Last year, I wrote about my youngest son- aka The Goon- and his selection of a pair of purple-with-silver-sparkles Dora the Explorer sneakers. I shared my reaction to my son’s very clearly articulated desire for the things that we would normally describe as “girly”. A lot of folks read that blog post and I’m genuinely humbled by the reaction. For me, the events I wrote about are all good. I came away from them believing that my son is a wonderfully unique little boy who knows who he is. As a father, that’s about all I think really matters.
So about a year and a half later, we’ve moved into a new house accompanied by my father (Papa), who’s still living in our basement, and welcomed the addition of my mother-in-law (who will be known as Nonni in my writings), into our crazy, loving household. (Yes- my father and my wife’s mother both live with us. No- they are not together. Yes- it is just as crazy as you might imagine. Nonni and I are going to write a sitcom. See you in Hollywood…)
My boys are now 14, 6, and 4. They are smart, considerate, sweet young men. I’m a lucky Dad. Life is good.
The Goon- our youngest- finished his last year of a pre-Kindergarten program. He is ready for the big league (or “school” as we call it). In fact, on the last day of pre-K, he had a mini-meltdown when he found out that he was not starting Kindergarten the same day. He was done with pre-K- why wasn’t he going to school with the big kids right then and there? A sweet little boy.
The last year and a half hasn’t mellowed the Goon at all. He is still our little bruiser (unfortunately for the Noodle, his 6 year old brother and usual victim of his ambushes). At the same time, his best friends in pre-K were all girls. He cried leading up to the Christmas party at school until we talked to his teachers and got the OK for him to be in the girls’ gift swap for the class party. He’s still a rough and tumble little guy that prefers pink.
Until a couple of weeks ago when he declared that he doesn’t like pink anymore and he doesn’t like “girl stuff”.
Prepping for September, my wife had taken the Noodle and the Goon shopping for school supplies. Noodle had picked a blue and gray digital camouflage design for his backpack. The Goon had selected, unsurprisingly, a vibrant peace-sign themed backpack in pink, yellow, and orange. It had a massive pink peace sign dangle that flashed LED lights when you moved it. Very cool- but a day or so later, the Goon made his announcement and told his mother that she needed to return it. The reason- pink wasn’t his thing. To quote Pinkalicious, one of the Goon’s favorite story book characters, from her book Purplicious, “Pink is passé.” (Actually, the Goon quoted her as he renounced his former favorite color. He was standing in front of my wife with one hand on his hip in super-sassy mode. Swear to God.)
Hearing about this from my wife, I was conflicted. When I wrote about his sneakers, lots of parents shared stories of their own children having, and growing out of, interests that we’d typically associate with the opposite gender. I had imagined what school would be like for the Goon wearing pink. I wasn’t looking forward to what I assumed would be some rough times for him. Life is tough enough all by itself without being 4 and challenging gender roles. If this was just a phase and he’d grown out of it- great, right?
But- there was something oddly abrupt in his announcement. I hadn’t given a whole lot of thought about the potential for him to change preferences but I assumed that, if that did happen, we’d see a gradual change- not a sudden reversal. Something about his statement seemed strange.
My wife and I discussed how to respond. After asking him later if he was sure about taking the backpack back to the store, she swapped it out for a comic-style skull motif in green, tan, and gray. It was just right, he said. Because he liked “boy stuff” now.
Over the next few days, my wife and I both casually asked the Goon about his decision to probe for some underlying rationale. Was he just growing out of his earlier tastes? Or was there some external impetus? For days, nothing. Any question was immediately responded to with an odd sort of detachment. Nothing happened. He just liked boy stuff now. Strange.
Last Saturday night, my wife went to see a local theater production featuring some of our friends. Goon, Noodle, and I were snuggled up on the couch watching a cartoon before they went to bed. Freshly showered and cozy in their PJs, the Goon was curled right up next to me, watching TV sideways as he used me as his pillow. On a whim, I simply asked the Goon why he didn’t like pink anymore. Did someone say something to him?
Very quietly, he said yes. One of his friends in the neighborhood, with whom the boys played almost every day, had told the Goon that no one would ever want to be friends with a boy that likes girl stuff. The Goon’s voice got softer and a bit more fragile. The Goon explained to me that if he liked girl stuff, everyone would laugh at him and no one would want to be his friend. So now he liked boy stuff.
As I’m writing this now, a week after he shared that with me, my eyes are tearing up. The world is a mixed bag of experiences- inspiring and disheartening, all jumbled together. I was hoping my boy wouldn’t see this ugly side of life yet. If you heard the plain vulnerability of his recognition of this fact, it would break your heart too.
Sometimes the world is a shitty place- especially if you’re a kid that might be “different”.
Even worse, I know that the Goon’s friend who said this had no malice. He’s only a couple of years older than the Goon. He’s a nice kid- I’ve watched them all playing together and I like this little guy. If anything, the Goon’s friend was simply voicing the broader group’s thoughts. It’s not his friend’s fault. He was just being honest based on our society’s cultural norms. It would have been easier if this was a movie-style villain who could be discredited and dismissed. But this isn’t a movie, and life is always more complicated than that.
As a Dad, my mind went to the worst possible outcome. I don’t know what a preference for pink, dolls, and all-things “girl” means for the Goon. Maybe it’s a phase he’ll grow out of. Maybe he might be gay. I have no idea. But all I could think about as the Goon quietly explained how he realized that, in this way, he wasn’t like all of the other kids, was that I didn’t want him learning that he had to hide some essential fact of who he is.
From my perspective, that is an all-too-slippery slope. I watched my brother, the boys’ Uncle that they call “Uncle”, hide who he was for 23 years- and be bitterly unhappy. He has shared with me how for all of those years, he never felt that he could be accepted for who he really was. I am now so privileged to watch his life transformed- and to see him so happy in his own skin- since he came out at age 23. I’m so proud to call him my brother. But I don’t want my son hiding some defining piece of himself for the next 20 years.
My wife and I have not made a big deal about the Goon’s reversal. In the same way that his selection of something pink wasn’t a big deal (as far as he knew), we didn’t make a fuss about exchanging the backpack and any other color choices he made. We don’t have an ulterior motive here- other than him being happy.
Here- again- is the parent’s dilemma. You want to protect your kids from the tough parts of life. But you can’t. Unless you’re willing to lock them away from the world, they’re going to have hard times. It’s our job as parents (or aunts, uncles, godparents, etc.) to give them the confidence in themselves to stand back up after they fall. Like Holden Caulfield, I want to erase all of the ugliness- all of the Fuck You’s- from the world. But just like Holden, I know that I can’t. I can’t be that catcher in the rye. He’s got to make his own way.
I’ve written a lot about family on my blog. I’m very lucky- I have a loving, supportive family. My boys lives’ are richer for having these wonderful people around them. After I shared the story with my wife, we shared it with some family and friends. As I’d expect, we got great insight and support. One of the best observations came from my brother-in-law, Jerry. With all of the understated class that I’ve come to expect from (and love about) Jerry, he said, “He is learning to adapt to his environment and will eventually find the balance between personal choice and the expectations of others.”
This is, after all, what growing up is about. The Goon has to be able to learn about the world around himself. He’s got to make his own choices based on his values, beliefs, and identity. There is nothing wrong with him prioritizing the things that are important to him. Through it, we’ve just kept reminding him how much we love him and how wonderful it is to be himself. I told him that it’s OK to be himself, even if some people don’t like it. That’s OK- because God made him just the way he is.
Hey- I’m an optimist at heart. I think the best part of being on this Earth is when we get to reach our potential as free-willed beings. Those moments of WIN!- not in some sporting event, but in those moments of wonderful humanity- are what makes our existence worthwhile. And I think that the Goon is on his way to a bunch of them. Just a couple of days ago, he shared a secret confession with his mom-
He still likes pink. Just don’t tell the other kids!