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Dear Parents: Stop Freaking Out About Target

It's not that Target, and other stores following gender-neutral policies, are making it difficult to find things or pushing a political agenda. The problem is that they are putting parents in the uncomfortable position of having to face some murky truths.
08/17/2015 04:51pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard about the recent controversial decision by Target not to separate certain sections of the store, such as bedding and toys, by gender. Gone will be the pink and blue signs, the weird divisions of "Building Sets" and "Girls' Building Sets," the awkward glances when a stray boy wanders into the princess aisle, searching for a hug-loving Olaf doll.

And a lot of parents aren't happy.

Comments on Target's Facebook page have ranged from "I'm tired of all this political correctness" to "we will no longer shop at your PC transgender store" to stop pandering to "progressive liberals trying to sissify our nation." Apparently, not everyone is ready to give up on pink and blue.

So, what's all the hubbub? After all, Target isn't removing any items. Barbie, in all her oddly proportioned glory, will still adorn the shelves in her miniskirts and stiletto heels. Blue LEGO boxes covered in vehicles ripped from a monster truck rally will still line the aisles. Nothing is disappearing from the store. The items are just... moving around a little.

So let's talk about what's really bothering everyone.

It's not that Target, and other stores following gender-neutral policies, are making it difficult to find things or pushing a political agenda. The problem is that they are putting parents in the uncomfortable position of having to face some murky truths. Because until now, the toy and bedding aisles have been safe havens, where boys never had to encounter Twilight Sparkle or the fashionable ghouls of Monster High. Where girls never had to set their sights on a Ninja Turtle. But now, in this new dawn of 200-thread-count chaos, what will happen when Susie forgoes Anna for the Avengers? Or when Bobby -- gasp! -- chooses the Barbie sheets for his bedroom?

Giving kids unfiltered choices puts parents in a difficult position. For some of us, we'll be forced to reflect, to come to terms with our own biases and attitudes toward gender. This introspection can be uncomfortable. I know, because I experienced it.

Despite being raised in a family that embraces feminism, that encourages acceptance and open-mindedness, I found myself caught up in traditional stereotypes with my son. When preparing his nursery -- which had previously belonged to my daughter -- I felt compelled to completely redecorate, lest any remnants of pink sneak through. In going through my daughter's old toys, I was careful to keep all the "girly" ones out of the collection I was assembling for my son. I wasn't sure what I was afraid of. Most likely that others would judge him, ostracize him, if he didn't fit into a rigid definition of masculinity. I didn't know myself what masculinity meant -- but I had my preconceived notions about what it didn't include, and that was anything pink.

But, as my son grew older, I made a discovery. While I could do my best to keep his room an oasis of trucks and monkeys, I couldn't control his ventures into his big sister's room. There he discovered all sorts of feminine wonders, from doe-eyed princess dolls to plastic bracelets to a giant wooden dollhouse standing almost as tall as he did. He made himself at home and indulged in all the curiosities around him. Slowly, a steady stream of pink began to trickle into his room.

And nothing changed.

Despite his passing interest in Elsa or Rainbow Dash, my son remained loyal to those things he loved most: Mickey Mouse, toy cars, and Play-doh. I'll never know if this was due to his personality, subtle social cues, or natural tendencies of boys and girls to like certain things. I like to think he was just following his joy. That he's more than a gender, but an individual who gravitates toward things that spark his curiosity, enliven his imagination, awaken his sense of wonder. Whatever the reason, I do know one thing: being exposed to "girl toys" didn't change who he was -- my high-spirited, curious, loving little boy.

And so, I'm not concerned about the changes at Target. If we go looking for Lightning McQueen and my son instead races toward Ariel, that's fine by me. The reality is that my kids aren't going to learn their gender identities from where their toys are shelved in a store. I'm more worried about the female body ideals they're learning from the ultra-skinny, scantily clad dolls lining the shelves. Or the peer pressure telling my daughter her new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles backpack is "just for boys." Or my own subconscious reactions and attitudes surrounding gender. Yes, my kids are receiving gender messages. But not from the neutral-colored backdrops on Target's walls.

Because, ultimately, it's not up to big-box stores to help my kids navigate those pink and blue toys on the shelves. It's up to me.

This post originally appeared on the blog Mommy A to Z. Follow Mommy A to Z on Facebook and Twitter.