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Last year, I shared my concerns and internal struggle to make space for my then 3-year-old son’s wish to dress as Elsa from Disney’s Frozen for Halloween. I worked through my fears over how he would be treated and received in the world and was prepared to support him with his choice, come hell or high water.
I took him to the costume store so he would have full autonomy in his decision, but surprisingly, he abandoned Elsa in the moment and ultimately felt torn between an Anna dress and an Iron Man costume. I purchased both and he decided to be Iron Man because he didn’t like the way the sleeves on the Anna dress itched his arms. In the end, he made a pragmatic choice.
However, this experience was transformative for my household. It started a series of conversations between me and my husband on how to support my son as he explores and sometimes breaks free from traditional gender norms. We made mistakes, like when we steered him away from buying hot pink shoes. We did better, like when my son wore pink barrettes to our neighborhood park. Ultimately, we got on the same page as parents and agreed we would not deter our son from self-expressing through dress or play based on gender norms.
Now, our incredibly verbal 2-year-old daughter is coming into what could be described as a very large personality. She makes her desires crystal clear. Not surprisingly, she wants to do everything her big brother does. She loves to wear his clothes, play with his toys and just recently, she’s become interested in Star Wars.
But when it comes to how kids are encouraged and socialized to express themselves, we are failing our little boys.
If you ask my daughter what she wants to be for Halloween, she’ll lock her big eyes with yours and state plainly, “Darth Vader.” Not once has she wavered on her answer so I purchased her costume last week. I wish I could have captured her reaction to putting on the Darth Vader mask for the first time. She erupted in giggles and started singing the Imperial March as she marched around our house. It was awesome.
But you know what’s not awesome? The fact that my husband and I never once discussed whether or not we’d let our daughter dress as Darth Vader for Halloween, yet we agonized over the decision when my son wanted to go as Elsa.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m so thankful that now, more than ever, girls are allowed to self-express through play and dress in ways that expand beyond traditional gender norms and narratives. My daughter benefits from this reality daily as a little person who rejects hair grooming and bows, prefers her brother’s baggy hand me downs to the slim cut girls clothes I bought, but also loves Frozen and other princess stories. There is a trail for my daughter, blazed by the hard work of generations before us.
I am not making light of the strides made for girls and women. I also, of course, recognize double standards still exist and there is much work to do on the road towards equitable treatment for women, particularly women in marginalized populations.
But when it comes to how kids are encouraged and socialized to express themselves, we are failing our little boys. Yes, I eventually supported my son’s wish to dress at Elsa, but only after a big old pause and lots of hand wringing. My husband and I had to discuss it several times as well as consult with our closest friends and family. And that just sucks.
I wish I could have captured her reaction to putting on the Darth Vader mask for the first time.
What is the message we send children when girls dressing like boys is celebrated or at the very least no big deal, but boys dressing like girls is anxiety-producing at best? To me, the message is that femininity is inferior to masculinity. When a girl embraces masculinity, society (mostly) says, good for you! Go out and get it. When a boy embraces femininity, society holds its breath in discomfort or unleashes the fury of judgement.
Our kids pay attention to and absorb these messages. We must demand better for our children. For boys and for girls; for the little people who don’t fit neatly into a gender category or are transgender. For society, damn it!
I reaffirm my commitment to nourish the moments my son embraces behavior, clothing or accessories that represent feminine gender norms. I will not fear the color pink for my son the way I don’t fear the color blue for my daughter. I will not fear dresses or barrettes for my son the way I don’t fear baggy shorts and shirts for my daughter. I will never designate a toy, article of clothing or particular action as something “for a girl” or “for a boy.”
I want both of my children to be feminists and intersectional feminists at that. I want both of my children to stretch beyond gender barriers. I want both of my children to feel unencumbered to express themselves however they wish and ultimately, become whomever they wish to be.
Traditional gender norms have influenced me as a parent more than I care to admit. This Halloween season is providing yet another opportunity for me to reflect and acknowledge that I can do better, particularly for my son. What about you? How do gender norms affect your parenting decisions around Halloween and life in general?
Shannon Cofrin Gaggero is the author of the blog, A Striving Parent, which explores how parents can address and combat systems of oppression within the context of their families. Shannon lives in her hometown, Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband and 2 young children.