Ask my two children what their favorite part of recent trip to Disney World was and you'll get two very different answers. Not only because of their five and a half years age gap, but also because they are remarkably different people. My older child's favorite experience was the Jedi training at Hollywood Studios while my younger loved meeting all the princesses and riding the Frozen attraction. Their souvenirs were a build-your-own lightsaber and a Cinderella doll, respectively. When my mother took them for face painting, the older one opted for a tiger face and the younger, Princess Tiana.
Reading those descriptions, many may assume I have an older boy and younger girl. If I told you that they were the same sex, most people would assume they are girls and the older is a tomboy. Most of you are fine with that. But what if I were to say that they were both boys? Would you be equally fine with a little boy entranced with and identifying as a princess? Would you accept my parenting if I'd let a little boy play princess?
Where is the positive boy equivalent of a 'tomboy'?
Although there are definitely subcultures throughout our country that emphasize femininity and reject the tomboys, that trend has shifted some over the past decade or two. In many circles it's now not only totally acceptable, but even a point of pride to have a tomboy daughter.
Today's girl can be anything she wants. Girls are being pushed into the STEM fields that they've been shunned from for… well forever. Geeky girl culture is booming, with little girls' clothing lines rolling out dresses and tops covered in dinosaurs, computers and video game characters. Girls can play with Legos and trucks and Minecraft and balls.
But what of the little boys playing house, dressing up, cuddling baby dolls? We don't have a name for these boys other than "sissies" or "wusses" or other such derogatory terms; however, many boys choose toys and play styles that are traditionally thought of as feminine, despite being strongly discouraged from doing so. The pressure to change is applied by both society and parents, particularly the fathers.
Why respecting individuality in our kids makes for better adults
Today's parents are encouraging our girls to play with all toys and games to give them a broader perspective of the world. We are revolting against the "pinkification" of every toy and opting for gender neutral colors and toys that cross gender barriers. We are venturing into the unknown lands of the "boy" toy aisle to help our girls become more well-rounded adults. Several years ago this backlash was supported by President Obama and several movements like "Let toys be toys."
But are we doing the same for our boys? In a society in which we increasingly expect our adult male partners to contribute to housework and childcare, why wouldn't we encourage nurturing play behavior with dolls and toy kitchens? If we want our grown men to be able to identify and express emotions and to work with people of all personalities and backgrounds, why wouldn't we encourage imaginative play and dress-up where they get to feel what it is like to be these other kinds of people?
Humans learn through experience. Long-term memories require reiteration. What we practice, we get good at. Our brains are also designed to pay attention to the emotional responses to what we do. When we are encouraged and applauded, we do those things more. When we are yelled at, or shamed or not allowed to do something, particularly by someone we care about, those memories stick. How our parents respond to our choices affects who we become.
While we know that some play is practice for adult behaviors, we also know that play also is important for later stress management and mental health. A recent study of fathers showed their active engagement with their daughters, encouraging emotional growth… and the opposite with their sons. We need to reverse this trend to improve adult mental health outcomes in men.
There is no 'wrong' way for kids to play
My children are both tough and wild, gentle and sweet, thoughtful and intelligent. They are feisty and fierce and stubborn and opinionated. They are both girls. And they're also individuals, and I value their differing choices and encourage their unique selves. My "tomboy" daughter builds her Minecraft world with polished nails and cat-ear headphones perched on her short hair. My "princess" daughter is more comfortable outdoors, pausing in her pursuit of the soccer ball only to investigate the bugs that terrify her sister. As girls, my children are empowered and encouraged to be all these things.
As a society, we need to be doing the same for our boys by encouraging them to expand their play. My nephews love to play dress-up with my girls, and will happily don a frilly dress; just as my girls will happily grab the superhero costumes when at their houses. My youngest brother often got stuffed into dresses as my sister and I played with him, and he'd smile and entertain us with song and dance and play any role, male or female, that our imaginations required of him.
Most of that came from my parents, who modeled atypical gender roles and encouraged each of us children to be our true selves. But I like to think that maybe a little of his later life success comes from his big sister encouraging creative thought at early ages, and that his success as a husband and father are shaped in part by the freedom to play at those roles as a child.
Ultimately, we give our children the best chance by being supportive and encouraging of their interests, whether those interests and toys are traditionally pink or blue.