Our son, Benjamin, is a little dynamo of a kid. At three, his personality is oftentimes bigger than his body. It’s delightful and frustrating and mesmerizing at once. He’s a kid of varied interests: robots, planes, princesses, Star Wars, Jake & the Neverland Pirates, baby animals, jewelry, Legos, the colors blue and pink. He likes to throw himself down, pretending to “die”. He rough-houses with his father. His current best imaginary friend is Princess Leia, who more often than not is symbolized by a Lego minfigure he constantly “dresses” with different torsos, feet and hair styles. She always, however, has one of the two girl heads we have.*
We took Benjamin shoe shopping last month. As his current pair of sneakers were being held together by the sheer force of his personality, it was time to upgrade. Thanks to the generosity of others, we hadn’t needed to go shoe shopping for him before. We hit the local Meijer and headed to the kids’ shoe section. Upon arrival, Ben immediately pointed out the pink shoes. He didn’t even look at the others: those were the ones he wanted.
Watching my golden-haired boy, I felt a twist of fear in my gut. I thought of all the articles I had read over the years about boys being bullied for liking My Little Pony, or for having long hair, or for any number of other ways they might deviate from accepted gender norms. He’s only three, not even in preschool yet, but I was already preparing myself for the unkindness the world could hurl at a person who is different. I hated that fear. We are trying to raise Ben to be free of gender norms, to be himself and to feel free to express himself without fear. But I couldn’t stop the reluctance inside of me, even as I said, “Okay.”
Stephan agreed. If his son—who is constantly mistaken for a girl—wants pink shoes, then pink shoes he’ll have.
We were getting ready to go check out, when another pair of shoes caught Ben’s attention. They are blue and light up. The first pair, no matter how pink and pretty, couldn’t compare to shoes that light up. Ben changed his mind. And I felt relief. And I felt betrayed by my relief.
Raising Ben (and Charlotte) as we are is a constant learning—and unlearning—process, one we are committed to. Should Ben want pink shoes the next time, it will be a little easier, I think. Baby steps. Or in this case toddler steps.
*That we only have two girl heads (three if you count the Lego McGonagall, which Ben doesn’t) and 3 billion + “boy” heads is pretty damn annoying.