Wearing a chambray dress and purple sun hat, a two-year-old girl entered my local drycleaners holding onto the side of an empty a stroller pushed by her mom.
“Get the Hello Kitty stickers,” the shop’s owner Kim whispered excitedly to her associate, George. She was off to the side waiting for my cleaning to come around on the conveyor. “I give all the kids a sticker,” she said with a wink.
I watched as George held out a sheet of Hello Kitty stickers. “What about this one?” he asked.
She turned her gaze to the floor, so he peeled off a sticky and gently pressed it to her forearm. She looked at it expressionless. By then, Kim was at George’s side, beaming with expectation that her little surprise had delighted yet another pint-sized customer. But I didn’t think the girl looked all that happy; I thought she look puzzled.
“Hey, Kim,” I said, “I’m wondering if you give all the kids Hello Kitty.”
“Oh, no,” she replied with certainty. “Little Kitty is for girls. Boys get Disney cars.”
“Well, I’ll tell you,” I said smiling, “My boy would have wanted the Hello Kitty sticker.”
I didn’t know whether or not Kim was flashing back to any of beaded dresses and tops of Harry’s I used to bring in during his summers home from college, but she was definitely processing my comment.
“Maybe next time try letting the kids choose which they want. You might be surprised.”
“Huh,” Kim remarked, as if the idea had never crossed her mind.
Moms today still notice when people put society’s expectations for boys and girls onto their kids.
“Thank you for that,” the mom said when we both got outside. “I know Sarah would have preferred one of the car stickers. I’ve run into this before, at her preschool and even with relatives, where people just assume she’s going to want the ‘girl’ toy or activity.” She gestured air quotes at “girl.”
On my way home, I remembered strangers’ expectations of Harry at two years old, when his very clear preference was for Barbie dolls, My Little Pony and Polly Pocket. We’ve come a long way in understanding the burden we put on kids to conform to established norms, but moms today still notice when people put society’s expectations for boys and girls onto their kids.
There’s not just one way to be a boy or a girl.
We see the messages our children get from others that they’re supposed to like certain toys, clothes and colors based solely on their body parts. And we see how those messages confuse kids, because they know what they like, what they want to play with or wear, and it has nothing to do with the sex they were assigned at birth or the gender role they’re expected to take on because of that assignment.
From my point of view it’s up to us adults to challenge gender stereotypes when we see them and clue others into a little gender-stereotyping awareness. We can suggest that they think differently about what they’ve learned about expectations for boys and girls and consider some re-learning.
It’s also our responsibility to teach all children that there’s not just one way to be a boy or a girl. There are simply many ways to be a kid: boy, girl, a little bit of both or perhaps, like my kid Harry, neither. And none of the ways to be kid is based on body parts. It’s based on what they know about themselves. So let’s encourage kids to like what they like, even if it’s different from what other kids like.
A child is just a small human with a soul, spirit and energy. We must allow children to express their joy – and approve of it – on every step of their journey to discovering their true selves.
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