Off the rack

When my boys, now 14 and 11, were preschoolers, I occasionally bought their clothes in the girls department.

Let me explain.

When the boys were babies, all of their clothes were cute—hats with ears, tiny trains chugging across the front of overalls, smiling lions peeking out from pockets. When the boys reached size 3 or 4, though, something changed. While the girls’ clothing of that size continued to sprout animals with big eyes and goofy grins, the boys’ choices suddenly became limited to all things sports or forest green.

It wasn’t that I wanted my boys to be any less masculine—both could hit solid grounders before they were out of diapers, and that was fine with me. It was just that when I described them as little boys, “little” was the operative word, and I wanted their clothing to reflect this.

So occasionally I would go into the girls department, and after flipping through racks of pink and frilly, I would find a navy blue sweater with a bear sewn on, or a vest with ABC’s, or a bright yellow sweatshirt with Winnie the Pooh.

Now that my boys are older and I also have two daughters, I continue to have issues with kids’ clothing. My husband could safely wear a larger size of just about anything in the boys department but I’d look ridiculous in adult versions of the little girl clothes.

This tells me that it’s OK for girls to be small and cute, but boys are expected to be little men.

While strides have been made in the last generation, it’s still true that girls can cry when their feelings are hurt, but boys are expected to hold back their tears.

Studies show that parents tend to hug and touch their little girls more than their boys. And a baby boy might be referred to as a “tough” little guy, but few would use the same adjective for a baby girl.

And the flip side of my problem with boys’ clothes is that once little girls outgrow size 7, the stores offer them slinky outfits that would be more appropriate on a rock stage (or in a bordello) than on a playground.

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. A parent’s goal should be to never demean one gender in favor of the other—making a child feel that the opposite gender is somehow worth more.

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.

Move toward the middle. Every toy store has an aisle that is almost all pink and fluffy and another one that is sleek and black. There’s big money to be made in exploiting children’s natural gender interests and tendencies. Before you choose yet another princess accessory or shoot-’em-up video game, consider what the toy teaches your child about gender.

Does your daughter understand that beauty can be defined in terms beyond long hair, silk gowns, and crowns? Is your boy learning how to be strong without being violent?

—by Annemarie Scobey  from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the 2010 and 2011 General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association. Here’s a sample issue.

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3 Responses

  1. Once again you have written about an extremely important element in our society…thank you! You might want to check out this website.

  2. Love this reflection. I, too, struggle with the silly gender stereotyping that starts with kids’ clothing. As someone who’s too practical and frugal to invest in two entirely separate tracks of clothing for the years when our children are young, I’m often frustrated by the lack of gender-neutral – or simply “childlike” or “little,” as you put it – options for kids. It’s a world of princesses vs. dump trucks. I once saw an ad in a magazine for bright, primary-colored clothing that could be “passed down from brother to sister to brother to sister” and I loved that idea. Cherishing our children as children, when they are little, doesn’t have to mean fast-tracking them to a world of bikinis in grade school or a sports-obsessed definition of masculinity. There are many healthier and more faith-filled ways to celebrate sexuality and to teach our children what it means to be a man or a woman. Thank you for this!

  3. […] 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 […]

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