Halloween is just around the corner, and after a few close calls at a nearly empty costume shop I am happily on board the planning early train when it comes to this holiday. So the other day I sat the older kids down and asked them what they wanted to be:
2 year old boy: "Choo choo head". Okay, we can work on that...I think...
7 year old boy: "Star Wars". Okay, sort of broad, but we can definitely do that.
6 year old girl: "Pink princess".
At first, I have to admit I tried to talk her out of it. Why all the focus on pink and princesses? Why not be a strong female character like Amelia Earhart? No, she did not want to be Amelia Earhart, and I was slightly relieved as visions of me trying to construct a cardboard wearable plane popped into my head. How about Frida Kahlo? After perusing through some Google images she decided a firm no on the famed Mexican artist (although we both liked all the flower headpieces). I suggested Nancy Drew, since she just started reading my old books my mom had stored away, but she pointed out that costume wouldn't be very "fun" and I had to agree with her. Princess it was, and she wanted it to be pink. And "fluffy". And she wanted a tiara and maybe a wand. Oh and high heels, definitely high heels.
Instantly I thought I should steer her away from all the princessy stuff, all the pink stuff, the frou frou stuff. But why? Recently it seems like the knee jerk reaction is to challenge our girls to think outside the pink and challenge the notion that all things girl have to be pink and princessy. There is an underlying idea that the "girly" stuff is somehow less smart and less strong than more gender neutral items. Articles with headlines like "The War on Pink" have popped up, even a Change.org petition asking toy stores to desegregate their toy aisles. I've seen time and time again parents and kids alike be praised for nonconformity if they have a girl that plays with trucks or one that likes to "get dirty" or roughhouse, as if somehow girls must be either one way or another, either they like the "girly" stuff or they are "tomboys". The tomboys are viewed as stronger, more powerful, whereas the girls who play with the pink vacuum cleaner and the tiaras are seen as weaker. Parents feel the need to temper their children's girly sides by saying things like "Well she loves princesses but she also loves playing with the boys". Why must the "girly" side be viewed in any way as a negative, or one that might hinder her as she grows up? Can't the girly stuff be just as good as playing with the boys?
Levy is surrounded by the more stereotypical "boy" toys like superhero stuff, trains and trucks, and our garage is filled with pretty much every piece of sports equipment you can think of (I think we even have a cricket bat in there), and she can freely play with anything she chooses. But what message am I sending if I tell her what she chooses is somehow wrong, or worse, not the "smart" or "strong" choice? Is a pink princess fishing pole really that different from a red Iron Man fishing pole? Are we getting a little too hung up on the notion of "girl" toys and "boy" toys and losing sight of what is really important in a childhood?
My seven year old is in love with Star Wars, does that mean that he thinks he's going to actually be a Clone Trooper when he's older? Does my two year old think he's going to be a Choo Choo Head? (Actually I'm not sure about that one since we are still unclear as to what that means exactly, but still...) No, it's make believe, and he loves creating games with his friends where they pretend. So how is that somehow more appropriate than letting a little girl pretend to be a princess? I doubt my first grade daughter thinks she is going to live in a giant pink castle with a talking chandelier or a friendly crab who helps her along on her journeys, but I feel pressured to steer her past this route, and onto one that has more "empowered" girls, maybe girls who don't wear as much pink and don't make any appearances in Fairy Tales.
The fact is though, it's not that stereotypical "boy" toys are more powerful than "girl" toys, what is powerful is imagination, and giving kids the chance and the confidence to cultivate their own imaginative spaces, to create their own make believe, whether it's a girl pretending to be Spiderman or a boy who loves My Little Pony (honestly go watch the Brony documentary on Netflix if you haven't yet, pretty interesting stuff). Me telling my 6 year old that a pink princess somehow isn't a worthwhile choice only diminishes her and sends the message that her preferences aren't important and are somehow "wrong". What is wrong, however, is sending the message to girls who are more pink inclined that their choices aren't as smart or as forward thinking as the anti-pink chick from down the block.
I'm over the pink/no pink debate, and instead think the focus should be on letting kids be themselves, whichever type of toy they choose to play with and not getting crazy over the idea that they are somehow making these future life defining decisions based on their toy purchases when they are young. One toy aisle might be more pink and one aisle might be less so, but you don't need to prove your gender one way or another to be able to walk down one to browse or to purchase. I have bought many a Lego box from the "boy" aisle for Levy and Finn has had a lot of fun building the little Lego Friends sets that were purchased from the "girl" aisle. It's pretty straightforward, actually, if they like stuff from one aisle, get that, if it's from the other one, get that. Don't like the commercials that target kids one way or another? Don't have kids watch them, it works great for us.
Finally, don't condemn the pink princessy stuff as being silly or frivolous, because it could be a rich part of a little girl's imagination, a special part of her childhood. Chances are, it's not the only part of a child's imagination either, or the only part of their play. Encouraging them and empowering them to make their own choices, to let their imaginations run free through any toy aisle or as any character they like will help build strong people, boys or girls. It will also help them to be more open minded people in the long run too, and to be more respectful of each other's choices, be it the little boy who likes to play with dolls or the girl who has a Green Lantern lunchbox.