My six-year-old was heartbroken. There was no sea of tears, no flood of sobs bursting out uncontrollably. He was just sad. He didn’t want to use his pink lunchbox anymore, he said. The other kids were making fun of him. And I knew the day I had been expecting had arrived – the day the gender-biased world pushed back against progressive change – and it broke my heart too.
The lunchbox wasn’t even pink. It was kind of purple.
I feel compelled to explain this, as if it makes me less of a bad parent. Yes, mums and dads, I wasn’t so stupid or naive to send my child to a traditional all-boys school with a pink lunchbox, like a lamb to the slaughter. But then I realise that it’s the gender bias in myself talking, making excuses.
My kid loved that purple lunchbox. He shouldn’t have to apologise for it. In a perfect world, the lunchbox could have rainbows, unicorns, daisies and glittery stickers of RuPaul’s Drag Race all over it, and it wouldn’t matter.
My six-year-old doesn’t live in that perfect world.
Raising Boys Without Gender Bias
Sorry to disappoint, but my wife and I actually never decided to raise our kids without gender bias like militant lesbians on an abortion crusade plotting to take down the Man. (And by the way, if any of you are easily offended, I suggest you hit that back button like three paragraphs ago.)
We never did it to make a point, push feminism, support gay rights, or to advocate change in an unjust world. It just felt like the right thing to do, from day to day, and from choice to choice.
We silently dressed our baby boys in unconventional colours other than blue – yes to red and yellow and floral prints, but also yes to black. We raised them in a house where mum worked and dad worked too, sometimes, when he felt like it. And usually mum cooked, but on spaghetti nights, it was my turn, because that’s my thing, you know.
I honestly didn’t give gender bias any thought until we were at the toy store buying my three-year-old (now the six-year-old with the purple lunchbox), a Lego Friends set of Elsa and Anna’s castle from Frozen.
Oh, I thought to myself, we’re going to be those parents. You know them: the ones who allow their boys to Trick or Treat in dresses, and their girls to dress up as Han Solo. I imagined myself as one those dads who cosplayed as Princess Belle when they went to Disneyland.
While I pondered the implications of this Lego set on our future, the truth of the matter was this: The little guy wouldn’t leave the store without Olaf. Ironically, there was no bigger reason.
How to Raise Boys Without Gender Bias – And What Happened
My wife and I are feminists, and we truly do believe that removing gender bias is important to 1) reform a culture of sexual abuse and 2) achieve equality between the sexes. It makes a difference. In fact, the simple act of labelling groups of boys and girls can lead children to develop gender stereotypes in just four weeks. The study by Rebecca Bigler, a professor from the University of Austin, is alarming. Imagine what a lifetime of labelling (boys don’t cry, girls can’t be president) can do.
Here’s what we try to do:
Bust the Stereotypes
It really starts with us, the parents. The first step in raising our kids without gender bias was to remove the gender biases in our lives. It wasn’t easy, and we had to sacrifice a lot. But we’ve managed to find something that works, with both of us putting bacon on the table, metaphorically and literally, and both of us cleaning those dishes afterwards.
What happened: To my boys, working mums are normal. Dads being at home? That’s normal too. My boys cook. They clean the house (sometimes), and it has nothing to do with gender. I make them do it because they live here.
Media and Toys
It’s a bit ridiculous that there is a distinction between boys’ and girls’ toys, and boys’ and girls’ TV shows. While children are very young, it doesn’t really matter to anyone except the gender-biased parents. Little boys are just as happy hitting each other with dolls as they are with Nerf guns. Crucially, if boys choose to role-play with a doll, they might learn a few important lessons, like better language development, empathy or saying please and thankyou.
As a result of this freedom, my eldest son loved My Little Pony. He could sing the theme song like an angel. He also watches other “girls’ shows” and thinks nothing of it. And he thinks they are, in his words, “cute”.
What happened: Like in the pink lunchbox incident, he stopped watching My Little Pony when the boys at school started making fun of him. We explained to him why they did that, and how they were wrong. But he doesn’t watch the show anymore.
Pink It Up
A disproportionately large part of this debate is about colour choice somehow turning our boys gay. Because this is the 800-pound pink gorilla in the room, allow me to tackle this head-on and in a blunt manner. Depending on who you ask, sexual orientation is either genetic or learned. If it’s genetic, then, like Lady Gaga and Lee Kuan Yew said, you’re born that way. And nothing you do can change that.
If it’s learned behaviour, someone made you that way. Quite possibly, it is a little of both. But either way, given that the child is free to choose, it shouldn’t matter. So what if he’s gay?
I repeat: It. Shouldn’t. Matter.
So we live in a colourful house. This is because we enjoy colour. And we want our children to enjoy colour as well. Sure, colours have a subtle language. But they have little to do with your pink parts or where you choose to stick those pink parts. That’s what we try to teach our kids anyway (ummm, just not in those words).
What happened: My six-year-old – he of the purple lunchbox – identifies as a boy. His favourite colour is red. It has been his favourite colour since his Lightning McQueen and Iron Man obsessions. At the age of three, he decided to wear ONLY red t-shirts. He is still in his red t-shirt phase. During his first months in school, he had to wear red briefs under his non-red school uniform, just so that he could “be red”.
When we bought him a lunchbox this year, he chose purple instead of blue because purple is closer to red. And now a bunch of boys at school are telling him that it’s wrong to “be red” – to be himself – because of some illogical colour-based gender bias.
A Wall of Gender Bias
Raising boys without gender bias is an uphill battle. Prepare to face a sea of opposition. The world is more gender-biased right now than it is free from this bias. Expect to hit a stone wall of gender bias around the time they enter the first grade.
But don’t give up, mums and dads. The world is changing. Make sure you’re on the right side of the change. Just keep on choosing the right thing from day to day, and from choice to choice. And maybe, one day, we’ll all live in a more compassionate world.
As for my son, whose lunchbox is now blue, he still loves the colour red. He can be stubborn just like his old man.
So what did I do? Well, I bought him a red jacket. Now he can “be red” every day.
All photos: Vincent Sales