It’s hard to believe it, but my son is now 5 years old. He loves to play, and his favourite games are imaginative. “Let’s be Octonauts” he will declare on the way to school. “I’ll be Captain Barnacles, you be a Lemon Shark.” Bathtime consits of repeatedly drowning Sir Topham Hatt (AKA Fat Controller) with cups of water as he heads off to Tidmouth Sheds. At any time of day, our playroom could be a shopfront, (“Hang on” my son scratches his chin “We may have some in the back. Do you have a clubcard?”) the set of Masterchef, (“I like all the colours you’ve put on the plate Daddy, but sorry-you’re going home.”) or a dentists office. (They’re all rotten, but never mind, I’ll just take them out. You probably wont be able to eat anymore.” )
As you can imagine, he loves dress up, and he has an inclination towards the sparkles. Unfortunately, our society doesn’t provide for boys who want a bit more flair than a Darth Vader costume can provide, so when we’re out and about at friend’s houses and he pulls out a Cinderella dress or a ladybird costume from the dressing up box, I’ve always been pretty chilled about letting him explore his theatrical side. Take a moment to look around the Disney store next time you’re in there. At last count, I could see 22 different types of princess dresses and not one prince outfit. My son could be Olaf, Luke Skywalker, or a Pirate. (White, brown or more brown.) I wouldn’t be too impressed with that selection either. So when R asked me for an Elsa dress of his own this year, we only had to pause for a moment before we added it to his make believe collection.
And then we got the following invitation from school.
“As a class treat, the Reception children have voted for a dressing up party on Friday. Could you please send in a dressing up outfit for your child.”
And he cocked his head to one side and asked quietly, “I can’t take Elsa… can I?”
Anyone who knows me knows that I take real exception to gendered toys of any kind. Play is play. Make believe is make believe. And if a girl can be a fireman without a raised eyebrow in sight, my son can be the prettiest, sparkliest princess in the room. You better believe I have all the pithiest, wittiest, scathingest replies necessary if you dare to tell me that my son can’t skip around your garden in your daughters Sleeping Beauty outfit.
But at school? Without me there to give him a reassuring nod and smile when the classroom assistant automatically smiles in surprise on instinct as he walks in? What if he doesn’t remember to say “there’s no such thing as boys toys and girls toys” in response to one of his peers saying “that’s for girls”? What if a child in his class says “You’re not a princess” and he’s too embarassed to remember to say “I know- and you’re not Spiderman either”?
And worst of all, what if he doesn’t realise what he’s asking?
At home, or out with me or C, he feels completely safe to express himself in any way he chooses. If he was ten or eleven years old and he wanted to wear a dress to school in play (or even not in play) then it may take some getting used to, but I wouldn’t be worried about being supportive. If my teen goes to school in sparkles and high heels, he knows what he’s letting himself in for, and has all the information in his arsenal to make that choice for himself. But at five, does he really know what he’s asking? As an introduction to ‘kids can be mean’, letting him walk in front of the firing squad without a warning, and risking him feeling embarrassed and unprepared….
Dear reader, I agonised.
I asked my husband, I asked my best friends, I asked his teachers and then I asked my best friends again. And while I got a wealth of opinions when I broached the question, nearly everyone pursed their lips and and looked just as agonised as I felt. How I wish someone had been confused and asked me what I was worried about. But that’s not the world we live in, not yet anyway.
As a proud feminist I wanted to be able to say “Of course you can be Elsa!” As a proud parent I wanted to be able to say “You wear whatever makes you happy”. The reasons why I ultimately steered him away from that choice, out of fear that well-intentioned people would be mean, or that he would lose some trust in me if he ended up in tears, don’t make me feel proud to be either.
I did realise one important thing though. R doesn’t care about the world we live in. He isn’t looking to make a stand for gender equality, he isn’t trying to push boundaries. The kid just wants to wear a sparkly dress. He doesn’t need to face even the risk of a ruined day because his parents believe in giving him the gift of being anything he wants. He has plenty of time to be anything he wants, and if we can give him another year or two before he learns that kids (and indeed grown ups) can be mean, well thats a special gift too.
My little Gingerbread Man came out of school that day full of stories and excitement, the grin on his face the only thing more edible than the candy buttons on his outfit. And while the little voice inside me wonders if I made the right choice, it’s overwhemingly silenced by the feeling that my Elsa wouldn’t have come out anywhere near as happy. Can you tell me that I’m wrong?