In late August our little family trooped off to the kids’ shoe store at the mall. We were there to get Tadpole a new pair of shoes. His last pair (awesome bright yellow ones that look like dump trucks) were starting to fall apart, and we wanted him to have new ones before the new school year.
We’ve been to this store before, and have always shown Tad both the purple/pink/sparkly section and the blue/brown/orange/superhero section, and avoided labeling them by gender. As feminists it’s important to Roo and me to not close off gender options for either of our kids based on their sex.
In the past Tad has generally opted for shoes from the “boy” side of the aisle. He has dearly loved a series of vehicle shoes–he had ones that looked like fire trucks a few winters ago, followed by race trucks followed by the current dump trucks. But he did pick out a pair of purple sandals a few summers ago and wore them until they fell apart.
This time around, Tad’s first stop at the shoe store was a pair of light saber sneakers that not only lit up, but also made light saber sound effects. I told him that they seemed very cool, but that we wouldn’t be buying them because his teacher would not be thrilled if we sent him to school with shoes that made noise. Tad was disappointed, but soon picked out a pair of blue and green light-up sneakers, tried them on, and seemed satisfied.
But the he started chatting with a little girl on the other side of the store and she showed off the pink and purple light-up sneakers that she had picked out (coincidentally the same model of shoe as the blue-green ones in a different color scheme). Tad reported to his new friend (as he tells anyone who asks) that his favorite colors are “pink and purple and magenta and gold.” Then he turned to Roo and me and asked, “can I get the pink and purple ones?”
My heart sunk. I was filled with conflicting thoughts and feelings:
- I love my boy and am proud of how thoroughly himself he is.
- But he is about to start at a new school, bigger and less sheltered than his cozy little preschool. We don’t want our sweet boy to be teased by his new classmates. Plus, he could potentially go to this school for 9 years. Will he want his 7th grade classmates to remember him as the boy who wore pink sneakers?
- Our whole family will be starting relationships at this new school. We’ll already stand out as a two-mom family. What assumptions will people make about us if our boy also shows up in pink and purple light-up shoes?
- What if he decides in a few weeks that he doesn’t want these?
- But our principles mean that we should support Tad wearing what he wants to.
We explained to Tad that some people might tease him about the shoes because they incorrectly think that some colors are just for some people. He insisted that he still wanted the pink and purple ones.
Roo and I held a whispered conversation about how to handle our dilemma. Roo had a very wise idea–to buy both pairs. The store was having a “buy one, get one half-off” sale, so it wouldn’t be a huge difference financially. And this way Tad could decide each day which pair he wanted to wear and how much gender-bending he wanted to do. Roo and I thought about how we all make decisions every day about how much of true selves to show, and how much to compromise in order to avoid standing out. Neither of us have been boys, so we don’t know how to navigate these gender issues from that perspective. But we have been girls and women, and so we have experiences every day in making decisions about how much to fit into the appearance that is expected for our gender. Some days I shave my legs because I like how it looks/feels. But on other days I do it because it’s easier to not worry about getting funny looks. And there are other times when I decide that I don’t want to shave and am okay with potentially standing out.
Tad proudly wore his brand new pink and purple shoes to day camp at the Y the next day. He came home in tears reporting that other kids at camp had made fun of his shoes–and that staff had joined in. I felt so sad for my little boy and furious at the camp staff. I was sad but not surprised that the other campers had teased him. Kids Tad’s age are exploring a lot about gender and trying to make everything follow simple rules–”girls do ___” and “boys do ____.” But we had hoped that staff would protect my son rather than joining in the bullying. Roo spoke with senior staff and they promised to look into the issue, but they couldn’t make it never have happened.
Still, Tad wore his pink and purple shoes to his first day of kindergarten. He told us that some kids had laughed at him and had told him that his shoes were girls’ shoes. We repeated our family’s “party line” which is that anyone can like any color. For the next week or so, Tad wore his blue and green shoes. Then, a few weeks into school, he tried the pink and purple ones again. He came home saying that a few kids had teased him, but that he had told them that anyone can wear any color. We emailed with his teacher, who told us that she had not seen many problems, and that she had been impressed at the way Tad stood up for himself on the few occasions when she saw some teasing.
Now Tadpole wears his pink and purple shoes to school almost every day. I’m so proud of him as I watch him walk into school each morning–my little boy in a sea of older kids, his blue shark backpack on his back and his pink and purple shoes on his feet.