#248: Gender-Policing Grandmas

Neil Patrick Harris

If only his mom hadn’t dressed him in pink pants sometimes.

Dear Captain,

About 3 months ago I had the most perfect baby in the world. He is the first grandchild on both sides and is revelling in the attention he’s getting from his grandparents.

So far so good, right? Well. My partner is away for work for about 3 weeks and his mom is here to help with the baby. My partner and I have agreed that we will do our best to not indoctrinate our son in the ways of masculinity – that we’ll let him explore what gender means to him. My partner’s mother…is not quite on the same page.

Perfect Baby’s wardrobe is overwhelmingly masculine (mostly because both grandmas are always showing up with armloads of little onesies with cars and dinosaurs on them, and I am in no financial position to refuse them), but I am still getting snide little remarks that I’m “dressing him like a girl” because of ONE PAIR of little pink pants. HULK MAMA SMASH. Doesn’t matter if everything else he owns is blue or green, the pink pants contaminate the lot.

John Barrowman

What if that red sock hadn’t gotten mixed into a load of whites?

(I should add that Grandma In Law is a genuinely nice person and is being a great help while I’m on my own with the baby. My mom is a lot bitchier, but we have stronger boundaries, so it’s less of a problem.)

Right now it’s just clothes, of course, but this is going to get serious pretty soon. When he’s two and he falls down I don’t want him to feel ashamed for crying. When he’s seven and his hair has grown into beautiful chestnut ringlets, I don’t want him to cut it off because it makes him look like a girl. And when IN A MILLION YEARS AFTER I’M DEAD he starts having pantsfeelings, if those pantsfeelings happen to be for another boy, I don’t want him to be afraid or ashamed or guilty.

So basically I’ve committed to raising a little mangina, as the MRAs would say. Any tips on how I can get the inlaws to STFU with the gender policing?

Yours sincerely,

Trying to raise a reasonably feminist son here

Congratulations on becoming a mom!

There are no magic words to make this stuff completely conflict-free, but I do have a few suggestions both for how to handle Grandmas and to increase your peace of mind.

Kids are sponges and take in information from all over the place. You. Grandmas. Baby’s First iPad. Other kids. School. While they do look for consistency among all the messages they receive and ask questions like “Why do you say that we should do x when Grandma says we should do y?“, they are perfectly capable of hearing “Well, Grandma and I don’t agree on everything, just like you and I won’t always agree on anything. I’m your mom, so right now I get to make the rules, but you get to have your own opinion and as you get older you’ll get to make up your own mind about a lot more things.” Asking those questions is part of how kids develop critical thinking skills and their own worldview, which is what you want, right? You didn’t grow up to agree with everything your mom (or grandparents) said was true. For example, my Grampa said a lot of racist stuff in front of me over the years. Hearing that stuff did not magically make me racist. I could see the racist stuff for what it was and know that we loved each other.

Matt Bomer

The kindergarten teacher swears he turned his back only for a minute, but it was long enough for Matt to find and open that jar of glitter.

I think keeping this in mind (the kids will be all right) will help you navigate this stuff now. You don’t have to get it perfect. And you don’t have to totally convince the grandparents of the rightness of what you’re doing. Your passionate arguments for your reasons why pink pants are sometimes important are going to be largely lost on them and just exhaust you.

In response to the snide remarks, I would invoke the “Yeah, but I’m his mom” privilege.

For example: “Thanks for your advice. I’m sure you got a lot of conflicting advice and tried a lot of things out when you were raising your kids, and they turned out great! So I know that you’ll understand and respect when I want to do things my own way.”

If you want to be really sneaky about it, ask Grandma(s) to tell you what kind of wack-but-well-intended parenting advice they received from others first.

Maybe also try: “I realize you disagree with certain things I do, and it must be hard to bite your tongue sometimes, but I really need you to stop with the snide remarks. We both have our reasons for how we feel. I’m his mom, and I get to win this argument.”

Mom, did you dress me in blue outfits sometimes when I was a baby? Did it turn me gay or into a boy? No? Right. Because THAT’S NOT ACTUALLY HOW THAT WORKS.

Better yet, “Mom, what are you worried will happen? Can we talk about that for real, instead of you sniping at me?

If she doesn’t take you up on that sincere offer, don’t dig too deeply into the reasons for what you’re doing. Stick with “You had the chance to do whatever you wanted when you raised your kids, this is my chance and this is important to me. As long as we all love each other he’ll be fine, right?” Because he will.

P.S. While we’re talking about gender roles and clothing, let me just say that EVERYONE DRIVES CARS and EVERYONE LIKES DINOSAURS, so rock those free cute onesies from Grandma without the “OMG, I AM DRESSING HIM IN PATRIARCHY” guilt, ok? Dinosaurs are for everyone. (Thanks, Twitter!)

68 comments
  1. robiewankenobie said:

    theLeon’s response to the pastel/pink striped pants? “yeah, the kid is pretty secure in his masculinity, he can pull it off.” cracks me up every time. it’s a good way to counter-argue that sucker in a language they understand. saying, “we’re gender neutral about things over here and think pink striped pants are cute,” wouldn’t have worked as well.

    on a semi to unrelated note: before i had kids, i would have sworn up and down that boys and girls are exactly the same, and the differences have more to do with how they are raised, than with biology…but we’ve found that there are differences. we try to let them just be who they are though – they gravitated towards teddy bears, but spiderman bear turned out to be a girl. who knew? they also gravitated toward superhero male role models. ::shrugs:: we’ve found that our best bet is to expose them to everything and let them choose who they want to be.

    • L. said:

      As a committed feminist and someone who came into this parenting gig as a believer in gender neutrality, I just wanted to +1 this comment, especially the second paragraph. I started my kids off with gender neutral toys and clothing, but as Annie noted way below, the funny thing about kids is that they are their own people, and yessirree I do now believe in certain gender-based general behavioral trends that I did not before.

      I have certainly read that whole “pink = girly was made up by department stores” thing previously, and it puzzles me, because gosh my 3-year-old daughter likes pink, even though she is not a girly girl in most other respects. She likes to play guns with her brother (yeah, that is always a tough one to navigate), she doesn’t like tutus or ballerinas or princesses, but she will select her library books and the food she eats by whether the cover/box is pink or purple at all. I really don’t think it has to do with other children, so I’m mystified about its origin.

      LW, more generally, I think the commenters advising a light touch and humor/airiness are right on. FWIW, my guess is your mother/MIL fret about this stuff not because they think pink will make your son effeminate or plain ol’ GAY GAY GAY but mostly because they don’t want him being laughed at or excluded for being different. Extremely unlikely for a little baby, but a more significant question as the child gets older. If so, it would be a more benign scenario than the judgy “you’re screwing him up” sleep-training/breast-feeding type of thing.

      Extremely generally–I started off very gender neutral and “no batteries” and “no screen time before two EVER”, but I won’t lie, I am not nearly as die-hard about anything any more, because parenting is the classic case of reality meets idealism and ends up in compromise. Which is not to say that I have given in, but, for example, when my son hit two I couldn’t find any green or brown clothes, they were all red and blue stripes (but I still bought him a pink stroller); when he hit three I did worry about whether his friends would give him a hard time if I bought him a pink hat (he didn’t turn out to really want it, but I did put nailpolish on him); when I was pregnant and miserably sick and he was twenty months and horrid I realized that some YouTube videos of giant excavators digging in the ocean were actually pretty cool and gave me a break; when I saw what great fun he had pretending to make phone calls on a toy phone with batteries, I didn’t mind the batteries so much. If I’d read that run-on sentence when my first was a few months I would have refused to believe that here I’d be one day, but I totally am and it’s fine. That said, you may have a completely different path, but if you do find yourself making those compromises, honestly I think that process of change and acceptance has been one of the better things about parenting in my case. It’s humbling and it makes me think about which ideals I want to struggle to keep.

      Also, Julia of julia.typepad.com is my lodestone for letting your unconventional and awesome kid be who he needs to be (unmatched socks, rainbow clothing, sewing your own pants).

      • AMM said:

        While there may (statistically!!) be inherent differences between boys and girls, I also think that by the time kids are old enough to express preferences between “boy toys” and “girl toys,” most of them are already well aware of what is considered appropriate for boys vs. girls in our society.

        What they choose to do with this knowledge depends, of course, upon the kid. (Cf.: raisingmyrainbow.com) And the pressure and influence of society’s expectations only grows with age, so, on the average, there’s a tendency for kids as they grow older to hew closer to gender expectations (cf. http://geekfeminism.org/2012/05/08/girls-and-robots/)

        • L. said:

          Sure, I agree they begin to become aware of societal norms quite young. They probably really start to think about it around age four. My 5-y-o son does occasionally express the kind of thinking or behavior mentioned in your link (which is totally anecdata, just like my experience). But the behavior I’m describing isn’t so simple; it’s more pervasive and subtle. My daughter’s only three so her interests are not really shaped by her peers or societal pressures in the same way a five-year-old’s are. It’s more like–and of course I know these differences in my two children could arise from simple individuality but I also see it among their peers and friends– … activity level, willingness to snuggle, interest in coloring, readiness for kindergarten. Even babyproofing. The boy children I have known, *generally*, got into everything, so that everything had to be babyproofed. The girls were not as liable to test and explore every nook and cranny.

          Regardless, I believe we are individuals first, that environment does have significant power, and that these tendencies are only that–just general tendencies for the group. I find it just as interesting that my daughter is totally into my son’s “shooting” games, that she has no interest in a lot of stereotypical girly stuff, or that my son is very sensitive and thoughtful about others and loves gardening. And I believe that as we become adults personality has more and more ability to overwhelm this sort of thing. But I’ve come to feel that it’s foolish to say they aren’t there, that gendered play can be an important part of childhood and play, and trying to suppress reference to gender can backfire by making it “the forbidden” . Mostly I just try to let them explore their loves and interests regardless of whether they could be considered stereotypically gendered or not.

      • Erika said:

        I think the differences between boys and girls are amazing. I have one of each. My oldest, a boy, got trucks and dinosaurs and dolls and nail polish. He liked the trucks and dinosaurs and nail polish, not so much the dolls. My little girl was given all her brother’s stuff, so she has a lot of trucks and dinosaurs. She dug out the dolls and put them in a little bed and fed them. I’m a stay at home mom, so I know she didn’t get it at school. She also absolutely adores tutus and frilly skirts, which she wears with gum boots to play in the mud.

        • JenniferP said:

          You’re awesome for giving them both choices and then letting them figure it out for themselves.

          • Raising kids in a totally gender neutral way is a stupendous amount of work. Your kids will still get gender messages from people around them, from story books, from adverts in the street, from pre-school tv shows etc etc.

            The fact that your kids behave in some gender normative ways despite the fact that tried to raise your kids more gender neutral than the norm doesn’t mean that gender differences are biologically determined.

            To take the example of little girls being ‘hardwired’ to like pink – try telling that to little girls or their parents born back in the day when pink was considered more suitable for boys.

  2. btothes said:

    Yes. Dead on with teaching the child that grandmas’ voices are just one in the set — and I think this works as long as they know they are just one set opinions and they are not the co-parent. As an auntie, I love that I get to be Mame-like figure that lets them eat ice cream on holidays, takes them to the Art Institute, and buys them quality and interesting books, and let them color on big paper and teach them how to embroider (dinosaurs).

    I also love that I get to be the single person they know. At one point, they had a discussion about why I didn’t have babies and a family that looked like theirs: They concluded that a baby wouldn’t like riding in a bicycle trailer for long Ironman training rides and it would be a pain to carry a baby stroller up the three flights of stairs to my single-person lair. I also never have food babies would like to eat. Victory! Tiny people valuing different lifestyle choices! If your grandmas get to be around when the little one needs somebody to take them to x masculine activity that you don’t like, that could be a win for everybody.

  3. Karen Z said:

    It’s difficult ground you may be treading here. Many of us have been there, maybe not on the gender issue but on why we choose to breastfeed so long or co-sleep or Ferberize or spank/not spank or homeschool or whatever. I guess some of those are a little easier because they’re harder to “undo” by clueless grandparents, but they still represent challenges in communication.

    I have no advice that would beat Captain Awkward’s. I would just urge you to be as tactful and gracious as you possibly can be (and that will be harder as the need for repetition becomes more exasperating) Keep in mind that your approach to raising your baby (and later your toddler, preschooler, child, etc) is probably a very new & foreign concept to the grandparents. And they didn’t sign up for an enlightening, engaging education in gender politics; they signed up to love, coo over, and spoil the everyliving hell out of that lucky baby of yours. So go easy on ’em. Parenting is so much more rewarding when you can enjoy the help and support of your family, and it’s so when fortunate when children receive the kind of intense adoring love that grandparents can give. Good luck! That last bit wasn’t sarcastic, I really am wishing you the best. 🙂

    • Jess said:

      You know, technically the grandparents didn’t sign up for anything here. They already had their go at signing up; they didn’t create or birth this baby, they aren’t the primary carers, and any consideration the parents give them is out of family bonds, respect, and love, and not because they owe them something for ‘signing up’.

      • Karen Z said:

        Technically, that’s 100% true; I didn’t mean anything technical at all! May be a word choice issue on my part.

        I was referencing (most specifically) the fact that the grandmother had joined the family for three weeks to help in the baby’s care while the partner was away.

        I was referencing more generally the fact that it sounds like (from the LW’s expectations) that both sets of grandmothers/grandparents are gung-ho about being a part of the baby’s life. Not all grandparents are, some are more hands-off or detached. But it seemed to me that the LW’s expectations that the grandparents would be around, involved, (and potentially countermanding the LW’s wishes in regard to gender neutrality).

        Perhaps it would have been better to use the term “sign on” so it didn’t suggest an actual written or metaphorical emotional contract with owing, consideration, etc. I just meant the gung-ho, all-in, we’re-gonna-help-you-with-this-baby buy-in that it sounds like the LW’s family will be experiencing.

        • Jess said:

          Way to make it all about one word in my comment.

          • JenniferP said:

            Jess and Karen:

            Karen makes a good point that the LW is more lucky-than-not to have loving, interested grandparents who are on Team Yay For Baby, and that it’s better to approach this with humor and generosity.

            Jess is correct that “Well, you’re lucky to even have lima beans, some starving kids don’t even have those” isn’t really making those disgusting green-grey orbs go down any easier when it’s you who has to eat them before you can go watch TV.

            I pronounce this back-and-forth discussion between you closed.

          • Captain, can I hire you to handle some of the back-and-forth at my lab meetings!?

          • JenniferP said:

            Sure! Are you in Chicago or shall I Skype in?

          • Hahahahah! That would be fucken awesome: “Me: This has been a really great discussion, but now my colleague from Chicago has something to say, and she is here on Skype. You: I pronounce this back-and-forth discussion between you closed.”

  4. kathleendonohue said:

    “Better yet, ‘Mom, what are you worried will happen? Can we talk about that for real, instead of you sniping at me?'”

    This a million times. This is my new way to confront all the wacky passive-aggressive, boundary-ignoring WTF that comes my way these days. “What is actually bothering you/are we really fighting about?” Because it’s never really my weight, haircut, length of my skirt, or color of baby’s onesie.

  5. We had lots of conversations with both sets of grandparents when our son picked out a pair of pink Crocs at age three. It’s hard, because you are already constantly second guessing everything you do as a parent (I know I am), and when you have the peanut gallery chiming in, it can be overwhelming.

    The Captain is absolutely correct that you invoke the Mom privilege. When Grandma says, “Oh, no, are you really going to let him wear PINK CROCS all summer?” we say, “Sure, he seems to like them.” Conversation closed. When Grandad says, “Don’t you think his hair’s awfully long? People are going to think he’s a girl!”, we say, “We like it that way. And why is so important that people know he’s a boy?” (Response? <>).

    We still get comments about B’s choices (he’s almost six now), but the Grands have resigned themselves to our (perceived) eccentricities. Hang in there.

    • Stray said:

      I like this a lot. When people get really entrenched in the idea that gender is a Real Inherent Thing and is based on genitals or sexuality, I just “play dumb.” By acting legitimately confused and making them explain their sillyness outright, you can stay polite but make a point.

      A: Oh my gosh, that is a boy baby, he can’t wear pink!
      B: I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Why can’t he wear pink?
      A: Well only girls wear pink! It may make people think he’s a girl!
      B: Are you saying that people have to wear colors based on their gender? And if someone thinks he’s a girl, I can simply tell them if they ask. It seems kinda weird to me to make that assumption though.
      A: But everyone knows that boys wear blue and girls wear pink!
      B: Yeah, that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Are there rules for other colors too? Who made these rules? Is it based on sex, gender or sexual orientation?
      A: Um……

      When people make up doofy gender rules, I like to ask for clarification of the rules, as well as asking what they are really worried about. I treat it like an odd board game that I don’t know the rules to.

      So you’re saying that if a female child plays with a truck, she will become masculine and then develop a sexual preference for women? How much truck playing is required for this to happen? What about riding in a truck?

      Boys can’t cry when they’re hurt? Why is that? I agree that it’s important to not hugely overreact and make a scene, but I would think it’s more important to teach children what is appropriate, and I know that honest communication is an important thing. I wouldn’t want him not to tell me if something were really wrong only to find out that he had a broken bone or bursting appendix- that’s even worse than throwing a temper tantrum over something small!

      Confusion + confidence= winning

      • Ace said:

        Thanks to a rather clever TV program, I know that around late Victorian times when babies first stopped wearing only white (because it was easier to clean, dammit) it was decided that boys would wear pink and girls would wear blue. Pink is a more masculine color (coming from red) and blue was feminine because it was associated with the Virgin Mary. As late as the 20s, you could still find articles in magazines and such about which color would be best for which gender.

        In other words (and as you said) it’s all bullshit. Official bullshit!

        • Griffy said:

          I read that the debate went on later; that it raged during the Second World War and even into the fifties. That’s why in Sleeping Beauty, which was released in the fifties, Aurora’s dress switches between blue and pink the whole movie. Before that, Disney girls wore mostly blue (Cinderella, Snow White, Wendy from Peter Pan) and since then, the currently feminine colours of pink (modern marketing of Aurora) and lilac (Ariel’s shells, Rapunzel’s dress) and turquoise (Jasmine) have been the norm. Belle being a notable popular exception, I must admit.

          • OMG! See, I remember seeing that as a kid and wondering if the animators had mucked the colour swatches or their boss had told them to colour it in one way and they’d done it another way to annoy them. The more you know, I guess.

      • I treat it like an odd board game that I don’t know the rules to.

        I think this works pretty well for the whole gender-based …everything. I grew up Girls Wear Dresses, Boys Wear Pants; Girls Cook And Clean, Boys Fix Cars. So when I realized that all around me, Real True Christian girls were wearing pants and the teacher’s daughter was allowed to cut her hair and fix bikes, it shattered my world-view, and I pretty much went “I guess anything goes! Sweet!”

        So now I pretty much treat the entire world of Gender Rules thusly, like a game everybody else is playing that I shouldn’t, but still do, stand on the sidelines and make snarky comments about. And my boyfriend’s about the same way, and if we have kids, I think the plan is to make sure they know the rules are made up and the points don’t matter. (That’s right, the points are like a Baptist’s teetotaler convictions at the company picnic.)

    • Erika said:

      Oh gosh, my son’s favorite color is red, and has been his whole life. He’s five. Well, he also loves pink when he can’t have red, because (in his words) pink is the closest color to red. I was at a Bob Evans restaurant and he picked out a pink straw. The hostess asked me “is this OK?” before she would let him have it. Sheesh. Pink is just a color, people!!!

  6. Jess said:

    Any contribution I have to this should be taken with a heaping tablespoon of salt, because my kid count is zero. However, I have thought about gender policing a lot, and how to deal with potential future gender policing for my hypothetical future child. If you do end up having a serious conversation with either grandma about it, you could ask them if they think masculinity and masculine traits are inherent–and if so, why would a single pair of pink pants undermine all that inherentness?

  7. PomperaFirpa said:

    My mom once mournfully announced that the problem about raising sensitive kids who were big on equality and justice for all meant that it came back to bite her generation (read: Mom) in the hiney. In short, she’s proud that we’re good people, but she’s tired of constantly finding out that she’s being racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, ablist, etc. Poor Mom.

    Mr. Firpa, who’s the resident house spouse until our daughter is old enough for school, has hit upon a way of dealing with my folks being baffled about our childcare choices: unrelenting good cheer in response to anything they say. He doesn’t volley back at them, he doesn’t argue, he doesn’t correct them, he just… is blissfully unrepentant and cheerful about what we’re doing. “Yup! [changes subject to child’s general awesomeness, which everyone agrees on]” They really don’t know how to deal with that, because it’s not what they’re expecting. He’s not trying to change them, just to train them out of expecting any kind of result from trying to gender-police the kid, and thus far it seems to be working.

    In short: LW, you are awesome, and your little boy is awesome, and good on you guys! I am really happy to know that there will be boys like yours as part of my daughter’s experience growing up. Many jedi hugs to you (and jedi smooches to your little pookie).

    • ks said:

      My mom says more or less the same thing pretty regularly. I tell her all the time that it is her own damn fault that her daughters are mouthy feminists who don’t put with bullshit, including hers. Then I thank her for it.

      But really, if you raise your kids to think for themselves, you shouldn’t get all upset when they actually do so.

  8. Mimi said:

    Like a typical money saving Asian family, my parents dressed my younger brother in most of my clothes after he was born. This wasn’t an extraordinarily big deal anyhow since I had an assortment of onesies that were red, pink, green, blue, and white. Notably though, my brother wore my very frilly and adorable baptismal dress made by my mother for his baptism too (instead of a little white suit like the ones that are available nowadays). He also got my cute hats with colorful bobbles on top (pastel colors).

    He has now grown up to be a still-adorable, nerdy, very much straight male with a passionate adoration for Call of Duty and Halo while still maintaining a place in his heart for the giant assortment of plushies which occupy his bed (includes two baby harp seals, Totoro, Elmo, and a childhood one dubbed Mousie). And he turns down date offers about every two weeks.

    • Every baby in my large, extended family has word the giant frilly baptismal dress for … uh, four? generations now. Including my father and my brother, who looked *totally adorable*.

      LW, I hope you can take advantage of the niceness of your helpful mother-in-law and smile/joke/shrug away her frets until they die out.

  9. Elodie said:

    Who made these rules? Department stores at the turn of the century, actually!

    Previously, pink was considered a boy’s color, because it’s a paler shade of manly red. Blue, a color associated with the Virgin Mary, was the preferred color for girls. Both genders were also dressed in yellow or lilac, which had no associations, and both genders wore dresses or skirts and long hair until they were about 6 or 7. (Your grandparents’ grandparents will claim that they turned out fine, though.)

    From 1918: “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl”

    Then department stores basically decided to define and solidify the gender color-coding because they could sell separate lines of toddler clothing by gender. So, out of all the societal constructs, this is a pretty weak-ass one, with “Pink = Girly” only accepted by half the American population in the 1930s.

    If you check out the first link, it’s got a rockin’ picture of FDR as a child in pretty socks and shoes with a fluffy dress and long silky curls. Maybe you could show it to your parents!

    • Ace said:

      I gotta start reading the whole comments before commenting. Yay for knowledge!

    • PomperaFirpa said:

      We have a picture of my grandpa at about a year and a half old, wearing a little dress and carrying an adorable handbag! I showed it to my nieces and nephew the last time they visited, and it blew their little minds to smithereens. I was so proud.

      • Karen Z said:

        No handbag here, sadly. Great-uncle Adolph (hope this embeds properly)

        • Elodie said:

          GLORIOUS

        • PomperaFirpa said:

          AWESOME. I am so, so glad other people have these!

          The best part about the pic of my grandpa is that, in that dress? he looks JUST LIKE my daughter. I can’t even begin to describe how much it delights me.

  10. When I took my daughter to her postnatal visit I dressed her in a white onesie. It was January and it was sleeting so I put her in her warmest hat, which was dark blue with a little cartoon baby hippopotamus on it.

    In the waiting room an older woman asked me “What’s his name?”

    Not wanting to harshly correct her, I just said “It’s ‘Ruby.'”

    She blanched, thought for a moment, and said “A BOY named RUBY?!?!?!”

    • commanderlogic said:

      “Next you’ll be putting him in a leopard print unitard!”

    • FlyBy said:

      Wow. So when faced with a conflict – a blue hat vs. a traditionally female name – in her mind the blue hat won. Appearances are unfortunately powerful.

  11. Lauren said:

    I went through something similar with my son with my conservative family. My son at two years old really took to a doll that he liked to push around in a pink stroller. I loved it, it was adorable (“Baby Sam” was the feature in many violent and touching adventures), but it made my dad spit nails. The tack I always took was gentle dismissal. My dad muttered about sissies and I drew my little one to me and said, “Oh grandpa is such a coot, isn’t he?!” I didn’t fret about what my boy was learning from my dad, and I didn’t argue the finer points of gender theory with a disinterested audience. I just never treated the misogynist stuff seriously, because it’s bullshit.

    My wider philosophy was not to restrict my son’s exposure to masculinity, but to increase his exposure to everything — art, science, high and low cultures, people, music, and ideas. I treat him and his desires seriously, and he’s his own person. I can’t mold him into a perfect proto-feminist and I’m not going to try. My son is almost 13 now, and while he adheres to a lot of age-appropriate boy culture, he knows what’s up.

    • Lauren said:

      Oh, regarding the clothes. I made it clear with the family that I wasn’t keen on clothes that said something, like the “Daddy’s Little Girl” or the “Mommy’s Little Cutie” stuff. I also made it clear that the clothes had to be functional and comfortable, nothing scratchy or so long the kid can’t crawl/walk/play, for example. Cute can’t trump functional. That knocks out a good number of sketchy clothing choices. The rest of it — trucks, cars, fairies, flowers — these themes are part of being a kid and the imagination and discovery part of childhood. Like Jaqbuncad says below, “it’s not worth fighting about, he’s three and he likes the sparkles.”

      I also hopefully threw in there that I actively discouraged all toys that required batteries. That one didn’t go my way whatsoever.

      • Rosa said:

        I won on the battery front for a few years (magically,if you take the batteries out, the toys are silent!) And then grandpa showed him how to change the batteries.

        The gender thing was a lot harder. Kiddo wanted pink underpants when he potty trained. Grandma took him underpants shopping as a reward, called me at work with her gender color problems, I talked her down (it’s his treat, he gets to choose!) then the CLERK at the STORE talked her into putting them back and choosing blue trucks for him.

        • Roving Thundercloud said:

          Yep, that’s why we use *rechargeable* batteries (and only 25-50% charged at that). Kid uses toy for a while, toy runs out of juice and becomes boring and forgotten for awhile, kid finally wants to use it again, replace with more weenie rechargeables.

      • Karen Z said:

        My son is the same age. I got SO FLIPPING TIRED of all the “boy” clothes being “Lil baseball player!” or “lil firefigher” etc. I just wanted some comfy good plain clothes; they were hard to find outside of catalogs. I wished I could afford more Hanna Andersen.

        I think it has gotten somewhat better, as I stroll through Target and notice the wee clothes.

    • piny said:

      OT: He’s thirteen? You mean he’s almost in high school? I can’t believe it. Wasn’t he five, like, a month ago? Holy crap! Congratulations!

      • Lauren said:

        Weird, right? He’ll be thirteen this year. We are old.

  12. First – congrats on having a baby, and hooray for making space for that baby to be hir own person!

    The Captain has some really excellent advice up here. We buy stuff from the girls’ department right along with stuff from the boys’ department when we go clothes-shopping for our two kids, although their wardrobes do skew more masculine (for the same reason yours does – grandparents!). When a friend of ours got married, we brought our kids to the wedding and let them pick their own outfits. Libra wanted a dress, and Gemini chose a little tunic-and-pant combo that was clearly a girls’ outfit. And they had a great time! Their grandparents made the “omg noooooo” face at me pretty much the whole time, but I have a pretty good “look at all the fucks I do not give” face to match. The key thing is not to get het up about it, or at least, not to let on that you’re upset, and just treat it like no big deal.

    “Why are you letting him wear a dress?!” gets a shrug, along with, “Because he wanted to.” I’ve also found that the language of picking your battles works pretty well with both sets of our grandparents. “Oh, it’s not worth fighting about, he’s three and he likes the sparkles.” Casual, low-key, because then they’re the ones getting flustered and having a conniption over a three-year-old’s wardrobe. Works a charm.

    • rimshot said:

      “Not get het up”…isn’t that what the grandparents are worrying about?

  13. Annie G. said:

    Long-time lurker, but this post is compelling me to comment. I have a 2.5 year old son who is part-Irish on his dad’s side. For his first St. Patrick’s day, my brother got him a pink onesie that said “Irish princess” on it (with sparkles). I put him in it for St. Pat’s day because I thought it was funny and put up a picture on the Internets (FB/Flickr). I got some questions on it, but more surprisingly, most people– even my mom and some of our more conservative friends and friends-of-the-family– thought it was cute. I mostly laughed off the questions by saying that he was “secure in his masculinity,” and not really inviting or participating in any further discussion (easier online than otherwise).

    I love the Captain’s proposed responses, especially the ones that are designed to call out your interlocuter’s specific concerns (i.e., what are you really worried about, Mom?). The other thing that I hope will help us raise an enlightened child is both exposing him to the issues and giving him the language to talk about it (I think I got this idea from Malcolm Gladwell). So, not only do we make sure to introduce him to our GLBTQ/etc. friends, we also talk to him about them, (i.e., Mr. Neal and Mr. Bob are married to each other, just like Mommy and Daddy are; sometimes two boys or two girls get married. Of course it helps that we live in a state where that’s true), in generally positive ways, but explaining what’s going on there.

    Also, don’t be surprised if he ends up having Opinions! that are surprisingly different from what you’re trying to instill in him. He may ASK to cut those long chestnut ringlets some day. We got our son a baby doll for his 1st birthday, and he could not have been less interested– all he wanted to do was roll cars and trucks (and this from a kid whose father changes 90% of his diapers and feeds him half of the time). He eventually started to be interested in his baby, and that was mostly due to what he learned in day care. As someone said: kids are little sponges, and they pick up information from all kinds of sources (grandma, grandpa, teachers, classmates, etc.). I do think that they understand the difference between Mama and Dada’s way and other people’s ways, and they will look to you first for explanations, which gives you a great power (and great responsibility, thank you Spiderman).

  14. LW said:

    Thanks for the good advice and good wishes, everyone. I think I might try the “he’s secure in his masculinity” line next time it crops up, because it’s so delightfully absurd. And I’m really glad the Captain and others brought up talking to Perfect Baby about how grandma is just one voice out of many. He’s way pre-verbal now so it didn’t even occur to me that this would be great fodder for discussion.

    This has come kind of out of left field, as it’s the first conflict of any kind I’ve ever had with Grandma In Law. She’s a very easy-going person and while I’ve always got the impression she regards me as something like an alien, she’s never given me crap about my choices. But apparently she has very strong opinions about gender roles in child-rearing! Who knew?

    And true, everyone loves dinosaurs! He has one little shirt that has a dinosaur playing an electric guitar on it. When I saw it I said, “does this come in adult sizes too???”

  15. There are a lot of wise and chill parents commenting here. I salute you all!

  16. rscotland said:

    I have a friend who does a great line in “SORRY, WHY ARE YOU ASKING ABOUT MY CHILDS GENITALS? DON’T YOU THINK THAT’S KIND OF A WEIRD AND INAPPROPRIATE THING FOR YOU TO ASK?” whenever she gets quizzed by strangers over her tiny-human’s sparkles’n’dinosaurs aesthetic.

    It makes for a lot of blushes and “oh, I suppose it doesn’t matter”.

    • Bwhaha, I LOVE this. Not only is it hilarious, but it’s also true, because those questions absolutely are about some stranger’s apparent need to know your child’s gender – and by gender, they mean sex, and by sex, they generally mean what’s between their legs – and frankly, it’s just not something people Need To Know For Reals.

  17. Nothing to add about the specifics of baby gender policing. But I do want to reinforce the importance of not getting into it with people who are overstepping their bounds on the substance of their criticisms/input/concerns. In other words, keep it process oriented–“I hear what you are saying, but I am the parent and my decision is blah”–rather than addressing the merits–“he totally will be fine if he wears pink clothes”.

  18. Tosca said:

    I’m the mom of a seven year old boy who dresses pretty boyishly, but doesn’t care for sports, loves animals, likes to hang around girls just as much as boys, likes pink and is currently addicted to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. When he was a toddler, he wanted a pink kitchen set and grocery cart more than anything. Two Christmases ago, he got an EZ Bake Oven.
    People have said stuff, and even his father (a normally very non-sexist and intelligent guy) has made noises about some of our son’s preferences. I give him the “there’s nothing wrong with girls/girl things, we are not inherently inferior” talk, and also the “if he were a girl, would you object this much if she were a tomboy?” talk. Dad’s coming around. I also phrase it this way: this year at school, he’s already had 3 little girls crushing on him. Not that that’s super important or he needs to prove his masculinity, but if he DOES end up straight, I want him to be the kind of guy who LIKES women and can actually RELATE to them. The fact that he doesn’t treat girls and girl stuff as inferior or mock-worthy has got to be helping. If he turns out gay, we will still love him no matter what! And he’ll STILL be a well-rounded kid.
    The thing with other people is, they can have their opinions. But I talk to my son, and I reinforce that there is nothing wrong with liking what you like. If he’s feeling particularly pressured, we talk and he feels better. And 99% of the time, he is confident to be himself. I’m hoping he’ll remain confident through puberty, but I’m not sure. But I’ll always keep talking to him.

    • Hugh said:

      “’Im the mom of a seven year old boy who… is currently addicted to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic”

      What what what?

      Are you saying that a BOY likes My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic?

      *Head explodes from inability to process this incredible fact*

      • Tosca said:

        Ha, you’re being sarcastic, right? I know all about the Bronies. 🙂 I told my son about them, even. But, oddly enough, while MLP has gained an adult male internet following, there aren’t many *little* boys who admit to being into it.

        • Hugh said:

          I don’t know anybody who’s a fan of MLP who doesn’t have a Y chromosome, actually. But yea, I imagine it’s pretty different for the under-12 set.

          • You know one now! 😉

            …who proudly and happily watches it with both my kids, who are huge, huge fans, and also have a Y chromosome.

    • rebekah said:

      rock on! because as a pegasister and the gf of a brony he’s in good company. The show rocks!

  19. Green Girl said:

    “And when IN A MILLION YEARS AFTER I’M DEAD he starts having pantsfeelings, if those pantsfeelings happen to be for another boy, I don’t want him to be afraid or ashamed or guilty.”
    LW, I love this, so beautifully worded.

    I’d also like to say, I grew up on super heroes and dinosaurs while I was a little girl. And when my aunts complained about my mom’s parenting, she later told me nearly the same thing that Captain A. suggested: “Well, (Family Member) and I don’t agree on everything, just like…” Which was perfect at the time.

    So double thumbs up! 🙂

  20. ks said:

    My almost 7 year old son wants a green purse and a robot army for his birthday. I don’t know that I can supply a robot army, but I’m totally okay with the purse. Unfortunately, his dad (who was pretty good about gender stuff before we had boys) is not okay with it. But I’m still working on him about that. I did talk him down about the sparkly toenail polish, though.

  21. Griffy said:

    On the topic of gender roles and kids, and how to keep the two THE HECK AWAY FROM EACH OTHER as much as possible, I wholeheartedly recommend http://blog.pigtailpals.com – it’s a fabulous resource on the subject, and they also have an shop stacked with adorable kiddie t-shirts. Good luck with the grandmas, LW!

  22. Thank you for this letter. Stick to your guns! and keep in mind the ocassionally oppostional nature of kids too–for instance, I loved my frilly dresses but all anybody had to do for me to make a beeline for something–swords, mud, GI Joe, slime, burping, chasing large dogs, bows, arrows, etc was to say it was ‘unlady-like.’

    I can only speak from my own childhood experiences on any of this, as I have no small people of my own. I will, on that note, add: I had grandparents whose authority was only slightly removed from God growing up. Grandpa was awesome. Grandma didn’t approve of a single thing I did, expressed interest in, or wore after I turned 11. And she disapproved consistently and vocally. So I feel strongly about weighing in and endorsing the whole “grandma is one of many voices” approach.

    • Britt said:

      Haha, that’s basically me, as well. Pretty much always has been. Most of my family thinks it’s hilarious/endearing, but my late great-grandmother was FOREVER finding things to snipe at me about (including famously one time when I was a teenager and forgot to put on earrings when we went out for a casual lunch). At a certain age it became abundantly clear that nothing would please her and I may as well just enjoy myself.

        • Britt said:

          \o/ Yay for the awkward army.

  23. Sarah G. said:

    Thanks for the “dinosaurs are for everyone” and “cars are ok” post-script. I’m a girl and I’m quite happy being a girl and I love dinosaurs and cars. It’s ok for a boy to love them, too. It won’t automatically make the kid into an upholder of the patriarchal status-quo.

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