Nerdy Apple Bottom tells the story in her blog post of agreeing to her five year-old son’s desire to dress as Daphne from Scooby-Doo for Halloween. I encourage you to read it — she mentions the reactions of three moms at preschool:
“Two mothers went wide-eyed and made faces as if they smelled decomp. And I realize that my son is seeing the same thing I am. So I say, “Doesn’t he look great?” And Mom A says in disgust, “Did he ask to be that?!” I say that he sure did as Halloween is the time of year that you can be whatever it is that you want to be. They continue with their nosy, probing questions as to how that was an option and didn’t I try to talk him out of it. Mom B mostly just stood there in shock and dismay.
And then Mom C approaches. She had been in the main room, saw us walk in, and followed us down the hall to let me know her thoughts. And they were that I should never have ‘allowed’ this and thank God it wasn’t next year when he was in Kindergarten since I would have had to put my foot down and ‘forbidden’ it. To which I calmly replied that I would do no such thing and couldn’t imagine what she was talking about. She continued on and on about how mean children could be and how he would be ridiculed.
My response to that: The only people that seem to have a problem with it is their mothers.”
This jibes with my experience — below the age of five or six, other kids have seemed fairly oblivious to my kids’ disobedience to stereotypical gender dress (whether it’s my four year-old son in a dress or butterly shoes or my two year-old daughter in a bomber jacket). It’s the parents (and occasionally older siblings) of the preschoolers who freak out.
Only about how the boy dresses, of course. Girl in a bull dozer shirt, no problem. Boy in the same bull dozer shirt and a skirt (or even flowered pants), big problem.
I have rarely experienced disgust but very frequently a kind of worried hand-wringing discomfort, often attributed (by them) to kind concern about how mean children can be. And sometimes, the fear seems more related to worry about my apparent incompetence at protecting my son’s masculinity, a fear that I’m going to turn him gay or girlish (I’m never sure which is worse) by his dress. Just think about the logic of that for a minute.
And frequently parents and other adults exercise no thoughtfulness or concern about sharing these responses in front of my son. Like the shoe clerk who bypassed several opportunities to talk to me privately and fit my son in a pair of sneaker with no comment whatsoever, only to balk at selling me the shoes at the crowded counter because they were “girls’ shoes.” Or the parents (who think they’re being supportive) who look at me over his head and say while laughing, “Oh my goodness, I can guess who dressed himself today,” or “You’re a brave mother to let him come out like that.”
Lots of folks in US society are expressing great concern over the bullying of gay and supposedly feminine boys, leading in recent months to several suicides. I can’t tell you how many parents have said to me, “I would never let my child be a bully.” Well, where do you think he or she is going to learn to be afraid of non-conformity and learn to shame others or exert pressure to get them in line? Kids learn to have a problem with it from their mothers.