And it happened today. He wore his 'beautiful shoes' (the shoes that he picked out himself while we were traveling - those he says are his most favorite shoes ever, in the whole wide world - with pink and yellow and blue stars and stripes and splashes) to VBS for the second time. The first time he came home to tell me that his teacher told him she L-O-V-E-D his shoes. He was so happy. And proud. After all, he had scoured the whole store to find this one and only pair that fit his big, strong, wide Size 12 feet perfectly. And they weren't 'boring' like all the black and grey and dark blue shoes he was usually presented with.
Tonight, however, he came home to tell me that another boy had announced while behind him in line for the drinking fountain, "Your shoes are GIRL shoes!"
"How did you respond to him?" I asked, somewhat afraid of the answer, and at the same time trying to formulate my own thoughts and reactions into the most empowering mom-response for my 4 year old son... I didn't want to mess this up. And I was surprised by how unsure I was of the very best things to say when I - of all people - should know what to say. I had completed a graduate degree in Women's & Gender Studies and had always been positively certain I'd never have a child who was boxed or limited by others' cultural stereotypes and ignorant biases. Now here we stand, my son and I together with his beautiful shoes...
"I was drinking water when he said it," my son responded. "So I didn't say anything."
"You ignored him?" I asked. "Yes," he said, and continued, "Mom, can boys wear girl shoes?"
[Oh, stab through the gender conscious heart. From just one line, from just one little person, he received the message loud and clear that his shoes were made only for girls - and not made for him. Maybe, as a boy, he wasn't deserving of such beautiful shoes...]
"Honey, all shoes are made for all people - they are just shoes. Beautiful shoes are made for everyone. There is no such thing as 'girl shoes' and 'boy shoes' -- just shoes that we each get to look over and pick from -- the ones we love the most, the ones that feel good on our feet, and the ones we find fun to wear. Men and women, boys and girls, we can all wear any shoes we wish to wear."
"Do you sometimes wear Daddy's flip flops?" he asked. "Of course - they are fun and cushy on my feet," I smiled, knowing, however, that this is limited to quick runs outside due to our foot size difference...
"Would Daddy wear your shoes?" my son continued. "Sure he would - if his feet weren't so giant!" And we both laughed. Then I remembered an old photo I have of his father sporting my ultra-fabulous-flower-flip-flops. "Look at these beauties on Daddy's feet!" I smiled.
"Ohh... I want those shoes!" my son said.
Phew, maybe we were moving past the stereotypes.
"I don't know either," I said. "Maybe that boy was just a little jealous of your shoes because they are so cool! Maybe no one ever gave him beautiful shoes to wear. If someone says something like that again, you can just say, 'That's silly. Beautiful shoes are for everybody.'"
My son smiled, "I know, Mom!"
The day following this discussion I was a little curious to see if my son would grab his beautiful shoes to wear as quickly when we got ready to go out on an adventure at the aquarium. I thought he may opt instead for his blue or grey shoes... But that didn't happen. He brought me his pink socks (well worn as they are one of two favorite pairs in his sock drawer) and his beautiful shoes and we slipped them on without a second thought.
I pray I can raise a son who is both wise and compassionate, strong and gentle. One who grows into a man who is sure of himself to the core, and able to empower others around him with this same steadfast consciousness.
What about you? How do you handle gender stereotypes as they are pushed upon your little ones? I am always interested to hear how other well-informed parents maneuver through the muck of cultural expectations our children face at such young ages in society.