A few weeks ago, I came across a great post on “At Home with our Faith,” a blog on nurturing family spirituality from Claretian Publications. The author described her frustration with the subtle (or not-so-subtle) messages about gender stereotypes that children’s clothing sends: the pink princess explosion in the girls’ aisle, the sports and trucks invasion on the boys’ racks.
Whether or not we realize it, the clothes we buy children tells them about what it means to be a boy or girl, a man or woman: how the two sexes should act or think, what acceptable interests they can pursue, and how society views them.
When I was scouring garage sales before S was born, I naturally bought gender-neutral outfits. It was only practical: we didn’t know if the baby was a boy or a girl, and I needed to stock up before s/he arrived. But even after he burst onto the scene in all his beautiful boy-ness, I still found myself drawn to the gender-neutral clothes: bright primary colors, simple t-shirts and pants, no character cartoons. I figured this was simply my own practical (read: frugal) side directing my shopping: why invest in two entirely separate sets of clothing for our family’s hopeful expansion into kids of both sexes?
But as S has continued to grow – a long trail of plastic tubs stuffed with outgrown onesies and overalls in his wake – I find this practical approach to clothes shopping becoming harder and harder. All the boy clothes for toddlers are rough-and-tumble, blues and browns, dogs and cars. Girls’ offerings for the same age are sweet-and-dainty, pinks and purples, kittens and flowers.
Rarely can I find kids’ clothing that is precisely that: designed simply for kids, who are small and bright and eager to explore everything, regardless of whether society says it’s acceptable for a girl to love trains or a boy to push a toy vacuum around the house. (Which, by the way, is why I adore Zutano’s unisex clothing: it’s pricey – so I usually wait to snatch it up at garage/consignment sales – but it holds up well for multiple children. Worth the investment.)
Now don’t get me wrong. I never set out on this quest for practical kids’ clothing to make a bold social statement about the genders. I do think there is adorable pink and blue wear out there, and I’m not categorically opposed to it. But once I read the reflection mentioned above, I began to see this as a theological question as well. (Which will surprise none of you who read this blog.)
How do the clothes or the toys or the books I buy for my children tell them about who they are as male and female? And what does that teach them about God, in whose image they were created, male and female?
The author of the “Off the rack” post agrees:
The trick of raising healthy girls and boys is being able to recognize and honor the differences between the sexes without falling prey to gender stereotyping. We are called to look beyond sugar, spice, and puppy dogs’ tails as we help our girls to grow into women and our boys to become men.
Respect each gender. Children’s first notions of their own worth as males or females will come from their parents…
The U.S. Catholic bishops put it well in their Human Sexuality document: “Each of the two sexes is an image of the power and tenderness of God, with equal dignity, though in a different way.”
Show them how. Mom is outside using a power tool; Dad was crying during the sad part of that movie. Our children learn the boundaries—or lack of boundaries—of each gender by watching their parents.
Children generalize by nature, so decisions you make as a person will likely be interpreted more broadly than you may intend. Instead of, “My dad doesn’t go to church,” a son will extrapolate, “Men don’t go to church.”
Your child will form a definition of what it means to be a man or a woman by watching you.
I believe that our sexualities are gifts that need to be cherished and nurtured in healthy ways. There are too many voices in the dominant culture that will tell my son what it means to be a man or my (future) daughter what it means to be a woman. And I cringe to think of how these images – from TV and movies and music and ads – will inevitably shape or even warp their understanding of themselves.
So I want to provide them with an alternative narrative: one that tells them they are strong and beautiful and worthy and loved because of who they are at the core, not how they look or what they like to do.
Yet I struggle with this. Some parents have gone to extremes in resisting society’s messages about gender, and frankly I think using a young child to make such a statement is unfair. Our gender identities do deserve to be celebrated, just not pigeon-holed or defined by a culture that offers skewed versions and visions of how we should express ourselves as men and women. So I want to help my kids to navigate this maze of conflicting messages and see the core of the truth that God created them to be male or female for beautiful reasons and purposes, not demeaning ones.
As I wait to discover whether baby #2 is boy or girl, I can’t help but think that perhaps our decision not to find out our babies’ genders before their births was informed by this same impulse. Deep down, F and I wanted to relate to this unborn child without immediately picturing pinks or blues, girl or boy. As tempted as I was at points to find out, I wanted to keep the surprise because it forces me to remember that this child is essentially a beautiful mystery.
He or she may look like F or I, or they may not. They may act like us, or they may not. They may share our interests, or they may not. And living with that reminder for 9 months reinforces that I cannot control any of who this child is or what s/he will become. Nor should society determine this by its definitions of boy or girl. Instead, it is all pure gift from God, the uniqueness of each human life.
So for now I wash all those yellow and green onesies and tuck them away in the drawer for baby to make the grand appearance. I let S play with the blocks and the trucks and the toy kitchen and the baby doll. I wonder what the coming years will bring as my children learn about who they are, and I hope I can keep muddling through as best as any parent can, making my share of mistakes along the way.
Because what I help them to learn about gender and identity will eventually impact what they believe about God. And that is a weighty question indeed.