To entice my first son to move from his crib to his new “big-boy” bed, we told him we would paint it any color he wanted. He did not hesitate for a single second: PINK!
He said this with a huge grin, and the unbridled enthusiasm of a little kid being given the freedom to make a decision all his own. Pink was his favorite color, and I had made a habit of challenging anyone who raised an eyebrow. “What do you think this is,” I would ask with varying levels of indignation, “the 1950s? It is a color. He likes the way it looks.” It was shocking the number of people who felt they needed to weigh in on this. Friends and family members alike, people I believed to be intelligent and open-minded, rolled their eyes and made jokes. Pink is a girl’s color. Pink is a gay color. Archaic, ignorant, outdated nonsense.
So, there my son was bouncing with excitement at the new color of his bed. “Any color other than pink,” I said immediately. I did not debate this answer. My better self - a man who strives to battle stereotypes as a classroom teacher, who does laundry and irons my own clothes, who took tap dancing lessons as a kid - was nowhere to be found.
The same thing happened when we took him to his first baseball game. The Phillies were enjoying the best years of my lifetime, and that first trip to the park was a father’s dream. Already sporting his foam finger on one hand and carrying the sticky remains of his helmet sundae in the other, we marched into the store to buy him his first Phillies hat. There were blue ones and red ones, gray ones with the Philadelphia skyline, and black ones with the Philly Phanatic. Again, he did not hesitate. PINK!
There in that store, I told him he could not get a pink hat. I looked my two-year-old son in the eye and told him that those hats were only for the girls. I lied, and told him that the person working at the cash register would not allow him to buy it. I told him it was against the rules.
I didn’t like what I was doing. I aspire to be better than that. But a boy in a pink hat gets teased, and I wanted to protect him. I did not want other kids to have an easy target to belittle him or make him feel bad about his choices. In my attempt to protect, however, I became the one doing just that. Despite my intentions, I was the one telling him that what he naturally liked was wrong. As a way to mitigate my feelings, I bought him a pink baseball to go with his red hat.
It is amazing the weight of the baggage we carry from childhood, and the ability our own children have to stir it up from the past. I was not good at sports when I was young, but could knock out a solid triple time step in tap shoes. I spent my summers at theatre camp. I got labeled a “faggot” right around junior high. I remember sitting in a class as a kid poked my butt with a ruler. “You like that faggot?”
That little kid version of myself keeps popping up; he is not going to allow that to happen to my son. If that means embracing stereotypes, he tells me, then so be it.
Last week, my son’s school offered a night for kids to try out instruments for next year’s band class. Immediately, my son knew which instrument he wanted to play: the flute. If instruments were colors, drums would be black, the brass section would be a combination of blues and reds, the flute would be pink.
As soon as he said it, my childhood self jumped right back to the surface. A boy with a pink bed is going to be made fun of by someone. A boy with a pink baseball hat is too. “So is a boy who plays the flute,” said my childhood self.
This time, however, I was determined not to show my thoughts. Still, I struggled with the urge to encourage something else, something more stereotypically masculine. Play the drums, I found myself thinking. Play something from the brass section. Out loud I told him the flute was great. I told him it was a beautiful instrument. “Good luck with the flute,” I said as my wife took him off to tryouts.
When he came home and told me that he wanted to play the trombone, I was thrilled. He had tried the flute, and hated it. I was relieved that he would be playing something that would make him a little less of a target for the type of kids who went after me when I was little and insecure. More importantly, I was relieved that he decided against the flute simply because it was so difficult to play. I had not sent him the message that his interest in it made him less of a boy. I had not reinforced that his interests could ever make him less of a man. These days, he is leaning toward the flute again and I hope he tries it.
I hope the little boy in me that keeps popping up as my two young sons navigate this world, shows them what he did not know - that what interests you can’t be wrong. I hope that from here on out my sons will see my ability to arrange flowers in a vase, my love of Taylor Swift and Beyonce, the way I shower them with hugs, as no different than my love of playing ice hockey, and drinking good beer. Those are not things women like, or things men like. They are things Dad likes.
Yesterday, while I was coloring with my youngest son, he told me kids at school were teasing him. When I asked him why, he said it was because he likes the color pink. “Well, that is silly,” I said, reaching for the pink crayon. “It is red mixed with white. I like red. I like white. I can’t like them mixed together because I am a boy? That makes no sense.” He laughed. We colored.
“Cool pink monster,” he said. Damn right.