The Goon and the Pink Backpack

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!

47 Comments

Filed under Essays

47 responses to “The Goon and the Pink Backpack

  1. Natty

    Hi, I just wanted to drop in to say good on you for supporting your child as much as you do. Have you ever though of trying to explain there aren’t any “boy” or “girl” things to him? I know it’s a weird thing to explain gender dynamics to him, but I think he might benefit from being told that “boy” and “girl” are just silly made up lines created by people.

    • Yes, we’ve tried a soft approach to that idea. At 4 1/2, it’s a bit esoteric for him. We’ve tried to consistently reinforce the idea that he likes what he likes- and that’s OK.

      Thanks for reading any commenting!

      • Hi TMPinSYR! Kudoos to you and yours! You are a great dad! I hope you don’t mind but I posted your blog on my page called OutSpoken. It is a page for parents of GNC kids, friends, families and allies:) It is important for us/me to share stories like yours to help other parents know they are not alone in this journey with their “gender benders”. What you experienced and continue to experience with your little guy will ebb and flow, but it affects all little people in some form. Please take a moment to check out the page and see my response. Take care. https://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Outspo%CA%9Een/400105073407329

      • Thanks- I will check that out!

    • Philip

      Come on, you know it’s not that simple. Sure, gender color codings are made up, but so are justice and equality. These things have power.

      • They do have power- which can be the problem. Do the expectations that we (as a society) bundle onto these gender roles make the world better?

  2. Small thing, around the middle you typed “So now he liked girl stuff.” I think you meant “So now he liked boy stuff.”

  3. Pingback: The Goon and the Pink Backpack | Good news, everyone!

  4. Philip

    Same deal here. My boy is six, and one of classmates is very quick to point out anything girly. My kid was even worried that his selection of camouflage and skull lunchbox would be too girly. He’s still pretty psyched about his new pink and purple psychedelic pencil box, though.

  5. I can’t begin to say how lucky your children are to have a parent like you. I’m sure you hear that a lot–but I doubt you hear it enough. And this makes me think about how unfortunate it is that sometimes we adults make the world more complicated and more difficult than it needs to be.

    I remember when I was four years old telling my mother pink was my favorite color. And she said, “Oh no, you can’t like pink. Pink is a girls’ color.” This experience didn’t have a profound effect on me–I wasn’t traumatized in any way, but it did annoy me that because of some nonsensical rule I couldn’t like what I liked.

    To my mother’s credit a few years later when Star Wars came out and I started collecting and playing with the action figures she called them “dolls for boys”. I thought that was a cool description, and it made me feel like I was allowed to share something that had previously been just for girls.

  6. Kat

    When I was about your son’s age, I decided I was neither a boy nor a girl, but a human being. What flipped me was being told “girls can’t do math.” Since I could do math extremely well, I obviously wasn’t a girl. Since I lacked the obvious equipment, I wasn’t a boy either. But I was inarguably human.

  7. Little Green Man

    Did you mean to put The Goon’s real name in there?

  8. Matt

    In the paragraph starting “Last Saturday night”, I think you may have used your son’s real name.

  9. cabalist

    Wow, love it. The idea, the process, not the vulnerability brought on by what others may (or may not) think. Oh the pain!

    I have a little woman (3-3/4) struggling against everything being thrown at her (everything pink, at least) to become a BIG STRONG WOMAN. I always tell her, “we don’t do things because of what others say or think, we do them because we think that they are right.”

    It is going to break my heart if she starts to do things to help her ‘fit in.’

    My best to your little guy (guys), be strong and know that Mom and Dad love you! …and THAT is all that matters.

  10. Posting as a family therapist and an educator of graduate students in psychology/mental health – thanks for these two posts.

    I’m curious, have you considered adopting some pink/sparkly yourself to model “pink isn’t just for girls?” Or “girly stuff isn’t bad”? I was thinking of this great father/son team: http://gawker.com/5938676/father-of-the-year-helps-dress+wearing-son-feel-comfortable-by-putting-on-a-skirt-himself

    • I saw that article and loved it. I did wear a pink shirt to work a few days later- and made sure to point out to the Goon how much I loved the shirt. I could probably do more, though. Fair point!

  11. I feel your pain. Our son was similar. Until he started elementary school, his favorite color was purple (purple tie-die no less), and he wore exclusively purple clothes, and brought his purple backpack proudly to school on the first day.

    Within a week he was asking for non-purple clothes, and although he continued to use the backpack throughout the year, he never wore purple again.

    My wife and I seemed to be more emotionally impacted than he was. Kids are always revising their concept of how the world works, so it seemed to be a relatively quick and apparently easy transition to decide he wasn’t going to wear purple anymore.

    However, there may still be hope: now, two years later, he recently confided in me that he still really likes purple.

  12. Mark Morris

    Thanks for being a good dad. You are making the world a better place because of the goodness you show your son.

  13. walden

    I”m 7 and a boy. I like purple and have long hair. Tell Goon I”m sorry that happened to him. I’m glad he still likes pink. Wish we could be friends. I know how it feels to be teased.

    • I really appreciate you sharing that. I’d tell you the same thing I tell the Goon- it’s OK to be you. I’ll bet the world will really appreciate that one day!

  14. David Gervais

    If you have not already found it, see:
    http://raisingmyrainbow.com/

  15. Jed G

    My kindergarden-aged son had a pair of pink socks with smiley faces on them, that he was excited to wear [to school and elsewhere]. Early in the fall, one of the other kids in his class said that they were ‘girl socks,’ and he’s not worn them since. We know it affected him, but at the time he was sensitive to every comment from everyone since he’d not learned who to pay attention to and who to ignore. I wear pink dress shirts from time to time, and he also likes to wear his pink dress shirt to school (without negative comments, interestingly – pink button-downs are ok, but not pink socks?). The peer pressure at recess is relentless (most teachers keep a lid on it during class).

  16. T G

    I would love to have our kids meet some time. My little guy is equally into “girl” stuff!

  17. Pingback: Epilogue – A Weekly M.U.S.C.L.E. Figures Related Review | University of M.U.S.C.L.E.

  18. Tom Watson

    An interesting read. As a new parent myself, I’ve noted those same challenges. Both my boys (6 and 4) like to dabble in “girl stuff”… and when they take that to school, the older kids (boys and girls alike) seem to raise their concerns to him. Many times, he has come home with hurt feelings.

    He has managed to maintain his independence with help from the internet… I have shown to him how pink used to be the boys color while blue was a girls color (way back in the ’20s and earlier. I believe the switch occurred around the 40′s). When he painted his nails, I’ve shown him the crazy photos of many ingenious people that had a big impact on our society, and just how out of place they looked!

    To date, he has continued to stick to his guns. Yes, the circle that likes to hang with him has changed, but in life, it’s always changing.

    Anyhow… a good read. I’ll have to check the other articles out.

    • Thanks for sharing your own experiences. I think you’re handling it the right way. Good luck!

    • T

      I would just love to have a gathering sometime..perhaps a ” Be who you want to be, wear what you want to wear” sort of thing. People could bring multi- gender dress up clothes and mirrors and cameras and play! These kids need a community of support!

  19. Pingback: Boys who like pink | My Family Blog

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  22. Samantha

    My 5th grade son has asked for a pink backpack. Googling “boys backpack pink” lead me here! My son is a bit older than yours (age 10) and has always had a preference for more stereotypically “girl” things. He’s also a pretty amazing peewee football linebacker. This is, however, the first time he’s asked for something as, well, pink as a backpack. I was torn because I always want him to be himself but I also want to protect him from the assholes out there. Struggling with the fact that I can’t have it both ways…

  23. Pingback: Stuck in the Middle (With Me…) | TMPinSYR

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