How Far to Bend the Gender

As a girl born between two sisters, I was, in childhood, emphatically girly. I loved unicorns, ballet, pink things, dolls, My Little Ponies. The tendencies of our elder brother didn’t hold much sway with us back then – he was outnumbered – and he seemed happy enough to make his Lego projects and wooden models on his own. I know there was some overlapping of activities, but my strongest memories were dominated by our female sensibilities.

woodcraft mosquito model
I remember this one. Yikes.

I’ve learned a lot since having a son. I remember worrying, while pregnant, that I wouldn’t know how to relate to him… and then being glad to discover that when it’s your child, relating is not a problem. Love takes care of it. And fascination, too: everything that interested him automatically interested me, because I wanted to know him completely.

I had already talked to other parents who had discovered that, no matter how gender-neutral you try to make your parenting, most boys love VEHICLES. Diggers, dump trucks, racecars, school buses. We knew E liked cars even before he had any – just the pictures of vehicles in his books thrilled him.

Last year, teaching five different groups of kindergartners, I found that this trend held firm. Boys loved the cars, ramps, robots, dinosaurs, and Lego; girls loved the “babies”, dress-up clothes, dollhouses, beads, and pretend food. Give them things like geometrical shapes, and some boys would use them to role-play “good guys and bad guys”; girls would role-play “mommies and babies”. There was some crossover, and plenty of neutral territory in puzzles, blocks, books, painting, etc… but still. I was surprised at how pronounced these proclivities were, and couldn’t help wondering about the Nature/Nurture proportions in these kids’ preferences.

It’s amazing how early children learn about “boy” stuff and “girl” stuff. Whether it’s from parents, kids, or other role models, it makes me uncomfortable – because most children, being so spongy, assimilate these lessons deeply.

At this tender stage, I worry most about the boys. The first year I taught Grade 1, there was a wonderful little boy I wanted to take home with me. He was quiet, sweet, bright, smiling, artistic. At age 6, the trees he drew not only had leaves on them, but the leaves had veins. I remember that on Valentine’s Day, he wore a red shirt and pink pants. He was adorable.

By Grade 2, he had become vocal about his love of princesses. My heart broke one day as the class discussed a story we’d read, and he mentioned Cinderella… and already, I could see other boys in the class exchanging surreptitious smirks, mocking inside their heads: this boy wasn’t following his gender role. (He’s now in Grade 6, in another school. I hope he’s okay.)

My son, with all his love of cars and dinosaurs and Lego and crazy sound effects, has a princess side too.

His Auntie Beth recently gave him a set of lavender fairy wings. He loves them; he even went biking with them on once. They became part of his dragon costume for Halloween.

The first time E had his nails painted, it was at the small home daycare he attends (where peer pressure is low). The girls were doing theirs, and naturally he wanted his done too. Why not? What kid wouldn’t want awesome-coloured fingernails? But M warned me about it tentatively, before I noticed it, because she knows that some parents object to nail polish on a boy. HA. We all loved it, because he was so delighted. Now we do his nails on a fairly regular basis.

nail polish on a boy
Pretty colours.

He’s always been a little fashionista. Even before he turned two, he would notice my jewelry: “That’s a pretty necklace, Mummy.” He loves to wear his Mardi Gras beads and the hand-made necklace from his Family Camp friend. Once, he put them on and picked up a broom and said, “Mama, look. I’m a princess, sweeping.”

He also does this thing, if you can catch him in the right moment, called “princess dancing”: uplifted arms, swaying steps, poignant little head-tilts… and a childishly seraphic smile. Almost unbearably beautiful.

For now, these aspects of his personality commingle with his more “boyish” tendencies.

His favourite movies are Cars and TinkerBell.


Cars – the relatively wholesome first one.
TinkerBell – sent to us accidentally by the Disney Movie Club; surprisingly watchable.


He has two beloved re-usable bags: one picturing Lightning McQueen, and the other, Disney princesses.

He gets just as excited about butterfly tattoos as firetruck tattoos.

During kids’ gym time at our local YMCA/YWCA, I once saw two staff members lovingly ogling my kid as he rode a mini-Cat tractor with one hand, dragging a doll stroller with the other.

Sometimes he uses his cars to play family-type drama: “These two cars are getting married, and this big car is moving to a new house and the other cars are worried about him.”

I adore his openness, his natural expression of what he loves. I want him to be able to keep ALL of it.

I hurt to think of how soon these parts of his wonderful Self will be drummed out of him. He’s always liked pink, but recently says he doesn’t. He tells me, “Mama, your favourite colours are pink and purple,” because I’m a girl. (I prefer teal, I tell him.)

He’ll be going to JK next September. I don’t want to advise him to do things that will lead to ridicule… but I want him to feel welcome to embrace his whole self. I want him to be him.

I want him to be like my 12-year-old male student who was so confident, he was completely unabashed about being the only boy in his jazz dance class, and sometimes wore a furry pink bedjacket to school just for kicks. I want my son to have that powerful, joyful, unswerving sense of self – and to share it.

That’s what leads to acceptance. So that it’s okay for little boys to go to school with pretty fingernails.



17 thoughts on “How Far to Bend the Gender

  1. Mama says:

    Absolutely love this! And I do know how hard it is both to let your kids know it’s okay to like a whole array of things, girly and boyly, and to keep them feeling good about themselves should you succeed. I still have a complex about some things I did or didn’t do.

    That said, there’s only so much parents can do, even if the rest of the world were neutral, because SOME OF IT IS HARDWIRED. So – Vive la difference!

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Mama, I agree – becoming a parent made me realize that some things definitely are hardwired. I would hate to think of kids denying parts of themselves that ARE hardwired, due to social pressure…

      Wow, I hate to think of your complex about what you did or didn’t do – I think we had everything we needed! I have been reading “The Idle Parent” and it talks all about the kinds of wonderful things children should be doing to grow up right, and I kept thinking, “Yep, yep, yep, we did all of that!”

  2. Beth Lopez says:

    I taught a boy named Henry in my grade 1 class. The sweetest little guy but by society and the other kids, the perfect representation of boydom. Henry had a little brother named Wyatt who was a year away from Kindergarten. He had gorgeous curls and loved wearing bows and barettes and anything pink. His mom asked my advice about Wyatt. What was going to happen to him when he hit Kindergarten if he came to school with bows in his hair and dolled up in pink. I said that I was afraid that he would be teased. And I said that she probably had two choices. She could try to give him as much confidence as she could to be who he was no matter what and then comfort and support him when he faced the teasing. Or she could discourage him from wearing them to school and let him know that bows and barettes were for home.
    I believe that what happened is Wyatt discovered other favourite things the next year and it wasn’t an issue. But he also knew that his parents thought he was wonderful, no matter what he loved. For the early years, that’s what’s important. What other kids think becomes more and more important as they get older so keep encouraging the self confidence to not knuckle under to the pressure.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Beth, what a great teacher you are. To be realistic, kind, caring, open about your thoughts, to help a parent help her child. And it sounds like that mom was great, sensitive mom too, to ask. Wonderful story.

  3. Peaches says:

    I love this. I follow another blog, My Little Rainbow (I think that’s it) and she addresses this issues lots.

    I was a toddler pre-school teacher for a while at a migrant school and that gave me unique perspective, working with a different culture. I think some communication techniques are sort of hardwired, but not how gender is expressed. There are some uniquely boy things. (they do tend to be more aggressive, whether sewing or using a dump truck)But I think much more of it comes down to nurture than we know and different cultures nurture different norms. Parents alone can’t do this. At the pre-school I worked at, many of the boys LOVED to play house with the girls and hold the babies, but then they always handed them back to the little girls and went over to the block section (their “work”). Then they would come back and poke around in the play kitchen with the girls. It was lovely.They were mimicking their daddies, and in some cultures, being a nurturing daddy is more the norm.

    I don’t mean that to reflect on individual parenting at all. I think it really has to be taken as a whole.

    But of course, some kids won’t conform whatever the stereotype is, and those kids are awesome too!
    Peaches recently posted..A Stranger at Christmas DinnerMy Profile

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Peaches, thank you for your comment – that sounds like a fascinating experience at your migrant school! Kind of hilarious, little boys playing with the babies and going back to the “construction” site or whatever. It can be such a cute thing, to see kids imitating their parents – but sometimes it’s a bit scary too. Especially when you have your own kids – it reminds you that they are soaking up every example you set!

  4. Larks says:

    Great post. It’s difficult issue. Part of me wonders how much ‘rough play’ vs. ‘gentle play’ associations come into it. Like typically a game of cars involves more loud noises and rough play than a game of mommy and baby so kids are on some level signing up for that aspect of play more than they are signing up for ‘boy’ things or ‘girl’ things.

    It’s such a pity toys are so highly gendered and it’s seen as okay to shame a male kid for having ‘feminine’ interests like ‘feminine’ is a synonym for ‘lesser.’ I wish there were more societal pressure for adults to step in and go, “Hey, why do you think it’s okay to make fun of little Jimmy for playing dolls? Daddies raise babies too.”

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Larks, SUCH good points. I’m sure you’re right about rough play and gentle play – though often you can see sub-groups of kids within one activity, indicating more extroverted and more introverted personalities. Rough and gentle would make similar divisions, I think.

      I completely agree that toys are too firmly gendered – sometimes deliberately so… And I’ve had very similar thoughts about “feminine” meaning “lesser” – that drives me bonkers. (I have a blog post brewing about that, too. 🙂 )

      Thank you for your thoughts, as always!

  5. emerge says:

    When I got that Princess bag for E, I had a couple of thoughts in quick succession – 1) I was stoked to be able to say “my nephew will love this!” and 2) I wondered if i would have been stoked to give it to a girl. Probably not, because it was so “girly” that I would’ve been slightly disgusted by the overt princessy nature, the Disney schtick, the Barbie-like figures. I’m sure that my delight was in giving something so stereotypically “girly” to a boy who I was sure would love it, because of the inversion it represented. But if I object to the images on principle at all, shouldn’t those objections hold true for a boy as well as a girl? Do the images become more innocuous if they are used against type? Or more?

    Anyway, I was glad he liked the bag :). And of course the first thing he did was fill it with cars.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      emerge, I KNOW! I have asked myself these very questions! Like, is the car obsession okay when it’s such a cliched boy thing? And Disney princesses – so eye-rollable for a girl… but I’ve come to the conclusion that if that’s part of who he is (and A too, when she’s big enough), so be it. Who am I to squelch any aspect, cliched or not? (Aside from the guns etc. – I’m happy to squelch that.)

  6. Bill Dameron says:

    You are one wonderful mother and your son is so, so lucky to have you as his mother. I love the way you wrote this and of course, it was entirely bittersweet for me to read it. I was the middle son in a family of four boys and the only one who liked to play with EZ Bake ovens and loved my mother’s jewelry. During the 1960’s and 1970’s in North Carolina, this was not acceptable, still isn’t in fact in many homes. Sometimes I wonder who I might have become if my mother had accepted the full me early on, but I can’t dwell on that too much, but there will always be the hurt child in me, always. Your son will never know that and that makes me incredibly happy.
    Bill Dameron recently posted..The Whole TomatoMy Profile

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Bill, thank you so much for your words. They mean a lot to me, especially coming from you. I’m so sorry for that hurt child – I want to cry when I think of him – but I’m really glad that you are able to be you, and be happy, in the present. My impression from your blog is that “who you have become”, in spite of your childhood, is someone strong, genuine, sensitive, and caring (not to mention a fantastic writer). I hope that will be true for those kids growing up now whose parents still haven’t figured out the unconditional love thing… Sigh.

  7. Auntie CL says:

    oh, this is soooo full of good stuff, interesting things to contemplate.
    I tried to be gender-neutral with my kids. I do think some stuff is hard-wired — and also that societal influences are far more pervasive and powerful than we as moms cloistered in our homes with our children believe. But you appear to be doing it all splendidly; i wouldn’t worry for an instant!

    we were in England when my 3- year -old boy needed a cozy winter coat. we made the rounds of Sue Ryder, Oxfam, etc , second-hand places which are in every village, and kept looking at little brown tweed things, dark blue bomber-style jackets, etc., but he liked none of them. then he found the jacket he loved: pink corduroy, with a hood and lower hem that we gathered at the edge to make a slightly ruffled effect. so we bought it for him, and he wore it happily all winter.

    his sister used to dress him up with bows in his beautiful long red hair, or makeup (when his hair was short and spiked) and of course nail polish – most little boys do nail polish, as you say, why wouldn’t you want colourful nails?

    In kindergarten on bring-your-favourite-teddy day, he took Raggedy Ann, and the other boys (all two of them) asked “What do you do with it?”, and he gave a good answer, unabashed. He LOVED to play with his sister’s doll house, and had very focussed, complex family dramas.

    We have an adorable picture of him posing in a very feminine posture with his hair in “dog-ears”, aged maybe 11. He wore his hair long for most of his childhood, with a few exceptions, by his own preference, and dealt with whatever came in his own way – i never thought there was much flak. Once when his sister and her best buds went out on Hallowe’en as lumberjacks, they let him join them, and when some kid approached him and said (aggressively) “Are you a boy or a girl?” – he answered “Yes”. (!)

    And as we all know, he has turned out to be a well-balanced, masculine, kind, sensitive man who is not in the least confused about his gender.

    His sister liked to play with dinky cars when she was small – he LOVED to play with cars – or any vehicle. You know my theory about the invention of the wheel: little boys invented the wheel to play with, and grown-ups saw it and thought, “well, that could be useful!”

    He liked pink; she eschewed it. They both thought princesses were a bit overdone. They both played with ropes and climbing and biking and stuff, and toy kitchen and doll stroller, and both took dance … but only my son really played with the doll house, and only my daughter really played aggressive floor hockey in gym. I think they both came out pretty well and un-ambiguous. Everyone has yin and yang. We all need balance. Balance is what you usually find on your own, if no-one is shoving you around. Your children will be fine, because they’ve got you and Sean as parents, and the rest of those influences that are so healthy for them. yay you!

  8. Krista says:

    Great post, Di. Your student reminds me of one we had several years ago at our school. He was one of the kids who asked me to start a skipping club after we had a demonstration team visit our school and when he was older (and had moved up to the other school) he joined it… and he was REALLY good! He also knit, started up a knitting club, and taught several kids (and adults) how to knit. I think he was teased a bit, but I don’t believe it turned into bullying (boy, I hope not!!) because he was quietly confident in what he wanted to do. I wish more kids could be like that. 😀

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Aw, what an awesome kid! I wish more kids could be like that too – that’s some rare initiative, starting up a knitting club! And being so involved in the skipping etc. I also wish I could pick his parents’ brains: where does that quiet confidence come from? Is it built-in, or can I help build it?

  9. Beverley says:

    It is interesting to see how hardwired some behaviours are in boys. I raised 2 sons in the 70’s and was very conscious of not promoting gender stereotypes. One Christmas I bought my older son (3) a doll for Christmas and he just flung it across the room… much for that….but he did have a little plush chick that he loved dearly and took to grade 1 show and tell! I really see in my grandchildren how my little grandsons are so in love with anything that has wheels while my granddaughter truly loves her dolls. I guess all we can do is be supportive of their interests as they grow. I really enjoyed this post.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Yes, I agree, there’s hardwiring for sure. One of my good friends – who tried very hard not to bias her kids – found that by 9 months of age, her son would point eagerly and vibrate with excitement every time they walked past the local construction site…

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