How Back-to-School Shopping Reinforces Gender Norms -- and How to Fight Back

As parents, with or without our kids' input, we make choices that shape their entry into new social contexts. We tell them what is "normal." We set them up to fit in or stand out. And the choices, for parents and children alike, can be overwhelming.
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The boy came down the hall just as I was arriving at preschool with my daughter, Ellie. In a voice filled with excitement, she said, "Michael [not his real name], come look at my new backpack! It's the Avengers!" Indeed it was, or at least the four male heroes. Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and the Hulk, in vivid color, charging forward to fight evildoers.

Michael responded with far too much skepticism for a 5-year-old boy. "You mean, you like Avengers? Or is that your brother's backpack?"

Ellie completely missed it. "No," she said, "My brother got Minions. I got Avengers!" Then she raised her arms in the air, blasting laser beams out of her hands at the bad guys, and ran off to her classroom. Evil doers, beware.

Back-to-school shopping is one of those moments in which the power of consumer-culture to shape our ideas about gender springs into focus. As parents, with or without our kids' input, we make choices that shape their entry into new social contexts. We tell them what is "normal." We set them up to fit in or stand out. And the choices, for parents and children alike, can be overwhelming.

This year, my daughter got an Avengers' backpack featuring four male superheroes. There was no option with Black Widow, the lone female Avenger in the recent movie, which is pretty typical of the way comic-book companies fail to display gender diversity in their merchandising. Still, it's a pretty awesome backpack, and she loves it. While we didn't pick it for Ellie, we did try to subtly influence her away from the stereotypical girlie choices. Here's why.

Michael isn't a bad kid. He's just unconsciously projecting our society's gender norms onto his classmate, my daughter. Given enough time and unchallenged exposure to this kind of sentiment, it's possible that Ellie would do the same thing. The cultural pressures to promote a rigid separation of genders start at birth, when a newborn gets a pink or blue hat. They continue for life. The toys, clothes and decorations designed for boys promote action, sports and often violent heroism. Boys are doers, they imply. Baby girls are to be looked at.

Like many parents, we want to give our daughter the tools to resist these cultural forces. We want her to keep answering the Michaels of the world with confidence, and then head off to blast bad guys. But how? What's the best way to achieve these goals?

These are not new questions. For decades, many parents have been trying to figure out how to raise children who do not conform to artificial gender binaries.

Some parents go gender neutral, but for me and my wife, that's never seemed practical in a world that is so far from neutral. Other parents simply ban things they don't like: guns for boys, pink or princesses for boys. I emotionally like the idea of bans, but worry that they might induce rebellion and backlash.

Another tactic is to embrace the power of choice, making sure to have multiple options in every situation. That's what we tried at first, filling our house with choices. Pink, blue, green, red. Cars and dolls. Superheroes and tiaras.

At first, it seemed to work so well. Our daughter put a princess doll on a dragon so the doll could soar over the world, filled with power. Once, she put on a hand-me-down Snow White outfit, grabbed a shovel and went out to dig for worms. We limited access to commercials on television, watched her creativity blossom, and thought we had this parenting thing figured out.

We were so wrong. Once she started school, restrictive ideas about gender started popping up. I knew we were in trouble when, at dinner, she asked for a pink plate because, "pink is a girl's color." It was time to change tactics.

Today, our strategy is to promote whatever option runs counter to the dominant norms. It's more aggressive than just providing choice. It's more realistic than trying to be gender neutral. It's softer and subtler than outright bans on pink. And there's nothing wrong with pink! It's just that in America, girls are taught that they have to pick it. So we always put the alternative forward, gently working against the grain.

Take the great backpack purchase of 2014. Ellie genuinely likes superheroes. In fact, she loves to wave a hammer in the air and shout "THOR" at the top her lungs. But when we went shopping for a new backpack, her eye was caught first by a pink princess backpack, then a Hello Kitty one of the same color. "Look up here," her mom said. "Wow," I added, "It's the Avengers. It's Thor."

"I love Thor!" she said, and so that's what we bought.

If Ellie had still said, "I want Hello Kitty," that would have been fine. We don't make a big deal about it, because we want to preserve the kind of innocence that Ellie showed in the face of Michael's skepticism. We are trying not to control our daughter, but to give her the power to create her own identity.

Parenting against the grain is hard and it's going to get harder. Last week, she explained to me that there was a difference between a boy who is a friend and a "boyfriend," though she wasn't quite sure what that was yet. This caused my head to spin (she's only 5!). Still, we think we're on the right track. When Ellie came home from school that first day, I asked her about her new backpack. She said, "Well, one boy asked me whether it was actually a boy's backpack, but I said no. It's my backpack."

So far, so good.

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