Be Who You Are: Gender Stereotypes and Children

163My 2.5 year old got invited to his very first birthday party by a friend from preschool. I confess I gushed a bit:  my little (and last) baby! going to his party on his own! For whatever reason, this milestone touched me more than some, and we were both looking forward to it with some anticipation.

I’m glad I touched base with the mom hosting, because she advised that it was to be a princess party.  Because it meant we had the *perfect* outfit:  a hand-me-down fairy dress from a friend who had outgrown it.  My son often wears this dress at home, and now he’d get a chance to wear it out too.

Apparently it’s a Tinkerbell dress, as I was advised by several women when they saw Rami.  I didn’t know; maybe I should have adorned him with a little bell too?

It was interesting seeing the response we got at the party.  For the most part, everyone was welcoming enough – a two year old can pretty much wear an ostrich on his head and get away with it.  Even so, I did perceive some discomfort, the looks and acknowledgment of the Tinkerbell in their midst but without the smile I’d ordinarily expect.  I wondered whether they shared the view of the three year old birthday girl who stopped in her tracks and said (more than once), “Why is a boy wearing a dress?  That’s silly.”

There was also the grandfather who told me what a lovely daughter I had.  When I told him I had a son, he could not reply, and I think he was genuinely confused.  At the end of the party, when I changed my son out of the dress and into his street clothes – it was too cold to go out in the tutu or else we would have worn it home – we met the grandfather again.  He was visibly relieved:  “Ah, there’s the boy in his clothes.”

I am not unaware that firm (and problematic) gender lines still exist for children – any toy store with its separate boy and girl sections speak for themselves – but I was surprised to find them alive and well at such a young age, with something so unthreatening as a boy enjoying dress-up.

It means that the conversations about stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination that I had with a group of parents at a social justice school fair this week are still so necessary.  I’d like to think they’re rudimentary, but they aren’t.  We’ve got a way to go before people can be who they are, express it freely, and be accepted, even if they are two years old.


Here is a list of storybooks (some recommended from the social justice fair) around gender roles, as useful starting points for discussion with our children.  I haven’t read these yet, but they’re on hold for me at the library.  If you have any to add, please share them.

William’s Doll by Charlotte Zolotow

Piggybook by Anthony Browne

My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis

10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert

Be Who You Are by Jennifer Carr

Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman

A Girl Named Dan by Dandi D. Mackall

Ruby’s Wish by Shirin Yim

Pinky and Rex and the Bully by James Howe

White Dynamite and Curly Kidd by Bill Martin




18 thoughts on “Be Who You Are: Gender Stereotypes and Children

  1. Love this. My 4 year old daughter is what most people call a ‘tom-boy’. She loves power rangers, teenage mutant ninja turtles, and knows all the marvel & DC comic heroes. I have a mother in law who tends to try to make her girly when she visits. I just laugh. Because our daughter would always says no and goes her own way. I love that about her.
    “We’ve got a way to go before people can be who they are, express it freely, and be accepted, even if they are two years old.” <– YES, unfortunately.

  2. This is great! And good for you for letting him wear what he likes. My five-year old only wants to wear princess dresses all the time. I’ve decided to send her to science camp this summer. Hopefully a week of building robots and solving mysteries with forensic science will add some balance to her tiara-topped ways!

    • No way! My kindergartener wore dresses to school too, although I find that fairly soon they internalize the gender dynamics…

  3. Go, R! Tinkerbell it up, child! It’s fabulous that he has not drawn himself into a box in the way others have. I hope he continues to revel in imaginative play, in whatever guise. It’s the stuff of fun.

  4. I was pleasantly surprised to read this post, mostly because I felt an immediate kinship. My four-year-old son loves dressing up (for an entire year, he was Santa. Literally.). And if he wants to wear a pink fairy shoes, or a dress, we let him. Just last week he wore his sister’s twirly dress to preschool and everyone but one little girl thought it was great. It’s like the title says, let them be who they are. My girl loves princess stuff. We expose her to many other options, but she chooses what she likes. We do the same with our son, and we support what he chooses. Each year the power of gender norms wanes and it’s because of moms like you :-).

  5. I was so happy to read this in my inbox today.

    My 7-year-old daughter has always had an inclination to tomboyishness, which I think is fantastic! She recently got her hair cropped into a very short pixie cut, and has also given herself a boyish nickname. I can relate to thinking things looked rosier on the other side of the fence when I was her age, and am so happy that she has the inner strength to follow her will, even when she is unique in her choices among her peer group. While some people have wholeheartedly embraced her new ‘do, the responses of others suggest that they are not as comfortable with girls not having long hair and dressing in pink. Her younger brother (3) takes care of the pink & frills – he loves his tutu and pretending he’s a princess …. when he’s not playing with cars or digging in the dirt!

    Thanks for a very refreshing post!

  6. There is so much support for “boyish girls” out there. A “tom-boy” is cute. But there is almost no support for “girlish boys”. I let my son paint his nails. That always threw folks for a loop. He dressed in dresses all the time, mostly because that’s what his sister wore and he wanted to look just like her. The boy with painted nails is so fascinating. You know who reacts? The parents. The kids just take it in stride. These things are taught, not inherent. Bravo for touching on a touchy subject. As the mother of 2 girls and 1 boy, in terms of peer pressure, I worry more for my son, who is expected to be stoic, tough and boyish. It breaks my heart.

  7. Thanks for such a great post. I’m sure it’s helpful and empowering for many parents. I’m not a parent but feel like one at times as a teacher of teens. One of my former students came out to me. He said he could never tell his parents because he had a vivid memory of getting in trouble for playing with his sister’s ken doll when he was 5 and he cried to his mom, saying that he loved the doll and wanted to marry him. The mother said that was wrong and evil. He said that now his parents don’t suspect since he was on the football team and loved it. Oh stereotypes, judgements, and gender lines! Great to hear stories like this of parents like you who are letting their kids be kids.

  8. I can’t get it. Why most people understand being who you are by wearing this or that?? I doesn’t change any STEREOTYPES, you just jump from one role to another!! ( pink glitsy dresses vs. jeans -really there isn’t anything more…?) That’s sad that those kids are viewed by what cloths they have. Why always concentrate on that, not on what your kid likes and WHO HE REALLY IS (not only outside).
    I accept your kid wearing whatever, but that is so unimportant… really

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