Sunday, October 6, 2013

Did You Want the Boy Scooter, or the Girl One?

My son on his big kid bike. Recent hand-me-down from an adored 6 yo (girl)friend.

©  Sharon Chang, Oct 6, 2013

Yes, I encourage my son to explore the color pink. No, it's not his favorite color. No, it doesn't make  him gay (though if he is gay I won't love him any less). And no, I'm not pushing my agenda on him. My son loves this pink bike because a beloved friend gave it to him. He prefers his pink helmet because it fits best. I never force, but I do always ask. I ask my son to consider things that fall outside his ascribed gender role (e.g. pink, skirts, dresses, dancing, talking about feelings, dolls, dollhouses, cooking, nurturing, etc.). And I would do the same for a daughter (e.g. blue, pants, sports, legos, cars/planes/trains, being smart/strong, working, wage-earning, having a career, etc.). Why? Because in our family we don't believe anyone should be caged in or should cage others based on physiology.

It didn't happen much when he was a baby. But it's getting worse as he gets older. Recently I called Target and Toys R Us looking for scooters. In both cases the clerks headed back to check, then bluntly asked into the phone, "Did you want the boy scooter, or the girl one?" At first I was confused thinking maybe they were sized according to height/weight. Like shoes or clothes. Maybe the boy scooters were taller and bigger? But when I asked for clarification, "What do you mean? What's the difference?" I got offered pink and Dora versus blue and Diego. Wtf. Here's more. My son has two  anatomically correct baby dolls which he's cared for on and off since he was practically a baby himself. He recently decided (on his own) to dress the boy in pink and the girl in blue. When he went for a haircut and brought the dolls with, his stylist said to me, "I've never seen a boy play with dolls!" and then to him, "They're dressed in the wrong clothes." Shopping on my own one day, I asked a local toy store owner to help me find preschooler puzzles. She headed towards a basket, started rifling through the options and muttered to herself, "Let's see if we have anything for boys." After finding mostly princesses and dancers, she turned to me and said, "Looks like the only thing we have for boys is Pinocchio" (I bought him the dancer puzzle anyway which he loved). And a few months ago he told us that girls at school said his Hello Kitty water bottle (inside his blue lunch bag) was a "girl water bottle" and asked if he was a girl. "I was brave," he told me and my husband, "And I didn't cry." He was 3. Are the incidents escalating? They seem to be.

In a recent study on the development of gender roles, Judith Elaine Blakemore at Indiana University - Purdue University examined more than 100 toys and found that strongly gender-typed toys are not very supportive of optimal development. In general the toys most associated with boys were exciting and somewhat dangerous, related to fighting or aggression (wrestlers, soldiers, guns, etc.), violence and competitiveness. By stark contrast, the toys most associated with girls were related to appearance (Barbie dolls and accessories, ballerina costumes, makeup, jewelry, etc.), physical attractiveness, nurturing, and domestic skill. "For parents, it’s the same message as for teachers," she advises, "Strongly gender-typed toys might encourage attributes that aren’t ones you actually want to foster."  One approach to gender stereotyping, Blakemore suggests, is to avoid gendered toys altogether. This is an important but I think sometimes benign method that doesn't always effectively meet head on the strong social messaging children receive. An additional, and sometimes more powerful, approach can be to provide strong counter-narratives that pull hard in the other direction. Girls can be good at math. Guys can be good at child-rearing. I've tried both approaches.

But what I've sadly discovered (based on my son's recent experiences) is that choosing to strongly counter-narrate has risks. Although it may be intellectually effective on the one hand, on the other hand, is it also setting my son up for being targeted? Of course I don't want that. I want him to be a young man who can talk about his feelings, not a young man that gets beat up for it. But there's more. While I'm sensitive to the fact that men in our culture are taught to be a strange kind of "strong" (emotionally reserved and removed, yet aggressive), I'm also sensitive to the fact that men of Asian descent in particular are often emasculated based on their race; seen as weak, undesirable and/or effeminate. And now we have arrived at an uncomfortable place where race and gender intersect. How can I help my son embrace a wider definition of masculinity (that includes femininity) when he is simultaneously battling Asian stereotypes that he isn't man enough? And more importantly, am I putting him in harm's way by asking him to consider flipping the script? My son, with his visibly Asian phenotype, is already at higher risk for bullying than other races. A 2007 National Center for Education Statistics report found Asian American students are bullied more than any other race. 11% of Asian American students said they had been called race-related hate words compared to 7% of Black, 6% of Hispanic and 3% of white. A recent follow up "snapshot" study of over 160 public students in New York turned out even worse results. Half of those students said they had been bullied about their race or religion in school. Such discrimination is scary, very real and can have devastating impacts on our young Asian men. Remember it was just this month that Private Danny Chen committed suicide after suffering brutal hazing by fellow soldiers for 6 weeks which included being called a "gook," a "chink," and "a dragon lady."

As usual I have no answers. Only lots and lots and LOTS of questions and considerations. Conflicts and conundrums. I'm a mother who cares about equity and effecting change. Turning away from challenging the harmful pieces of dominant culture would feel like betraying myself. Standing my ground is powerful role modeling for my child and social justice is a cornerstone of our family values. At the same time, I am a mother. The safety and well-being of my son is my first priority. In sharing his photo and writing this post alone I have opened up my family to possible attack in service of starting an important conversation. What do we do as parents when our belief in a better world might mean emotional or physical danger? Do we silence ourselves? Tone it down? Persevere? Is there a middle ground? Or, is it "their" way or the highway?


  1. I admire your courage for challenging the prescribed gender boxes that American society often assigns to children. As the father of a ten year old mixed race- Asian/white girl I am often faced with some of these decisions (e.g. whether to flip the role).

    One of the biggest challenges is encouraging her to continue studying her Chinese reading and writing when the dominant culture gives very little support for this.

    And after ten years of been conditioned that pink = girls, and a variety of colors = boys, I am constantly challenging retailers (and my daughter) to examine that.

    I suspect it is easier for girls to challenge gender stereotypes than boys. For example, there does not seem to be as much resistance to girls who may excel in athletics (e.g. my daughter still loves climbing trees and rock climbing), but for boys to engage in traditionally girl play activities (e.g. dolls, dresses, pink colored toys, etc.), may bring more fears (and sneers) from those who rigidly hold onto traditional social norms. This is just speculation though on my part.

    My daughter is extremely fortunate in having a school (Waldorf) where the teacher (a woman of color) has held a class council since 3rd grade where feelings, or issues of bullying, etc. are discussed among the children with the teacher facilitating).

    Agreed - no easy answers here. Thanks again, always enjoy reading your posts.

    1. You make very good points here about the differences between boys and girls crossing gender lines. Thank YOU for always contributing thoughtful and honest comments. It's all about the conversations -- keep 'em coming!

  2. I too have a son and I agonise over how to assist him in being true to himself, to speak about how he feels etc. I confess I would not buy him anything overtly feminine looking and certainly not a bike where he has to cycle around his neighbourhood. I'm not saying its right for wrong I think my own fear of what he would have to face would prevent me from doing so. However, if he wanted it or something that was 'girly' I'd try to mask my concern and let him try it. Again it has nothing to do with him but we as parents also have to work on our own issues and prejudices however they may come. I want my son to be strong but senstive in the sense that he knows how he feels and why he feels it to avoid the anger that somes with repressed emotions. Added to that like your son he may have to deal with the same stero-type that my husband has to face. Even at 6ft 3 when we visited my home country on one occasion he received taunts about being 'man enough' because he was with me. It takes a certain man to walk away from such as situation and I'm happy to be married to one and I hope we can empower our son to know how to pick is battles wisely too.