My younger son, Blaise, loves transformers, lego, construction sets, superheroes, vehicles of all kinds, climbing, running, singing, princesses, floral dresses and sparkly pink things.
Countless other things bring him joy, but the things in this list really enthuse him these days.
Early this year, he asked me if he could please have pink shoes. I said yes of course, his next pair of shoes could be pink. The year rolled on, and he patiently awaited his pink shoes.
Finally in September, his older brother needed new shoes and I told Blaise that he could get new shoes too. His eyes lit up. “Let’s go!” he said. At the shop, Blaise made a beeline for dazzlingly sparkly sequinned pink clogs with fluffy pink insoles. He put them on, his face creased with pure bliss.
“These ones,” he said confidently. “These are the sparkliest. I want these.”
He wanted to wear them as much as possible but soon found that he couldn’t run or climb in them as they were clunky and fell off his feet. So he went back to his boring old brown leather trainers and black plimsolls.
And then last week, much to Blaise’s delight, it was time to get new shoes, because he was outgrowing his current shoes. I showed him a picture of sparkly pink mermaid-adorned high top sneakers. “Would you like these?” I asked. His eyes lit up. “Yes!”
They arrived just before the weekend. He wore them all weekend with joy. Every time he put them on, I could see the pleasure emanating from him. I said to him, You can wear them to school on Monday.”
So Monday came and went. All good. He wore his beautiful new shoes to school. Then Tuesday. Similarly uneventful. And then, on Wednesday morning, he frowned at his pink sneakers. “No!” he said. “I want to wear my school shoes!” Meaning his black plimsolls. And with resolute square shoulders, he found his slightly too small plimsolls, and insisted on wearing them. He wouldn’t say why.
After school, walking home, I showed him a range of children’s boots on my phone. They were mostly brown or black leather or suede. “Do you like any of these?” I asked. He said, “I don’t like ANY of those. I only like sparkly things!” I showed him a pair of glittery pink moonboots. “How about these?” Confusion flitted across his face. He hesitated. “Let me see,” he said. He scrolled down the page through all the boots he’d already rejected and selected a pair of rugged brown suede hiking boots. He said, “I want these. I want boys’ shoes. Pink is for girls.”
Of course, just a moment before, he had declared that he only liked sparkly things. And here he was choosing boots he had firmly rejected just minutes prior.
Now, I am all for open mindedness, and people revising their prejudices and opinions, and learning to like things they rejected before. But that was not what was happening here. He was not learning to like the brown boots. What was going on?
“I want boys’ shoes,” he said. “These are boys’ shoes.”
There was that resoluteness again, the square shoulders. My boy was bravely opting for something he didn’t like because what he liked was “for girls”. The sparkle had gone out of his eyes. He was frowning. And it broke my heart just a teeny bit. Where was my free and joyful boy, crowing and jumping and laughing?
When we got home, I told my older son, KO, age 13, about what Blaise had said about shoes, and showed him the brown boots that Blaise had picked out.
KO asked Blaise a few questions. Blaise said he didn’t want his new trainers anymore and repeated, “Pink is for girls! Sparkles are for girls!” Then KO started asking him about other things. “What about orange? Is that for boys or girls? What about black?” Blaise frowned and answered whether each colour was for boys or girls.
“All colours are for all people,” I said.
“No!” said Blaise. “They’re not!”
“What about rainbows? Rainbows are for everyone, and they have all the colours in,” I said.
Blaise hesitated. Then declared, “No! Rainbows are for girls!”
It took a little while, we pointed out lots of examples of both boys or girls, men or women, owning things or wearing things of all different colours. Finally he came around to agreeing that all colours were for all people. And as we said that, over and over and over, he relaxed, bit by bit. Permission to be himself. Permission to like what he liked.
I know that today when Blaise is at school in his sparkly pink mermaid sneakers, he may have to defend his position to another child. Or perhaps he will only have to defend his position to himself, as he observes what other children are wearing and that somehow only girls seem to wear pink sparkly things.
Either way, I want my boy to learn to be secure in making choices that are true to himself, true to his heart. No matter what everyone else is doing. Because he will run up against this again and again. This is just the beginning.
I don’t want him to take on beliefs because of fear that he won’t be accepted. I don’t want him to wear a mask and do things that aren’t true to himself because he feels pressure to conform.
I don’t want him to form a habit of trying to be like someone else.
I want him to form a habit of being himself in the truest, most glorious way he can possibly be.
I want him to grow in confidence every day, as he practices listening to his inner guidance, as he allows others space to follow their own inner guidance, as he appreciates the uniqueness and diversity among us humans, and also the right that each person has to be themselves, to decide what they like or dislike, what garments they put on their bodies, how they adorn themselves, how they live, how they look.
And I want him to know that his value is in no way attached to these things. He can change all these things however he likes, whenever he likes, and it will not make him more or less worthy or lovable.
Some (or most) people might think I’m making an issue of something that’s not an issue, or worse, that I’m somehow harming my child by not making him conform to social expectations. They’ll argue, “Children are cruel. He will get bullied if he wears pink. Do you want your child to get bullied?”
To them, I say, obviously I do not wish my child or, for that matter, any other child or any person of any age to be bullied for any reason at all. But if someone is being bullied for what they like, something as innocuous as a colour or a style of shoe, the answer is not to suppress their likes and to take up things they dislike.
When someone is being a jerk to you, the answer is not to start being a jerk to yourself also, denying yourself permission to be yourself.
The answer is to look at options for putting boundaries in place to limit the impact of the jerk on you and your life. Not saying that’s easy or simple. But it’s the only way that honours your freedom and power, and leaves you connected to your truth, which is absolutely essential if you want to actually live your own life as you, instead of a version of you that you think everyone else wants you to be.
Just to be clear, I have no attachment to what colours my son likes or dislikes. Because frankly that is none of my business. He can like pink if he likes, or he can hate pink and grow a deep passion for ocean blues or woodland browns or puke green. I have no interest in making him wear any particular colour or style. I want him to continue exploring his own likes and dislikes, find his own voice, grow and mature into the fullest, truest expression of himself possible.
Life is too short to spend living out someone else’s expectations.
So I will continue having conversations with my sons where I seek to understand them and encourage them to get to know themselves, to honour their own hearts and uniqueness. To do the things that make them sparkle with joy. To not censor themselves in order to attempt to fit in or be like others.