You don’t jerk anything out of the hands of a toddler. That’s a given.
If leprosy was a thing — a nasty ugly object instead of a nasty ugly disease — and, somehow, leprosy got in the hands of your small child and you tried to pry it out of his hands, that kid would cling to leprosy for dear life.
Such was the case as I stood in a supermarket checkout line. The store had smartly placed a handful of balloons just in reach of the child seat in the buggy.
The woman in front of me turned for a second to put her items on the belt when her small son reached over to the candy rack and plucked a pink balloon — a dusty Babs Bunny relic from the Tiny Toons era. Who can say why he picked pink. It was certainly the brightest of the balloons, and it was probably attached to the closest string. Maybe this little Don Juan wanted to offer it to a playground sweetheart. Or maybe he just liked pink.
Mom turned around and snatched the balloon away. She reattached it to the candy rack and pushed her son out of reach. As his whining turned into crying and then into a fit, mom panicked, rushing three registers down to find a blue Buster Bunny balloon. It’s the same thing, just blue instead of pink.
But the blue balloon wasn’t the one snatched from his hands and so it certainly would not do. With the cashier nearly finished ringing her order, the mom gave in and conceded defeat. She handed her son the pink balloon and told the cashier to ring it up, but not before saying, “My husband is going to kill me.”
I was reminded of the mother’s panicked face when conservatives hit the roof last month when a J.Crew ad showed Creative Director Jenna Lyons playing with her 5-year-old boy, Beckett, tickling his freshly painted neon-pink toenails. The copy reads, “Lucky for me, I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink.”
The word “propaganda” was thrown around by social conservatives. To reasonable people, this was one little boy who liked pink — not a big deal. To the religious right, this was a gay rights conspiracy to indoctrinate poor hapless J.Crew customers into supporting transgendered toddlers. Give that kid a pedicure and their collective heads might explode.
The message is one we’ve heard before — pink is for girls. Anyone who is different shouldn’t be celebrated, they should be shamed.
Recent teen suicides tied to struggles over sexuality and public ridicule have led many of us to refocus our attention on teenagers. Syndicated relationship and sex advice columnist Dan Savage created the It Gets Better campaign, which has offered online videos of encouragement from gay adults, straight leaders like President Barack Obama, and a cadre of celebrities, including Woody from Toy Story. Lady Gaga made a high-profile splash earlier this year with her well-meaning anthem “Born This Way.” Locally, organizations hosted a memorial candlelight march last October in recognition of those lost.
It would appear that we are not going young enough. Or, more specifically, we’re not preparing parents for a world beyond gender identities. Jenna Lyons’ little boy might wake up tomorrow and hate pink, as many girls do. Or he could grow up and become a beautiful woman with a very practical J.Crew wardrobe. But that should be his decision, not some religious zealot’s.
He most likely doesn’t even know there’s a horde of grown-ups frowning at his color choice. No, it’ll be other little boys who will embarrass and ridicule him. Little boys don’t get many lessons about valuing diversity, but they learn from an early age that pink is a girl’s color. And it’s those little boys who turn into bullies in high school, who see a girl with a different haircut and call her queer. Who see a boy with a pink shirt and call him a fag.
With our son, Tony, my partner and I try to reinforce the importance of making your own decisions. Usually, that lesson comes from avoiding whatever harebrained stunt some other kid attempted on the playground. But occasionally it comes from a lesson on individuality.
Tony’s most important questions tend to come after we’ve put him to bed. At 8, he has a bedtime, so Tony goes to bed whether he’s tired or not. Sometimes that means lying there, thinking about something that has bothered him all day until he finally hollers down the stairs, “Daddy?” One night, he asked, “Is iCarly for girls?”
It was a difficult question to answer as I climbed the stairs. The show on Nickelodeon is about a teenage girl with a popular internet blog that tends to get her into a sticky situation each week. Having watched the show, I could certainly attest that it wasn’t for 34-year-old men. But an 8-year-old boy? It probably had just the right amount of fart jokes and pratfalls. “No, some boys like it,” I said.
Apparently, the subject of favorite TV shows came up at school. Had Tony been asked, he probably would have said Johnny Test, a show with even more fart jokes and pratfalls — plus, it’s animated! But one boy told the teacher that he liked iCarly.
“Another boy said, ‘That’s a girl’s show,’ ” Tony told me. I’m pretty sure it was probably more like “Ewww! That’s a girl’s show!” My partner, Shane, tried to assure him. “Boys like iCarly, too,” he said. “Your cousin Jarred likes it.”
“I like it, too,” Tony said. But the simple fact that Tony had heard the other boy dismiss the show and thought enough to worry about it likely made the conversation moot. He hasn’t asked to watch another episode of iCarly since then. Not once.
It’s important that little Beckett learn that there’s nothing wrong with liking pink. It’s important for Tony to know he can like whatever TV show he wants to. But there’s a much broader lesson to be learned here. The male aversion to pink isn’t natural. It’s man-made.
As a society, we are constantly accepting these stereotypes for our kids. Action figures for boys. Barbie dolls for girls. Baseball for boys. Hair braiding for girls. It’s only when our kids fall out of these stereotypical boundaries that we even begin to worry about the stereotype. It’s only then that we stress acceptance.
We can’t change the minds of the adults bullying a little boy, but we can look at our children, the boys who like “boy stuff” and the girls who like “girl stuff,” and not just teach them, but show them that there are no labels for boys with pink toenails and pink balloons. Let’s catch the bullies before they get started.