09/05/2014 11:32 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

Pink Is for Girls and Purple Is for Boys

Ann Marie Gardinier Halstead

Each time I was pregnant, I chose to find out the baby's sex. During my first pregnancy, we painted our son Trey's nursery yellow. Three years later we painted Trevor's nursery green. These color choices often led to questions such as "Is yellow your favorite color?" and "Didn't you say you're having a boy?" Of course the implication was that I should have painted a baby boy's room blue. But why? Who made these arbitrary decisions about gender and color? And why do so many people, otherwise intelligent, logical people, seem to agree with them, even adhere to them? And, more importantly, what are the effects on our children?

Earlier this summer I was shopping for sunglasses with my boys. Trevor, my 4-year-old, found a pair of purple Doc McStuffins sunglasses. He was so excited; he loves Doc. He put the glasses on before we even left the store. When we got in the car, Trevor admired himself in the mirror. He was thrilled. But before we even made it home from the store, he took them off and said, "I don't like my glasses anymore. They're purple. I think they're for girls." I didn't know where this was coming from; Trey and I hadn't said a word to him, other than to agree that he looked cool. But what really left me speechless was how sad he looked. He had been so excited about his glasses, and he looked so darned cute in them. But in just a few short minutes he must have heard a voice in his head that told him that he shouldn't, or couldn't, wear them because they're purple, and purple is a "girl color." Luckily his 8-year-old brother responded because I was rendered momentarily silent. Trey said, "That's not true, Trevy. They're not for girls. There's no such thing as for girls or for boys. You can like whatever you like." And my heart melted, as it has so many times since I became a mom. Trey said what I would have said if I'd been faster on my feet, if I hadn't been so saddened by what I'd heard. And what he said proved that not only is he a sweet big brother but also that he's been listening to me (!).

My self-congratulatory period was short-lived, though. A couple of weeks later we were leaving baseball practice when Trey told me that he didn't want to bring our purple thermos to baseball anymore. I asked him why and he said, "Josh laughed at me and said, 'That's a girl's thermos.' And one of the girls laughed too." (What's the big deal about purple anyway?) I asked Trey if he'd said anything in response and he said no. We talked about it and I repeated what I've said before, much of what he'd said to Trevor about the sunglasses. However, nothing I could say would persuade him to bring that thermos to baseball again, and I didn't want to force him if it was going to cause him anxiety. I know that Trey understands that someone shouldn't associate a color with one's gender, and that he should feel free to like whatever color he wants to, but it was easier for him to apply that understanding to Trevor's situation than his own. I suppose this is no surprise, as it hurts to be ridiculed by one's peers. Again, I'm saddened that my kids are receiving the message that they shouldn't like something because they're boys, or that they're different or strange because they like a certain color or because they happened to randomly grab the purple thermos instead of the green.

Clearly, the kids who laughed at Trey didn't come up with the idea that purple is for girls on their own. They've learned it from parents and grandparents and other adults who painted girls' rooms pink and boys' rooms blue, who bought only "gender-appropriate" toys, who told boys not to cry and told girls to act more lady-like. Undoubtedly our kids also receive messages about gender expectations from the media. And then there are the countless adults and children who have shamed and bullied kids who have dared to like pink when they "should have" liked blue (and vice versa).

I am concerned about the effect that this issue is having on our children, on their self-esteem, on their perception of social roles, and how they view their own place in the world. I'm not the first parent to be concerned about this, and I fear I won't be the last. But it's 2014. This all seems so archaic. Can't we all agree to let our kids like what they like without imposing on them an old-fashioned, arbitrary view about colors? They're just colors! Can't we all agree to teach our children not to tease or bully other kids for liking the color purple? Kids have so much to worry about today. Wouldn't it be nice if they went to school this year without having to worry about the color of their lunchbox? Don't we all want our kids to feel good about themselves and comfortable in their own skin?

I don't claim to have all the answers, but I have an idea: Paint your baby girl's room blue. Dress your toddler son in a pink shirt. Buy your baseball-loving boy a purple thermos. Let's shake things up and get the neighbors talking. Let's start a color revolution. Then maybe, just maybe, our kids won't be discussing this issue when they're parents.