If your toddler son wanted to wear a pink frock, would you let him?

boy dressed up like a girl

When my daughter Nethra was almost 2, she started to pick her own clothes and toys. Before long, her favourite activity became picking her daily wear, and mine too, at times. Invariably, she would pick a pair of shorts and an old tee on most days, which I had to struggle to get off her the next morning. On days that we went out, she would pick a skirt or a frock, but would eventually rip it off before we headed back, which is why I always carried a fresh set of clothes with me. As it turns out, she was keen on wearing comfortable clothes, except when she had to go out. I assume she took the cue from me, when I changed into a kurta, dress or a saree when we headed out. Still, when she reached her threshold for her toleration of frilly things, she would happily ask me to remove it and head to my bag for her shorts, irrespective of whether she was outdoors or indoors.

While, as parents, we hadn’t given much attention to this, we were bombarded with some subtle and not-so-subtle cues, advice, and questions, some since her birth, as to what she was supposed to wear as a ‘girl’ baby. I’ve had good old aunties call her a tomboy and tease me that my longing for a boy child is evident from the way I dress my child. Some would ask her if she was a boy or girl when she didn’t know the difference at all, and express shock when she said her name. Some would go to the extent of asking us, shouldn’t it be Nethran? Nice name anyway.

Adding to their woe was her boy-cut, which was purely for hygiene reasons and to make Chennai’s summers bearable. As parents, our concern was always about how comfortable she would be in a particular set of clothes, was it airy enough, would it tug at her arms and waist and such. I have a great weakness for bright colours, so I would try and incorporate at least one bright colour in her everyday attire, even on a cargo-shorts-plain-tee-kinda day, with a yellow hair-band or neon shoes. Apart from adding that chutzpah factor, it also helped in not losing track of the haphazardly running toddler when there were too many kids around in a park or beach.

Research shows that kids begin forming gender stereotypes almost as soon as they know they are boys or girls, mostly owing to how we introduce the concepts to them. It is not until they complete preschool that they really begin to work out for themselves the bigger differences, through observation, imitation and listening to others.

What they receive as gifts, whether it is a Barbie doll in pink or a blue toy helicopter, teaches them more than anything else. They also pick gender clues from siblings, extended family, teachers, media and the like. While you really cannot stop anyone from buying your child a gift, as a parent there are a few things that can be done to mitigate the dangers of gender stereotyping. I am using powerful words here because it really is dangerous to confine them into such narrow gender roles, which might affect their mental growth, creativity and, worse, self-confidence.

When your girl child really has a talent for, say, wrestling, what you are teaching her in the name of gender roles might prevent her from excelling in anything else you might deem fit for her. It also affects the way the child socialises, when she can make great friends with just about anyone, irrespective of gender. On the whole, it just means that you are meddling with her natural growth and the way she/he socialises. While there can be frilly frock and toy truck phases, it need not necessarily be gender based. As progressive parents, it is important for us to guide them to make sure they don’t end up with lasting damaging gender stereotypes. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Encourage playing with anyone they want to, irrespective of their gender.

There are good things that a girl might teach a boy and vice versa. It is about learning new things, not about learning only a particular set of things just because she is a girl. Your son might surprise you by making a paper rose, and your daughter might put that perfect goal that you’ve always prided yourself about.

2. Reinforce that feelings are universal.

That a boy can cry if he wants to, and a girl can climb a tree if she wishes it. In my case, I can fix a flat tyre as well as my husband can, and he can watch a sappy drama and cry his heart out. Let your children know that there are no set of gender rules when it comes to everyday activities.

3. Buy gender neutral toys, which are strictly not colour coded.

And let them explore all the other options. If your boy wants to wear a pink shirt, let him. If your girl wants a toy truck, get her one. What you introduce them to today might turn into a lifelong passion or a hobby. Some of the best chefs around the world are men, remember? Also, gender defying books are a great place to start; if your child is into books, twin goals I say.

4. Let your well wishers know how you feel.

Albeit gently, so that they don’t repeat it the next time in front of your child. If there’s a person who is commenting about your child’s clothes being boyish/girlish, tell them gently that children look good in everything.

While there is a long way to go before we stop damaging little beings with our stereotypes and stigmatisation, let them at least enjoy their toddlerhood without worrying about what is appropriate to wear when they head out for play or that the pink/blue kinderjoy is not for him/her. Let the boy sport that man-bun and let your daughter stand and pee till she wants to.

Hema Gunasekaran is a political scientist by training, freelance writer, avid reader and a map-less traveller. She also cooks occasionally when she isn’t running behind her Usain Bolt inspired toddler.