Yes, you read that right.  He spit on her.  I can assure you, no one in our home has ever spit on anyone.  I don’t even know for sure if someone in pre-school did it.  Does that have to be learned?  Or is that what the body does with contempt?  I am not sure, but we had plenty of talks about it (not to mention loss of privileges when it happened), and I am happy to report that now, 2 years later, he is back to playing happily – and respectfully – with that same little girl.

In that same year, everything became a gun.  And I do mean everything.  After uttering the sentence that is the title of this post, I finally accepted that we were fighting a losing battle keeping toy guns out of our home.  We allowed water pistols.  And some small plastic toys that (for no apparent reason) came with armament. 

M still likes to run around “shooting”, but it’s becoming much less common – because that is not what his friends in kindergarten do.  And I’d say, I’d even insist, that based on our experience, in the short run, friends’ behavior matters more than parents in whether or not a child plays out stereotypical gender roles.  In the long run, many of us have to find a way to shrug off those roles and define ourselves.  It’s then that the parents’ choices matter…long after toy selection has ceased. 

What really matters, I believe, is that the parents give the child enough room, respect, and safety to define themselves for themselves.

I can’t say that I am awesome at this.  C  loves trains, fire trucks….and butterflies.  And he’ll be getting some books on butterflies.  But until he is able to ask for them, he won’t be getting a pair of dress-up butterfly wings.  Because at this point, I’d be perceived as forcing them on him, because, you know, boys don’t like those kinds of things.   Though I know in my heart he’d be thrilled.

A few folks have said to me, “Well, if you had a girl, you’d see.”  Um, excuse me?  Hard as it may be to believe, I did not spring fully formed from the Earth.  I actually used to be a little girl.  And I do remember it.  Being a little girl, that is.   

I remember being told to “act pretty” by well-meaning parents.  I remember receiving doll after doll after doll…until they stopped being playthings and became a terrifying army of plastic people intent on descending upon me in the night.  (Who doesn’t think a room filled with dolls is creepy?)  I remember a toy kitchen that I played with happily…and that I also recall as the locale where a bunch of 7-year-old girls assaulted another 7-year-old girl.    I remember Barbies that I didn’t really know what to do with (“What do adults do, anyway?”  I’d wonder), though apparently, I chewed the feet off all of them (or all my sister’s Barbies, anyway).  I remember a pink checked dress that I loved.  And a pink room I loved too, until I internalized that anything girly was bad and therefore I no longer liked pink (I got over it; I love pink). 

I remember collecting caps discarded by the neighbor boys and smacking them with rocks so they’d go “pow”. 

And the point of all of this is that, in some ways, I was a stereotypical girl.  And some ways I was not.  But adults were sure intent on ignoring the parts that didn’t fit.  And forcing the others.  

I don’t want to do that with my boys.  Not ever.  What I want is for them to get to define for themselves what it means to be male.  Including wearing sparkly pink butterfly wings, if their heart’s so desire.  Wish me the strength.


6 thoughts on “Stop Shooting Your Brother With Your Sandwich, Dear

  1. Cathryn

    Great insightful post! I have no children, but my mother always told me, “kinds play with what you give them.” She and my dad raised two girls and a boy.

    I remember being a young girl. My fear of not being able to do things that “girls just aren’t good at” kept me from pursuing a lot of my aspirations. As an adult, I have to grapple with the effects of that on my life. It is my hope that I never make another person feel uncertain, deflated, and boxed-in, as I did as a child and sometimes still do to this very day.

    Your little ones are lucky to have you as a mom!!

    1. Oh, I am the lucky one. I am, at times, less than an “OK” mom. But I do my best to honor who my boys are. Sometimes my best isn’t as brave as it should be.

      It is amazing to read that you ever feel boxed in. You are capable of everything. You can even send comments from the future – which is super cool. May I call you “The Doctor”?

  2. I TOTALLY get this post. I have 2 sons and have struggled with gender appropriate their whole lives. I’ve always thought they should be able to play with, and like whatever toys they want, but then again, I didn’t want them to be tortured by their ‘friends.’ I also didn’t find out the gender of my second one until he was born and it drove everyone but me nuts!

    My older son ended up with a Disney Princess Kitchen from Santa one year (because he asked for it) but I had to draw the line and say ‘no’ to pink jeans and a tinkerbell backpack that he wanted when he started kindergarten. I practiced a double standard because I let him like whatever he wanted at home, but restricted him when he was outside the house so he wasn’t a target for ridicule.

    My younger son’s favorite color is pink, but that’s about as “girly” as he gets. I laughed at the guns because he will pretend a pencil is gun. We never bought toy guns either, but we finally allowed a water gun and then he just got a nerf gun for his birthday (which will be taken away if he ever shoots it at people or pets.)

    I don’t have a girl, but I think that girls have more freedom to play with ‘boy’ toys than vice versa. Well, I’ve taken up enough of your comment space but I just had to tell you that I loved this post and completely understand where you’re coming from. Good luck with granting your boys freedom!

    1. You can write as long as you like here! This is a wonderful comment – THANK YOU for coming by.

      This is a tough dance – we want to protect our boy’s identity AND protect them from bullying outside our homes too. It remains to be seen if Butterfly Boy will take me down that path. He may just be super into flying bugs! : )

      Girls DO have more freedom as far as toys go, but I suspect it really does come from the notion that anything girly is inferior, so I wonder if it’s worth the price.

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