Over the last 2 1/2 years, I’ve written about my youngest son, the Goon, and his perspective on the world. His preferences and choices tend to challenge some gender roles. As his father, there have been moments that were heartbreaking along the way.
Our journey watching his unique choices began when, as a 3 year old, he picked out his own footwear for the first time. His choice? A pair of purple and silver Dora the Explorer sneakers. I wrote about the separate-but-similar reactions that The Queen and I had at the time. We wrestled with the opposing instincts to support him in expressing himself while still concerned for the social conflict we were sure he’d face. Society does not allow one to challenge its mores without consequence.
Last summer, we watched with sadness in our hearts as the Goon found out exactly what his parents were afraid of — other kids expect him to follow the typical gender patterns. His choice of a pink backpack as he prepared for kindergarten just wouldn’t fit in. The reaction of kids around him didn’t surprise us — but it was no less upsetting for being expected.
When I told the backpack story a year ago I was amazed at the response. The story resonated with many, many people. The response affirmed my deeply-held belief: the world is a wonderful, diverse place. While we may assume that there is no one else facing the same challenges that we do… we are not alone. People around us — everyday — step away from the norm. And they struggle, too, as they swim against the tide.
Knowing that others face the same societal pressures as your child is one thing. Standing resolute as he faces yet another test is something else. Which brings us to Chapter Three in The Goon’s Journey.
The Goon’s kindergarten year progressed as the Queen and I expected. He made lots of friends (the best friends all girls), charmed his teachers, and made it easy for his parents to pick out his projects at every Open House — his color motifs were always pink or purple. And in the spring, when he needed a new pair of sneakers to replace those he had so quickly grown out of, he picked a pair of pink low top Chuck Taylors. Classic Goon.
Things were great — for a month or two. Then the Goon started complaining that his new sneakers which he had proudly shown off to anyone who’d asked hurt his feet. They didn’t fit right. He couldn’t wear them anymore. The real reason once we got him to share it was exactly what you’d expect. On the bus one day, some older kids had made fun of the quiet, sweet little boy with the pink sneakers.
Unsurprising — and still heartbreaking. Although, as the Goon shared his story with us, I noticed one bright spot. The Goon smiled as he explained that his best friend in the neighborhood — let’s call her H — had stood up to those older kids. “You leave my friend alone,” she said to those who were laughing at the Goon. “He’s nice.”
The Goon told us that as H had come back to his seat in the bus after telling off the bullies, he had thanked her. “Thank you, H. No one has ever stood up for me before.”
There it was. My path forward through the Goon’s story. He felt better knowing that he wasn’t alone. Someone was on his side. He couldn’t read all of the comments left by readers of my other stories. The concept of other unseen people struggling as they too balanced being themselves against society’s currents — far too abstract for a 5 year old. But someone standing next to him, on his side? That made him happy.
I thought about this for a while. I’ve defined my position clearly. I know that I can’t stand between the ugly parts of the world and my dear boy. But I was damned certain that he’d know that I stood with him.
“Hey buddy,” I said one evening a few days after he shared the bus story with us. “I was thinking that I need some new shoes but I want them to be really cool. If I bought some pink sneakers, would you wear yours when I wear mine?”
The smile on his face at the question was immediate and uplifting. “Sure!” he said. In that moment, the score was Dad: 1, Ugly Side of Life: 0.
So I am the proud owner of a pair of pink low top shoes. Pretty spiffy, if you ask me. The Goon’s pair, which had been thrown into the back of the closet, got pulled out and put back into rotation. The Goon and I look pretty cool as we rock those pink masterpieces, side by side. If you bump into us while we’re sporting them, tell the Goon you like them. As I’ve learned from Ken over at Popehat, the very best way to counter bad speech is by more — better — speech. Let the bullies say what they will — the Goon will be happy to hear that someone thinks his sneakers look cool.
So that’s where I’ll end this chapter. I’m just a guy. I can’t change the world. But I can stand next to him as a reminder that his dad loves him and thinks he’s great just the way he is.
My question to you is this: how do you support the people around you — especially those who need it? Please don’t think I’m referring only to those that challenge gender roles. I’m sure you have those in your life that are challenged with being different. Do they know where you stand?
And while you’re standing there, what color are your sneakers?