“Mom, can I wear a princess costume this Halloween?”
As a parent, I’m rarely at a loss for encouraging words, but standing in the limbo between question and answer, I’m silent. I’m envisioning this last-minute costume change and wondering if we can use any of the Indiana Jones get-up we’ve already assembled together; maybe we could add glitter to the fedora. I feel my shoulders tense against this new idea, but not because I think it’s a crummy suggestion. Personally, I’m in love with this sparkly new plan, but experience has shown me whenever my little boy pushes the boundaries of established male stereotypes, I’m the only one cheering.
When it comes to Halloween, my 6-year-old has always loved dressing up and parading around the neighborhood. Each year, my husband and I support every adorable idea and elaborate costume concept, because Halloween is my son’s time to celebrate his inner bumblebee or secret superhero. No matter what my kid chooses, we applaud the options he gives us until he’s made his final decision. As I’ve watched my son grow out of tiny pumpkin costumes I’ve picked and into larger, honey-eating bear costumes he’s picked, choosing an outfit has become as much about him exploring his creative side as it is about me and my husband validating his imaginative ideas.
Watching him stroll down our street, I see his face beam as brightly as that glow stick he’s carrying because neighbors and kids approve his costume selection with their own oohs and aahs. This year, if my little boy wants to revel in his inner princess, I’m scared to death the oohs and aahs he’ll hear will be for a totally different reason.
“Experience has shown me whenever my little boy pushes the boundaries of established male stereotypes, I’m the only one cheering.”
If this princess costume idea happened three years ago, the only hesitation I would have had would’ve been to make sure that the dress came with a tiara. I was naive. It didn’t occur to me that I might be raising my kid in an offbeat way. At a young age, my son made it clear that he saw no division in “girls’” toys or “boys’” things, and I saw no reason to divide him from the objects he loved. When my little guy chose to play with a truck, I thought it was cool. When my little boy wanted to cradle a doll, I thought it was cool. I also believed others would think it was cool, too.
During one of his first play dates out of prekindergarten, a 4-year-old girl told my son “boys don’t play with dolls” and she took the doll he was holding. The instant the toy was yanked from his hand, his face looked a mix of confusion and disappointment.
Over the years, I’ve become fluent in reading the emotions of my child. I’ve come to know every eyelid flutter and if it means he needs cheese crackers or has to cry. In this instance, his feelings veered toward the latter as he weighed her truth against his own and decided hers held more value. He picked up a truck.
My heart sank into the high waist of my mom jeans, and I paused. I looked at the pickup truck my son was rolling across the floor and saw that his playmate had both dolls and cars as her toys. “Boy” and “girl” toys were cool for her, but somehow not cool for him. The hypocrisy of this hit me like a tower of crashing Duplos.
I grabbed the doll off the floor and handed it to my son. “Sweetie, toys are for everyone. You can play with the doll if you want.” He gently took the baby doll and his eyes registered a deep relief. The reassurance he needed came from me, and I was happy to give it to him.
“At a young age, my son made it clear that he saw no division in ‘girls'’ toys or ‘boys'’ things, and I saw no reason to divide him from the objects he loved.”
As my son grew, incidents similar to this play date became a recurring theme. Adults stared when my son showed interest in the girls section of a toy store. Classmates instructed him on what were appropriate “boy” books when hanging out in the school library. Then there was the playground.
One day after kindergarten, my kid and I were playing on a playground where my son was talking to several girls. They were chatting about Disney princesses and which ones were their favorites. Our family loves a good happy ending, so by kindergarten my kid had seen many a Disney feature film and was easily able to pick out his favorite heroine. I was thrilled he was engaging so effortlessly and having a good time. Then I heard the chuckling.
“You know about Disney princesses?” the dad asked my boy through his loud laughter.
My son looked up in surprise, slowly grasping that there must be something horribly wrong that a boy knew about princesses. He stood mute. I stood furious. I saw my little boy’s body sink into the jungle gym and felt his shame register in my stomach.
I’ve heard stories where in moments of danger a parent suddenly finds the strength to lift cars off their children to save them. I wish I’d been imbued with the strength to lift that crushing statement off of my son’s chest and hurl it back into the past. I’m rarely one to anger, but I felt my frustration rise as I countered with the best line I could come up with — which was admittedly not very good.
“Yes, he knows about princesses!” I shot back, “And that’s awesome!” I smiled at my little boy.
The father stopped laughing and the game ended.
After the fact, my son and I discussed why it was perfectly acceptable for him to like princess movies. I felt like he understood, and hopefully I rescued his heart from years of buried shame, but it seemed like the joy he’d found in a world where kids’ stuff all held equal value was slipping away from him.
“For my kid, clothes never came with a gender tag, and my husband and I didn’t tell him differently.”
Seeing a little boy in a dress might be a sensational sight, but should it be? Growing up, my kid didn’t think so. When my son was old enough to talk, he told me how he liked looking at the vibrant colors on a good princess dress. As a 3-year-old, he had a costume bin filled with many different outfits that ranged in style from Peter Pan to old T-shirts. Along with a Spider-Man costume, one of his favorites to try out was a Disney dress. As a 4-year-old, the summertime shoes he picked for himself were a pair of Crocs with the “Frozen” princesses Anna and Elsa on them.
For my kid, clothes never came with a gender tag, and my husband and I didn’t tell him differently. This is why we haven’t been moved to make a snap judgment about what this means for our son’s identifying gender — ultimately that doesn’t matter anyway. I’ll support my kid no matter how he chooses to identify, but that’s jumping two steps ahead, and right now, for him, this isn’t about gender. Watching my child play using all the toys available to him, I can see his fun isn’t reflective of any specific gender, but of his imagination. He’s a little guy having a great time playing and figuring out who he is and how he fits in this world — even in a possible princess costume.
If my son wears a princess dress for Halloween, I’d like to believe that adults and children will remember there’s a little guy with a big heart under all that glimmering gossamer, but I’m not sure I trust them to do so. Parents are certainly allowed to parent as they see fit, and, of course, kids will behave as they choose, but it hurts my heart when my little boy’s feelings are squashed only because he plays outside of a gender-specific toy box.
“My husband and I haven’t been moved to make a snap judgment about what this means for our son’s identifying gender — ultimately that doesn’t matter anyway.”
This is why my son wearing a princess costume for Halloween frightens me more than Freddy Krueger at my window. I can feel my overprotectiveness becoming frenzied and wanting do anything to protect my kid’s heart. Taking a step back, I wonder if I’m spinning my wheels too much about a costume, but I remember that for a child, the fallout of one derogatory comment can be life-changing. I witness kids not much older than my own making honest and authentic choices for themselves, only to be bullied and taunted for years to come. Then the passionate protection I feel toward my son doesn’t feel all that out of place.
So how do I shield him from this possible Halloween backlash? Do I go door to door and prepare all the neighbors? Do I correct giggling boys and girls in front of him? Do I return at midnight to egg the naysayers’ cars? All of these are options, but they probably aren’t the plans that benefit him the most.
There’s an emerging strength and determination I’m seeing in my son. He’s learning to stand his ground when it comes to liking what he likes. One way I see him doing this is asking to wear a princess costume in spite of the criticism he’s been encountering. So instead of pulling a wagon full of rotten eggs for those naysayers this Halloween, I’ve come up with what I hope is a better plan.
“He’s a little guy having a great time playing and figuring out who he is and how he fits in this world — even in a possible princess costume.”
I’m going to reinforce the inner strength I see in my kid. Instead of protecting him from every negative outcome, I’ll chose to reinforce his confidence and tolerance. I’ll use these situations to discuss gender bias and inclusivity and honor his path of acceptance. I can see that the road he’s walking is allowing him to feel a confident acceptance deep within himself. Hopefully, through making choices like this, he’ll be able to feel how limitless his choices can be, and maybe one day he won’t seek validation from anyone ― except himself.
Despite the setbacks of the last several years, my kid continues to ask gender-related questions like, “Mom, if girls can wear pants, then why can’t boys wear skirts?” He’s asking all the right questions, and I wish I had all the right and fair answers. I’d love to tell my son that he could wear a skirt without some intense stares, but I can’t. I can tell him, though, that not long ago women couldn’t wear pants without some heavy-handed commenting, and maybe that’ll show him that change can occur. I suppose I could steer my son in a different direction to avoid possible Halloween heartbreak, but that wouldn’t be supporting him.
I’ll always be here to love my son through his choices — especially when others may not. In my dream world, my kid can play and dress however he wants with no consequence. Since this world only exists in my heart, I simply wish others would see past a gender label when my son plays with a doll instead of a race car. My hope for them is that they can experience firsthand the joy that appears on his face when his imagination soars because his play is free from boundaries. For now, though, he’ll always have his family in his corner, and maybe that will be enough to change his world.
“Mom, can I wear a princess costume this Halloween?”
“Yes! You absolutely can.” A smile spreads across his face as two little arms enclose me in a big accepting hug.
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