Our boys are starting to pick out their clothes in the morning. Sometimes they change multiple times a day. Recently our 2-year-old, Ankle Biter, grabbed a yellow construction equipment t-shirt out of his drawer and held it triumphantly over his head.
It was, of course, only moments before Moon Boy, big brother by one year, arrived streaming hot tears and screaming for the same shirt.
I tried explaining that the shirt is really too small for him now, and was just about to move on to a lesson on kind and respectful requests, when Ankle Biter lost interest in the shirt and handed it over with a quick, “he you go.”
Moon Boy took a deep breath and put the shirt over his head. By the time his eyes emerged through the neck-hole, Ankle Biter was jumping up and down waving a second shirt: lime green with a fuzzy pink gerbera daisy covering the belly. The lettuce finish on the waistline and sleeves really makes it work.
“Me flowah shoot! Me flowah shoot!” Ankle Biter yelled with delight. And immediately (of course) Moon Boy was writhing on the floor, his cry, “I want the flower!” muffled only slightly by the digger shirt now pulled back up over his head.
Both shirts are hand-me-downs from our daughter whose wardrobe, until recently, was composed of a generous selection of gender options. My partner is a fastidious consigner, keeping our favorite items cataloged by size in gigantic Rubber Maid tubs, and then selling everything else that isn’t completely covered with watermelon stains. When our second boy joined the family and we were sure we would have no more children, my partner sold off some of the more girly things in those tubs, but not before we had a long heart to heart about it. The rules are different for boys. We understood this and agreed to tighten up the selection a bit. We kept a couple strappy, 2T, jewel-tone tank tops and a pair of flowered shorts here and there, but eliminated most of the seersucker summer buntings with the princess necklines.
We’re not gender warriors, using our children as a medium for nudging along the natural evolution of social norms. We just want our kids to have a chance to define themselves and not be defined by the world around them. Or at least not by us. I want them to look in that drawer and pull out whatever they feel like wearing. Some days it’s a digger day. Some days it’s a flower day. Some days it’s an I-want-what-my-little-brother-has day. But whatever the day, it’s their choice.
When my daughter was their age, her choices were fairly varied. She too had loved the gerbera daisy top as well as her “number nine shirt,” a navy rugby with orange stripes around the shoulders. And her favorite outfit the summer she was 3 was a purple butterfly sundress with these thick, sporty, burgundy sweatpants underneath. Still, she longed for a little sparkle. “I know you’re not fancy,” she would say to us. “But I am.” And so gradually her closet became more girly. Glittery T-shirts. Shorts peppered with little hearts. And on the morning of her 5th birthday when she opened the dress with the plastic “gems” sewn on the chest it was clear we had done something just right.
It took a little getting used to–letting go of the number-nine rugby–and it helped that there were little friends, girls we had known all her life, who preferred more boyish clothes. Their existence allowed me to feel at ease with my daughter’s style. Like them, she had figured out a little bit of who she was, and it felt right to her.