It started, as so many important moments do, with a question.
My son, Eitan, had been watching television, one seemingly inconsequential kids show or another, when a commercial came on for a Lego model. He said immediately that he wanted to get it. My wife, Trudy, and I, without batting an eye, said that we would be happy to buy it for him. Eitan smiled broadly, pleased with his instant victory, and resumed watching.
After a moment or two, he turned back to Trudy and me, his satisfied grin replaced by a look of confusion.
“Why didn’t the commercial show any boys playing with the Legos?” he asked.
Trudy and I glanced at each other quickly before Trudy answered.
“Why do you think there weren’t any boys?” she asked, turning his question around in typical parenting fashion.
He thought for a minute before answering.
“Because it’s pink and they think only girls should play with pink toys?”
“You’re probably right,” Trudy answered. “What do you think about that?”
“I think that’s not fair,” Eitan said. “Boys and girls should be able to play with whatever toys they want. It doesn’t matter what color they are.”
Now Trudy and I were the ones smiling broadly.
I wasn’t the least bit shocked when Eitan, who’s almost 6, asked for the Lego model; he is always looking for more Legos and Cinderella’s Castle was right up his alley. Plus, this wasn’t the first time we’d had a conversation like this with him.
My son has never been shy about enjoying so-called “girl toys,” including dressing up in Disney princess costumes, singing along with Mary Poppins and playing with tea sets. We’ve encouraged him to play however he wants and with whichever toys he wants, regardless of their colors or industry-dictated target audience. We don’t care if he’s crashing monster trucks or wearing a blonde Elsa wig – or doing both at the same time – as long as he’s enjoying himself.
Eitan’s so-called “feminine” interests aren’t limited to toys either. He’s been asking to have his nails painted for a year or two already and he’s gone with Trudy on a number of occasions to get manicures. Plus, last week, Trudy told Eitan that she would be going shopping for new clothes for him and she asked if he had any requests. He answered, without any hesitation, that he wanted some pink and purple clothes.
“I like those colors,” he had said.
I continue to feel a thrill anytime my son talks about bending conventional gender norms. “Because I like it” is reason enough for me to encourage him to pursue his interests, regardless of where they might fall on the gender spectrum. More importantly, though, there have been many incidents recently in which toxic masculinity has led young men to commit horrible acts of violence. I want to be a part of rewriting the narrative of how boys and young men are “supposed to act” and I love the idea of working together with my family toward that goal.
Defining masculinity as he pleases
I’ll admit, however, that I sometimes feel nervous when Eitan says he wants to go to school with painted nails or wearing a pink shirt. Our home is a safe place for him to express himself however he would like but I’ve seen enough of the world to know that not everyone else has the same sentiments about gender expression that Trudy and I do.
I’m pleased to say the feedback Eitan has received from adults about his nails, at least, has been quite positive. Adults have told him, “I love your nails!” and “That’s awesome that you got to spend time with your mom!” Other children, though, have told Eitan that “wearing nail polish is for girls,” for example, and I would hate for ignorant comments like that to make himhesitate to express himself in public.
I can acknowledge why some people are uncomfortable with the idea of a boy painting his nails or wearing pink clothing. We’re taught as children that there are definitions attached to a person’s gender that extends to their interests, their clothes and their choice in a mate. When people go through years of that indoctrination and then become faced with a person who does not fit into one of the boxes they have constructed in their minds, they struggle to reconcile the two. And, while that discomfort might be understandable, that should not give people the right to force others to conform to their ideals.
Our society has become more accepting of non-traditional expressions of identity since I was a child but we have a lot of work left to do. We need to analyze why we cling to our views of “proper” behavior, especially when the definitions of proper are assigned based on a person’s sex. We need to help our children feel comfortable playing with whichever toys or wearing whichever clothes strike their fancy. If we have any hope of preventing future incidents of toxic masculinity leading young adults to committing acts of violence, we need to redefine masculinity in the first place.
About the author
Aaron Yavelberg is a father, husband, son, brother, cousin, friend, writer, social worker and part-time teacher. He lives in Queens, New York, with his wife, son and daughter. A version of this post first appeared on his blog, Sleeping on the Edge. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Photo: Aaron Yavelberg