In our Listen to Your Mother (or Father) series, we ask moms and dads working at Highmark to share the wisdom that can only come through the experience known as parenthood. Children (of any age) have a great deal to teach the rest of us. In this month’s lesson, a mother helps her daughter forge an identity that’s uniquely her own.

My daughter has spent a fair amount of her short life loving princesses, tiaras, sequins, tutus, and generally anything that is pink or decked out in glitter. We had a gender-neutral approach to décor and clothing when she was an infant. We actively banned pink from our baby shower, and chose purple, green and brown as the colors for her nursery.

We didn’t, and don’t, have issues with traditionally feminine things, but we also didn’t want to stack the deck one way or the other — so her crib skirt was abuzz with delicate lavender dragonflies and we hung stickers of somewhat abstract monkeys on the walls of her room. We bought her dolls and trucks, building toys and puzzles, art supplies and athletic equipment. We focused on educational toys and diversity, and at the end of the day, whether it was the influence of her peers, or media, or genetic predisposition, she seemed to slide naturally and firmly into the land of stereotypical “girliness.”

Now, before you assume that we perceived this as negative, you should know that I don’t at all mind my daughter’s inclinations toward boas, her requests for designer handbags (Although, seriously? She’s not even out of preschool yet, for crying out loud.), or her single-minded focus on light-up Ariel Mary Jane sneaker shoes.

Nor am I bothered by her enjoyment of princesses (including princess dolls, princess stories — although, if you’ve read my other blog post, you’ll know I read the stories WITH commentary — princess pets, princess outfits, princess stickers, princess jewelry, etc.), or her request to paint her room baby pink.

Enjoying What You Like, Without Gender Labels

I’m a fan of a good pedi, enjoy watching a cute and snuggly romcom, generally prefer not to get dirty, and wear makeup every day, so it’s not like I have a vehement (or even lukewarm) opposition to things that are stereotypically feminine. But I DO have a vehement (furiously so) opposition to the idea that those things should be perceived as inherently (and ONLY) feminine.

In fact, I have a huge problem with the idea that these things (and other similar things) are only for girls and women, and that girls and women can only choose from within a stereotypically feminine box. Furthermore, I have a problem with there being an imaginary box of things that are only for boys and men, or that boys and men may also not choose or like things outside of a stereotypically masculine box.

I’d like my daughter to choose the things she likes based on whether she likes them, not because she thinks she’s supposed to like them or thinks she’s not allowed to like other things. It bothered me when she said that her friend, who is a boy, was being teased for liking the color pink. And my blood pressure spiked when she said that she had to be rescued and swept away by a prince, instead of simply saying she’d like to fall in love with a prince (or better yet, with a kind person, with whom she has a lot in common, who treats her with respect … but I’m getting ahead of myself).

A Policy of Inclusiveness

So, taking these things into consideration, and being aware of some of the messaging being promoted by the toys my daughter liked and actively sought, my spouse and I embarked on a very directed educational journey. Our focus was not on opposing frilly pink princesses, but instead on the inclusion of princesses, their polar opposites and everything in between. We started to have many conversations about girls and boys — what was different, what was the same. When we focused only on what my daughter perceived as differences, there weren’t many gender stereotypes we couldn’t refute with the help of good ole Google.

Boys don’t have long hair — nope, here are a hundred thousand pictures of boys with long hair. Girls can’t be bald — nope, here are a bunch of pictures of proud women without hair (some by choice and some not). Boys don’t wear skirts? Well, here are two million photos of men in kilts, a bunch of guys in robes and a Jaden Smith photo shoot. Girls aren’t good at sports? No, no, no! Here are pictures of Mia Hamm, Serena and Venus Williams, the players of the WNBA, and a bunch of other awesome female athletes.

Then, just casually, like in the car on the way to the supermarket, or while loading the dishwasher, we would talk about the fact that a princess doesn’t need a rescuer because she’s a girl, but because sometimes everyone needs help … or actually, maybe she doesn’t need help at all! Maybe she’s perfectly fine being a self-rescuing princess? We discussed that sometimes a prince needs to be rescued (thank you, “Paper Bag Princess,” by Robert Munsch!) and that girls can also be brave knights. We talked about the titles of Admiral, Captain, Professor, Doctor and CEO, which outweigh the titles of Princess and Prince (titles that are earned are better than ones that are inherited). And we constantly, constantly reminded her that there are no girl colors or boy colors — just colors.

We talked about the fact that both boys and girls can love dolls, or Spider-man, or pink bikes with streamers on the handles, or monster trucks, and that if anyone tells her otherwise, they are wrong. Not only are they wrong for telling her something untrue, but that anyone who teases her for the things she likes is also unkind, and she doesn’t have to be around them.

We also told her that it’s her responsibility to challenge people who propagate those types of ideas — that she should defend herself and her friends, and not allow bullies to try to force her into a pink gender-limited box.

We were also fortunate that our daughter’s pre-school was actively attempting to challenge narrow gender identities. The students had lessons about pre-conceived notions associated with gender, and also talked about misconceptions about what it meant to be a girl or a boy.

Watching the Lessons Take Hold

Tutus, Minnie and McQueen. Obviously, these are the keys to happiness … I mean, look at that face!

Tutus, Minnie and McQueen. Obviously, these are the keys to happiness … I mean, look at that face!

We could tell that the conversations and lessons were having an impact when she put on her pink tutu and red Minnie Mouse T-shirt, and started to play with her Lightning McQueen car. It was more obvious when she wore her Spider-man sneakers and T-shirt with coordinated hair ribbons, and pretended to shoot spider webs from her wrists while hopping around making web-whooshing noises. But we felt that we were actually achieving our goal when she decided, last summer, that she only wanted to wear fancy dresses.

She was ready for the next size of clothing anyway, so we took her to a children’s used clothing store and let her pick out any dress (reasonably priced — think $8 and under) that she wanted. She selected silk, velvet, lace, bows, flower appliques, ruffles and ribbons. We bought her matching shorts to wear under her dresses, and sent her flouncing off to pre-school, dressed to the nines (but wearing sensible shoes fit for hard-core playing … I’m not gonna lie, though — they were sparkly as all get out).

She would come home from school, happy in her formal dresses, covered in dirt, bruises on her knees, and her hair in disarray. And that’s when we really knew that all of the discussions and lessons about ignoring gender stereotypes were sinking in. We were jubilant because we could clearly see that our amazing girl — the one in the fancy dress, Curly-Q hair clips and light-up glitter shoes — was wearing exactly what she wanted, and she was doing exactly what she wanted to do while wearing that dress and all of her coordinated accessories.

Yep, this dress is made of fabric similar to silk brocade, with a built-in tulle petticoat under layer. It ties in the back with a fluffy bow, and has a decorative flower sewn on at the waist. Awesome kid wore this to play outside.

Yep, this dress is made of fabric similar to silk brocade, with a built-in tulle petticoat under layer. It ties in the back with a fluffy bow, and has a decorative flower sewn on at the waist. Awesome kid wore this to play outside.

She would tell us that some kids at school said that she couldn’t run and play while in her dresses — that it wasn’t ladylike — and she said that she would tell them, in her 4-year-old way, that a statement like that just wasn’t true … and then went on to prove it by running, digging in the dirt, playing house, making art and doing anything else she felt like doing.

She would dump the sandbox sand from her shoes when she got home, and ask us about various activities and whether they were for boys or girls. We would tell her that those activities were pretty much for everyone, and then she would make up scenarios about defending her friends for the things they liked, and not letting anyone tell her what she was or was not allowed to like. She would show everyone that she could do anything she wanted, wear anything she wanted, act any way she wanted and that, as long as she was kind and fair to others, that every single bit of it was OK.

My daughter celebrated her 5th birthday in January, and she is more decisive than ever when it comes to her clothes, toys and overall perspectives. She still has questions about the world and how people fit into it, but she doesn’t have limits on what she can like, so she doesn’t try to limit herself. She doesn’t need to revisit her stories of defending her friends as much anymore, because they have become a fundamental part of her own personal narrative.

She still loves princesses, but her color choices are broader. Her clothing choices are still her own, but she doesn’t confine herself to styles that she thinks that girls have to wear. She’s decided that she wants to try fencing instead of dance classes — that she’s also interested in martial arts — and she tells us those things while doing her version of ballet in our living room, doing “squats” (pliés), singing “Let it Go” (from Frozen) and clutching a Tiana princess doll in her hand.