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Lisa Belkin Headshot

About That Boy Who Likes To Wear A Dress

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Reading Ruth Padawer's eye-opening and important piece in the New York Times Magazine this morning, I was struck by one particular moment. Alex, who identifies as "a boy and a girl" (by which he means a boy who likes to dress and play in traditionally "girl" ways), had recently started kindergarten, and "toward the end of the first week ... showed up in class wearing hot-pink socks," Padawer writes. "A mere inch of a forbidden color." A boy teased him and the teacher responded by holding a remarkable conversation during circle time: 

She mentioned male friends who wore nail polish and earrings. (She) told them that when she was younger, she liked wearing boys' sneakers. Did that make her a boy? Did the children think she shouldn't have been allowed to wear them? Did they think it would have been O.K. to laugh at her? They shook their heads no. Then she told them that long ago, girls weren't allowed to wear pants, and a couple of the children went wide-eyed. "I said: 'Can you imagine not being able to wear pants when you wanted to? If you really wanted to wear them and someone told you that you couldn't do that just because you were a girl? That would be awful!' " After that, the comments in the classroom about Alex's appearance pretty much stopped.

I was one of those girls who were not allowed to wear pants -- at least not to school -- until I was in junior high (which is what middle school was called in the 1970s). My mother thought it wasn't ladylike. My mother was behind the times. 

Parents, by definition, are always behind the times. We don't lead our children into the future so much as follow them there -- responding to youngsters like Alex, who ask "why?" and cause us to ask it too. 

It is not a one-directional process, of course. We learn, we teach, we learn some more. We are led by children like Alex, who, Padawer reports, ceased being bullied after that teacher-led circle time. Or like Beckett, who appeared with his mother, Jenna Lyons, the creative director of J. Crew, in the company's catalog last year, painting his toenails pink. Or like Tyler, who, despite being born in a male body, insisted he was a girl from the age of 2, and whose story galvanized readers of the Washington Post this past spring. 

When this team relay works, we move the conversation forward.

"Really, Mommy? There was a time when girls couldn't go to school? Children of different races didn't play together? Some people who loved each other couldn't get married? Girls had to wear dresses? Boys could not?" 

"How did those things change, Mommy?" 

It is our job to grab the baton from them, run with it, then hand it back. 

Do you speak differently with your children about gender than your parents spoke to you? What do you say?