As I get ready to send my 5-yr-old to kindergarten in the fall, I worry a lot about bullying. While it’s the job of the adults around to help prevent or stop the acts of bullying once they’ve begun, I also know that it’s inevitable my sweet N will encounter at least teasing and hurt feelings. Not every child is going to come from a home teaching them compassionate tolerance, and the messages society sends to little boys who like pink and purple are not exactly encouraging.
We went through the McDonalds drive through last week for happy meals, and of course they asked if the meals were for boys or girls. I’ve gotten on plenty of soapboxes about that particular issue before, but I do always make a point to just say which toy we’d like. Last week, after telling me he wanted the Skylander’s “boy” toy, N said, “next time we come through, I want the My Little Pony, but could you just pretend and tell them you have girls in the car?”
I sighed. And then I talked to him again about how there are no toys that are better for girls or better for boys. I told him that the people who decide to call Captain America a “boy toy” and My Little Pony a “girl toy” are marketers who just want to make the most money. That toys and colors have no inherent qualities making them appropriate for only one gender. I could not more wholeheartedly believe that, either. I wish there were more pink and purple monster trucks for N to play with. Or green and blue dollhouses for his blue-obsessed brother to play with.
But I’m never going to change the marketing schemes or gender-based perceptions. All I can do is instill the self-acceptance and the confidence that will make N comfortable as a boy who loves pretty, sparkly things alongside his trucks and super heroes. The bullies will always be there, whether adults intervene or not, and rather than standing up to them with violence or defiance, I want N to be able to shut them down by saying, “You don’t have to like what I do or who I am. I like who I am, and you can’t make me feel differently.” I don’t want this to be delusional. I know he will get hurt and he will hide his pink stuffed giraffe from some people, but I hope a sense of self-acceptance will be the norm rather than the exception.
I also know that talking at him, telling him it’s ok to be who he is can’t prepare him for bullies or unkind people. We have always roll-played scenarios to help him practice conflict or important things. When Jessica Ridgeway was murdered, we began roll-playing what he should do if someone asked him to go with them. When he had a couple of kids in different parts of his life who weren’t treating him right, we roll-played with me as the other boys. He practiced saying things like, “If you want to be friends, you can’t treat me like that,” and “That is not an ok way to talk to somebody. I don’t talk to you like that, and you can’t talk to me like that.” And then I heard him actually saying the things he had practiced when he was with the other kids. I hope when the time comes, he remembers how he practiced, “That’s not true – I’m a boy and I like pink, so pink is for boys, too!”
It would be wonderful to hand pick the people my sons are exposed to so that I could ensure they only meet or hang out with tolerant, accepting, compassionate people. It would also be wonderful if we were self-made millionaires who lived on the beach. Some things simply aren’t reality. So the only thing I can do for now is teach my kids that acceptance starts at home. Once they have figured that out, I know they’ll spread it like a light around them and use it to be kind to others. But for now, for tomorrow and next year at kindergarten, all I really want is for N to feel good choosing the purple construction paper in front of his friends at school.