The Last Time My Son Wore Pink

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New parents are taught to keep track of milestones. From the time our children are born until about the age of three we celebrate every development. We make an announcement the first time our child rolls over or sits up. We share videos and photos when they learn to crawl, or walk, or talk. We reminisce with friends and family about the first time we heard our babies laugh or the first time they slept through the night.

But as our children get older, these routine milestones become less predictable and less public. Perhaps because our experiences with growth and development start to branch off at this stage, taking their own unique twists and turns that are no longer universally relatable. It may also be that past a certain age, our children’s milestones become a bit more complicated, and not always a source of unadulterated pride.

I still remember the first time my son used the word “pretty.” I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and paused to watch a short news clip – about some natural or man-made disaster. My three year old son was looking over my shoulder, as he tends to do, and innocently told me, “Look mommy, she’s pretty.”

I was a little stunned. I’d never taught him that word. I’d actually gone out of my way to avoid it. I remember watching the Olympics with him that past summer, showing him all the women divers and runners, with their different skin tones and accents and talents. A few times I stopped myself from remarking on the beauty of the women’s hair and faces. They were athletes. Serious competitors, trained and disciplined, who deserved to be recognized for the amazing things they could do. I made it a point not to talk about beauty in front of my boys.

And yet somehow, somewhere he’d picked up this curious word and used it correctly in context. In some ways it was just an observable fact. The woman was in fact “pretty.” But that presupposes that there is one standard, objective definition of “pretty” – rather than a dynamic concept that changes between cultures and time periods and individuals. But beyond that, “pretty” carries with it a distinct value judgement – far beyond what my son’s three year old brain could comprehend. So where did he come up with his fledgling understanding of pretty and what other milestones was I unprepared for?

It wasn’t long after this that I saw my son pick up a stick for the first time and begin making shooting sounds as he aimed it here and there, turning something innocent into a weapon. Again this is a three year old boy who has no concept of life and death, much less intentional violence, but it still the image rattled me.

These sorts of milestones aren’t really discussed or cherished like learning to walk and talk, but I think it’s safe to say that they are unavoidable. Gender roles are everywhere. In his short life he’s watched countless hours of children’s videos featuring rescue vehicles – the ambulance is always the girl, while the police cars and the fire trucks are boys. There are probably hundreds of versions of “5 Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed” on Youtube. And yet none of them seem to feature a female doctor. To the contrary, the momma monkey is usually depicted with some kind of cleavage and pearls, as if we haven’t yet figured out how to identify a female without over-emphasizing her anatomy. Even in cartoons. Even in primates.

There is yet another uncomfortable milestone on the horizon that I’ve tried to avoid, but I know that it’s not too far off now. My son loves the color pink. His best friend at daycare has a neon pink sunhat. All summer long I’ve gotten pictures from the daycare of my happy boy running around the playground in her pink sunhat, without a care in the world.

But those days are numbered. I got my first taste of what’s to come when I picked up the kids a few months ago and found my youngest son in a pink onesie – it had a monkey on it with a purple bow in her ear. He’d had an accident and no spare clothes to change into, so the staff grabbed the one thing they had on hand in his size. When my three year old saw the baby he exclaimed with an enormous grin on his face, “Look mommy, our baby’s a princess!”

I’ve never told him that pink is for girls, and I don’t think any of his friends or teachers have told him as much either. But in a way, they don’t have to. He has some sense of what the rules are through simple observation. He’s never seen a boy wear pink, so seeing his brother in a pink onesie was a funny surprise. He’s also, coincidentally, picked up on the fact that princesses do wear pink.

A few days ago we took the boys to buy tennis shoes and my three and a half year old son told me that he wanted to buy the pink ones. My husband had a knee-jerk reaction (he told me no, and then immediately back-tracked). I hesitated and hated myself for it. There will come a time when sending him to school in pink shoes or a pink sunhat will result in a lot of heartache, and all I want to do is protect him.

I was able to diffuse the situation by suggesting a pair of red shoes that he liked better. I’m a master of distraction. At the time it seemed like the right thing to do. To keep him dressed in line with society’s expectations without directly telling him that he couldn’t have something that he wanted because he’s a boy and boys can’t have things that are soft or pretty or pink. But now I’m not so sure. He probably has another year at most that he can get away with wearing pink. I should’ve let him enjoy it before it’s gone.