We were in the toy aisle around lunch time. The boys were in the stroller, each one holding a stuffed dog, one of which donned a purple bow around its neck. We were searching for a birthday present for a boy and thus surrounded by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and super heroes and Legos and battery operated vehicles. We were in the company of another mom with two boys and a man who appeared to be alone. I was trying to decide which combination of TMNJs to buy when a boy who looked to be about five years old rounded the corner.
“Hey, Dad, can I get this?” he asked.
The man who I thought was alone said, and loudly, “You’re not getting that. That’s a girl toy.”
“No way is my son playing with girls toys.”
“Put. It. Back.”
The boy surrendered. He walked away, deflated and dejected.
I stood there pretending to be engrossed in the task at hand. I never looked up. I still don’t know what this man looked like. It wasn’t my place to say anything, yet I can’t get that little boy out of my head.
I wonder if that man considered the two women in his company, how his comment outright revealed him to believe our sex “less than”, for we too were once girls playing with “girl toys”. I wonder if he considered the four other little boys in his presence, one of whom held tightly to an accessorized stuffed animal. He certainly didn’t consider his own son, which irritates me most. Not that he didn’t acknowledge a (perhaps extraneous) want, but that he failed to acknowledge what that want revealed about his son.
I never looked up to see what the boy carried in his hands but I can only imagine that it was pink. Maybe it was a doll or a wand or a My Little Pony. Maybe it was something as ambiguous as play food or a stuffed dog with a bow around its neck. Whatever it was, it obviously screamed GIRL and GIRL is obviously not okay with this man, so I wonder: What does GIRL signify? Weakness? Sensitivity? Tenderness? Affection? Inferiority?
Mia plays with water guns and toy bow and arrows. She likes Star Wars and Angry Birds. Of all the toys my mom kept from when my brother and I were little, her favorites include a pirate ship and an old fire engine. At the completion of day camp last summer, I asked what her favorite activity was, expecting her to say crafts or swimming or horseback riding, but much to my surprise it was archery.
My boys will rock a baby doll in their arms as they giggle and groove to Taylor Swift. They find discarded stuffed animals in a closet and smother them with kisses as though they’ve rescued an abandoned baby on someone’s doorstep.
My children share toys. They trade and take turns and squabble over them. We’ve never tried to impose contrived codes and guidelines, nor do we want to. As long as they’re safe, they’re free to explore and imagine and create. I know we’re not alone in this approach. In fact, we’re probably a part of the majority.
Caring for baby dolls teaches children compassion and empathy. A superhero cape has the power to command invincibility. A wand lets them harness magic. A blank canvas and a set of paints can unlock the vast imaginative realm inside their minds. A book (any book) can provide an escape or a different perspective or a fantastical world to get lost in. This is what we want for our children, part of what we try to instill in them, isn’t it? Compassion and empathy and creativity and the space and freedom to be anything or anyone they want to be.
The world is yours.
The sky is the limit.
You can do anything you set your mind to.
Pink is for girls.
Boys don’t cry.
Be tough. Shake it off.
Girls can be mild and boys can be wild, and we accept this as a general rule. Let us also accept that girls can be mighty and tenacious and boys can be merciful and tender — in play and in life.
So let me ask: If we don’t ever teach them that pink is for girls and blue is for boys, would they come to this conclusion on their own? If we don’t push fairy wands into the hands of girls and swords into the hands of boys, would they still gravitate to what society has deemed gender appropriate? Do we realize that when we dismiss the wants and interests of our kids, we are also dismissing hidden potential, inhibiting imaginative play and hindering creativity?
Did that little boy in the toy aisle leave with the conclusion that he is “less than” for coveting a “girl toy”? Did his father implant a seed that will burrow into his psyche and help shape the way he sees the world and girls? His emotions? Himself?
It was only an errand. It was only a comment that wasn’t directed at me by a man I don’t know. And yet I can’t shake the feeling that I was witness to a pivotal moment on the path of this little boy’s life.