I came across a story on Twitter in the aftermath of Charlottesville. I took screen grabs of it so you can read the thread in full. As you'll see, it starts out with "Hey everyone I'm a clown." Of course, after reading the first phrase I was completely in on the story no matter what it was going to be. The fact that she followed it up with "and here's my take on male violence in America" was icing on the cake.
To make a short story shorter, this person was doing face painting for kids at an event and a 4-year-old boy asked for a butterfly. His parents intervened because, apparently, a butterfly was too girly. Instead, they made him get a skull and crossbones. Great.
The author goes on to speculate on the effect of such gender norm-related shaming. Perhaps her speculation is right, it's difficult to say, but I certainly believe that such pernicious, seemingly inconsequential events matter. When you're that young and impressionable, so much matters. Each moment, each impression is like a tiny rock, but, as every parent knows, you start with one or two tiny rocks and your kids keep collecting them and piling them on your kitchen counter and before you know it, your counters are covered with piles of small rocks.
I know from personal experience that little moments in childhood matter and that they add up. For me, it wasn't gender norms, it was shyness, introversion, social anxiety. Each time I was labeled by a classmate or teacher or usually well-meaning adult as shy—often, it seemed, within minutes of meeting me—I was forced even further into a box from which it was practically impossible to escape. Labels matter because they carry with them the weight of expectation.
Similarly, defining certain behaviors, activities, likes and dislikes as the property of girls or boys distorts a child’s view of the world. Sure, forcing boys to "act like boys" probably won't produce the worst possible outcomes in most cases, but what about the subtler effects? It seems likely that enforcing arbitrary gender norms must, at the very least, calcify outmoded views on gender and relationships and steer boys in directions they might not otherwise go.
And, you know what? I've caught myself subconsciously falling in line with gender norms that I don't even endorse. They are so entrenched that even when you try to be self-aware and thoughtful, they can sneak up on you.
My boys (ages three and five) occasionally get the urge to paint their fingernails. They usually go for pink or red. Frankly, when they ask, I always cringe a little. Don't get me wrong, I couldn't care less about boys painting their nails, but I know a boy with pink fingernails is likely to draw attention at the playground or grocery store. And avoiding attention, whether it's negative or neutral, is my driving motivation in pretty much every situation.
But, really, screw that. I don't want to pass on my insecurities to my kids. And, when you think about it from the perspective of a 5-year-old, there is nothing remotely gendered about nail polish. NOTHING. It just looks neat and fun. Any association between decorating part of your body and gender is completely the result of societal conditioning and experience.
Similarly, butterflies and skulls aren't boy things or girl things, they're just things. My goal as a parent is to raise kids who are true to themselves and compassionate toward others. And I want them to know that boys and girls can be whatever they want to be. And hopefully they all appreciate butterflies. Butterflies are beautiful.