How my pink-loving son made me confront my weird gender biases

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Kyle Wiley
Me and my son.
Me and my son.
I've always considered myself a pretty progressive dad, riding the wave of modernity in the 21st century.

In our household, the lines of the past that steadfastly identified what was considered "man" and "woman" responsibilities were more flexible. And everything from diaper changing, feeding, paying bills and getting up late at night to tend to a sleeping baby is divided based on whoever's hand is on deck at any given time.

It's not the easiest job in the world, but to be honest I felt pretty good about being what most people would label a "modern dad" and I wore that title like a badge of honor.

My title was put to the test however the day my wife brought a particular hula monkey toy home for my son…

The first thing I said to my wife was, "Um, that can't be for my son. That thing is wearing a skirt"

"So?"

"Well, skirts are for girls, and he's a boy so we have to return it for a monkey with a pair of jeans or something."

HulaMonkey

My wife rolled her eyes, calmly asserted that I am being silly, and eventually the toy was given to my son. That little hula monkey ended up being one of his favorite toys as an infant, and I realized that I, indeed, was making a big deal out of nothing.

Fast forward to his toddler stage…

My son is asked what his favorite color was and he emphatically replies that it is pink. Deep down his answer made me a bit uncomfortable, but I didn't show it. I gave him a hug and let him know how awesome his selection was.

But why did I have that reaction? What hell was I afraid of?

For starters, my thinking was that pink is a "girl color." It's not just a girl color, but the international spokescolor (yes, a made up word) for girls. You see it on every dress, tutu, and Barbie convertible that is marketed towards little girls. So how could it be that my son, who loves to collect bugs, do karate, and play with race cars, would actually like something that is so obviously… girly?

When I was a kid, if you were a boy who admitted you were a fan of pink, you'd instantly be the object of ridicule of every bully in a three-classroom radius. I suppose my fear stemmed from a misguided desire to protect him from that kind of scrutiny. (I also believe that it is more frowned upon for little boys to explore activities outside the perceived gender role, than it is for girls to do the same. But this is subject matter for another time!)

After some reflection however, I began to understand that the issue was not with him liking this color, but with the fact that I had a problem with it at all. I then realized that maybe I'm not as much of a forward-thinking father as I had thought. Maybe I'm just as guilty of the same male chauvinistic stereotypes that were the norm during my father's generation and the generation before his.

After I accepted this reality, I then decided to explore these feelings in order to understand, then overcome them.

And so began my journey…

So, who decided that pink was a "girl" color anyway? After doing a little research, it turns out that the practice of associating colors with gender is a fairly recent concept. According to an article on the Smithsonian Magazine's website, there was a time as early as 1918 when pink was considered the primary color for boys and blue for girls. The public perception began to change around the time accurate prenatal testing had become standard practice. Child and infant clothing retailers, looking to make money, capitalized on this trend and began to shift their products and advertising campaigns toward gender-specific colors.

Then the cycle is perpetuated: as these gender-specific colors become more defined, as parents and as a society, we tend to push these values onto our children earlier and earlier. I'm almost certain that my perceptions were directly influenced based on this trend.

So basically, the wool was systematically pulled over my eyes to believe that pink is a color exclusively for girls from the moment I arrived on this earth.

Despite this however, there's already evidence of the tide beginning to change.

Remember the picture of a mother and son with pink painted toenails, taken for the 2011 J. Crew spring catalogue that caused quite the controversy? It is an indicator that the mainstream is once again evolving and pushing boundaries.

For me, the picture didn't bother me at all. Little did I know that my son would once again unknowingly push my personal boundaries.

I came home from a long day's work to a giggling wife. Perplexed, I asked her what was up. She sheepishly opens up her phone and shows me this picture:

ToenailsApparently, he saw mommy painting her nails and thought it would be cool to copy her. He then grabbed his marker and proceeded to color his toes. My wife thought it was hilarious. I'm ashamed to say that I blew it out of proportion and was pretty upset. I considered scolding him or at least explaining why what he did was wrong. Thankfully my wife brought me back down to earth, just like with the hula monkey, and reminded me that I was being ridiculous. He was only a toddler and if I did end up confronting him with negative reinforcement, it would have likely done more harm than good.

So going through all of this, what lessons have I learned?

I've learned by understanding the false stereotypes that were taught to me in my youth, I am able accept the past without compromising my future. All that matters is the fact that I love my son and as his father, it is my job to ensure he is raised in an environment where he feels safe to express himself. That includes him deciding to like pink, purple, blue, or any other color he so wishes… Or if he ever wanted to try on his mommy's shoes… Or any other thing that someone might consider "girly." I will almost bet you that in the eyes of a child, most activities that we as adults tend to categorize with a gender are completely neutral to them.

Plus, who knows? Maybe in 50 years, pink will be the "it" color for boys once again.

Have children ever made you confront your own gender biases?

  1. Thanks for this! This is awesome.

    Especially the part about where the spokescolors for genders came from….

  2. You're a great dad! Thank you for sharing this side of things. I have a son who had a pink bike, not because HE thought it was girly but it turns out later we found out he has trouble seeing shades of colors…so all the boys bikes looked black to him and he didn't want a black one. He wanted a color and pink was a color he liked. Adults all worried about it, but you know, not one of his 10 year old friends said a word about it to him. He rode that thing for years.

    As for this sentence, "I also believe that it is more frowned upon for little boys to explore activities outside the perceived gender role, than it is for girls to do the same. "

    You're right. The reason is because being male is considered a good thing, and being female is a lesser thing. So for boys to explore outside their perceived gender roles means being more feminine, which is a perceived and taught negative. Girls going outside of their gender roles are kind of "leveling up," so to speak, while boys doing the same are leveling down.

  3. While we may be born as blank slates, we all acquire our incorrect/unfair biases along the way. It can't be avoided. What matters is how we choose to deal with them. Kudos for recognizing yours and making a concerted effort to overcome them for the sake of your family. (And what a cute pair you and your son make!)

  4. I have almost the opposite problem with my niece. All of her gifts on the registry were pink themed. It's her mom's favorite color so I didn't say anything. In fact, many of the gifts I got were pink too. Still, it makes me a little uncomfortable to see her conforming to the stereotype right away. But then again, why is it bad that she may like a certain color? It is just a color after all, one that I liked during parts of my childhood.

    • I've been thinking about this a ton because I'm due to have a girl in a couple of months. To me, the issue is totally not with the color pink – it's actually one of my favorites, and I wear pink shirts and dresses pretty often. It's with the fact that my kid might not get to choose for herself. It seems like if every piece of clothing and every toy she sees for the first 2 years of her life are pink, it will take much more effort for her to declare some other color her favorite. Also, it sort of bothers me that everything has to be gendered right from the get go. I think gender shouldn't start to matter until much later – puberty, maybe? (pipe dream!) – so marketers' insistence on making girl things and boy things bugs me. Can't we just have kid things?

      • Yes, THIS on so many levels!!! Drives me crazy! I'm due any day now with a girl and I've encountered the same thing. Part of me has further emphasized the "from the 20-week ultrasound, it LOOKS like a girl…" thing out of the desire for people to not automatically go "oh, it's a girl, so everything must be pink and purple."

        Also, Mr. Wiley, you are an awesome dad! Thank you for sharing your story with us!

        • This was actually one of the reasons that we decided not to find out the gender of our baby before she was born. Our family and friends gifted us with lots of adorable neutral items, and I liked everything better than most of the SUPERPINK! items marketed for baby girls.

          • THIS. I told my husband I don't want to find out when we get pregnant because "the longer we can stave off my Mum buying ALL THE PINK THINGS" the better.

      • Kid things FTW! My daughter is 5 weeks old, and we made a concerted effort to buy things in colors other than pink – her stroller/car seat combo is grey and teal, her play mat is red, her swing is green, and her clothes are a healthy mix of colors, some of which were purchased in the "boy" section. (There's a distinct lack of dinosaurs and rocket ships in the girl section, what's up with that?) I like colors other than pink and purple, why should she be color-coded? I did make a concerted effort to avoid outfits that advertised her sweetness, cuteness, status as a princess or diva, suggested her dating status or her father's number of shotguns, and similar stereotypes, because she'll get enough of that from the world, she's not going to get it from me.

        Even after all that, when I'm going to take her into a herd of strangers, I make sure she has some pink on her outfit or a bow in her hair, because I'm already tired of conversations like,
        Stranger: Oh, he's gorgeous, what's his name?

        Me: Cordelia.

        Stranger: * Apologizes profusely*

        And there's only so much of that I can handle, you know?

        • I had the same with all of mine, even though their facial features were very much 'girl' or 'boy', probably because I dress them in gender-neutral stuff until they can indicate a preference. Which means that my 10 month old boy is wearing 'girls' leggings, because he is very active and they're more comfortable for him than jeans/slacks/chinos. Also, what is up with the price differences? Boys clothes are so much cheaper than girls clothes, and seem to be better quality.

          • let me just tell you my 15 month old little boy straight up ROCKS the multi-color leggings. They work better for his active life, I love all the fun colors and who cares? He's a kid who's going to get them filthy and wear them out or outgrow them ASAP. And you know what kid's section has the better legging selection? Girls. So girls' leggings it is for the moment. 🙂

            Anytime someone asks me what "her" name is, I say Finn. Anytime they ask me what "his" name is, I also say Finn. And, because we live in the deep south, everyone thinks the name is Ben anyway when I pronounce it with my non-southern accent (because how could Finn be just one syllable? Obviously it must be FEE-un.) 😉

        • That is why I always ask, "What is THEIR name?" or alternatively, directed at the baby in a "cute" voice, "What's your name sweetie?" Avoids this issue entirely. 🙂

          • I can NEVER tell with kids. Unless they have fairly obvious hair/clothing (which they usually do) they basically all look identical to me up until at least like, age 10.

        • So much this! We when designed my sons room (before we knew he was our son) we planned the colours to be grey and red with a chalk board accent wall and forest decals. Everyone who saw it assumed we were having a boy. Since when are grey and red and forest animals for boys? I thought I was going neutral, but apparently the world thought it was a boys room. True, he does have a lot of clothing featuring handle bar mustaches, but that's because his dad has one, and if he had been a girl, there still would have been mustaches. I said let them figure out who they are and what they like on their own. My brother and I both had Barbie dolls and we both did martial arts, and I'd say we are as normal as anyone else.

        • My little boy (2 yrs) is usually dressed, in my opinion, VERY boyishly. However, he has long, beautiful blond hair, which is apparently a far more clear demarcation of gender than clothing. I frequently get questions about "her" name or age. To which I usually just reply with the correct pronoun (his name is Aiden which is gender neutral these days). Normally people just roll with it, but the effusive apologies tend to bother me. "No apologies necessary. There's nothing wrong with being a girl. He just isn't one." I'm hoping this is an attitude I can teach him as well. It isn't an insult to be called girly or a girl, because there is nothing wrong with being a girl. He just isn't one (unless it turns out he is, but that's a different conversation).

        • We've dressed both of our girls in a mix of "boy", "girl" and neutral clothes. I remain pretty non chalant when people ask the "What's his name?" type questions. The asker is usually very apologetic, and I simply reply, "It's alright. She doesn't know the difference yet either."

          • My biggest problem with people guessing the "wrong" gender is the apologies. Especially when she was a baby – she's a baby. Why on earth would it matter if you guess that she's a boy instead of a girl? The apologies almost come across as a bit of societal reinforcement (not deliberate of course) of the idea that I *should* care, because it's important.

      • Hate pink. Hated the idea of dressing my little girl in pink. First and only girl in the family, that was the color of most of the gifted clothing we got. She looked fabulous in pink. And dresses. We even called her the LPB (little pink baby).
        One day when she was two she dragged out some of her brothers clothes–a shirt with a fire truck–and she has never looked back.
        No matter what we try to do to ward off other people's perceptions or baggage, they will find a way to push that on you and your kiddo. I think the best thing to do is choose the colors you like, be the Offbeat parent you are and try really hard not to care what everybody else might think.

      • Gendered toys are such bullshit, there was this flowchart going around: How do you decide whether a toy is for boys or girls? Question: Do you operate it with your genitals? Answer: Yes – This toy is not for children! Answer: No – It is for boys AND girls.

        I would add, that accepting your kids gender presentation doesn't just mean accepting that you'r boy loves pink (and girly things) but also accepting if you get the little girl that loooves pink and dolls and the little boy that looooves blue and trucks. Not that this means you shouldn't still expose them to other options. Tastes can also change, that also doesn't mean they weren't valid. Etc. Etc.

      • I realise it's a VERY small sample size but when I was a kid the majority of my toys and clothes were pink and I don't think it affected my choice of favourite colour(s). I certainly liked a lot of pink things; I chose a pink and white winter coat for myself when I was 6 and wore it until it was falling apart, and the pink horse was my favourite of the 4 on my childhood wall paper. But I also pulled the pink ribbon off my toy lamb because it "looked silly" (apparently), always picked the yellow piece(s) in board games and for a while yellow dogs were my favourite animals. My favourite bowl and cup were red until I was old enough to be trusted with ceramics and glass and my favourite toy was a blue bear.

        My favourite colour varied a lot. For a while it was pink but red, yellow, blue and purple also got their turns. As an adult I've mainly settled on dark purple and blue but my more Mary-Sue Sims always seem to like yellow (or at least live in yellow themed houses).

    • I have a retail job, and clothing is one of the items my store sells. It drives me CRAZY that we have separate sections for "boy clothes" and "girl clothes" when the products are identical except for color. But then again, both kids and parents often ask for that; the market has been trained to demand it. I get questions like, "Don't you have this in a girlier color?" (the original item was black).

      I think that "boy colors" and "girl colors" is also a bit of marketing genius designed to make it harder for kids to wear their siblings' hand-me-downs, because heaven forbid a girl wear an orange coat. Making clothing, toys, etc. so gendered increases the odds that a parent will buy new items if their second child is a different gender than the first.

      • Gendered baby/children's clothing makes me crazy. Sure, I like to dress my little guy up in a shirt and tie with a fedora, but not every day. I'd like to pass his sleepers and onesies down to all siblings, boys or girls. That goes for shoes, coats, basically everything kids wear all the time. I know there are ways to get more neutral clothing, but it's definitely not mainstream. It's not just the colors, they even cut infant clothes for one gender or the other. Craziness!

      • I had to buy training pants for my daughter from Toys 'R' Us, because at 2 years she had already outgrown the ones at the regular stores. They didn't send me the same ones that the website said I had ordered. I don't really mind, because they're much more interesting than the ones that they showed, but I'm just furious at the idea that it's ok to send me something I didn't order, as long as it's still pink like the original order.

    • There is a difference. I love blue, I hate pink. I would dress my baby girl in blue. She is two and a half now, she is a hot wheel, Lego, foofa, Sophia, pink, loving girly girl. My son wore blue and he loves playing kitchen, hot wheels, legos, Xbox and getting his toe nails painted. it doesn't matter if your baby wore pink, blue, green, yellow. What matters it letting them grow understanding that it doesn't matter what color you like. Trust me, I hate pink but she is all about pink pink pink and I am fine with that 🙂

    • My mother (who is 61) was (before she became bedridden 3 years ago) the hardest working I know. She's always been feminine but not super girly, but her absolutely favorite color was pink.

      I don't think a favorite color has anything to do with how someone's personality is or how they'll turn out. Besides, favorite colors change. Now she says it's blue. I hated pink (and dresses) as a kid and now I love it.

  5. I think you should wear your Modern Dad badge with pride. You noticed something that made you uncomfortable and worked through your feelings with it. My own father (who is ~65 now) didn't start acknowledging his feelings until he was at least 60, and my grandfather died without acknowledging that men can even have feelings. I'd say being able to figure out why something is bothering you is pretty much the definition of modern (at least in this context). Also, I hope hope hope my husband can follow your example as our baby gets old enough to express opinions like these.

  6. i think to have the reactions you're having is understandable with the kind of social conditioning we're all fighting against…what makes you a truly awesome dad is that you're recognizing that these feelings go against who you want to be as a parent and you're challenging them. kudos, dude!

    also, you should know that boys liking pink is sooooo common (gender stereotyping issues aside). it's my son's favorite color too (he's 4), with purple and orange running close seconds. it's a very bright, vibrant, and happy color. of course kids of all genders are going to like it, just like kids of all genders like watching excavators dig holes.

    and one more thing…i painted my toenails this morning, and my son insisted that i do his too. this is just the "monkey see, monkey do" phase all kids go through. so now my son has sparkly toenails. 😉 he may not always want his toenails painted, but then again, he might like it.

    • My mom painted my boys' toenails and fingernails all the time. She called them their "magic" toes (or fingers). They always wanted me to do it but uh, no. Mommy has sensory issues that make fingernail polish feel like I'm being suffocated in plastics. Glad Nana could oblige!

      • I have the same sensory issue with my fingernails! (one of many ways I'm hypersensitive) I do like toenail polish though and when my (at the time) 3 year old son indicated that he wanted his nails done I obliged. It turned out to be just the incentive I needed for him to let me cut his nails (he has much more severe sensory processing disorder) so now he has a selection of his own polishes that dry in 30 seconds. Since his pre-school class focuses on a different color each week for the first half of the year so we match that and then the rest of the time he gets to choose.

        His teachers love it and so far the closest thing to a negative any of the kids have said was one little boy asking me (at a birthday party) why he had his nails painted. I just said "because he likes it" and the other kid was fine with that response. I'm hoping that level of acceptance continues into kindergarten next year but unfortunately I doubt it.

        • I hope so too.
          My son's day care kids never minded when my son had his nails (hands and feet) painted in multi-colors…The transition to K was smooth…Yay!

          I always answered "Because it is Awesome!"

  7. What's at the root of every single thing you talked about is this: male>female and therefore masculine>feminine. It plays out into male=good and female=bad. This is why it is more okay for girls to be "tomboyish," but it is less okay for boys to be interested in things we consider feminine. A girl raises her status when she acts "like a boy," while a boy lowers his status if he acts "like a girl." We are objecting to the boy choosing to lower his status in our eyes. We could of course avoid all of this if we stopped trying to define everything on a sex based dichotomy, and instead looked at expressions of personal identity as being simply on a spectrum of humanity.

    • This is something my dad never understood. He thought of himself as being a progressive dad, but I wasn't allowed ANYTHING even slightly girly. (I'm female.) My mom (they were divorced) let me have girly things, but i knew my dad disapproved, and hid them from him.

      I can, in fact, like playing with both barbies and trucks.

      Feminism isn't about limiting choices for boys or gitls. It's about ensuring we have equal choices, which are seen equally valid.

      Great article!

  8. Thank you for posting this, and especially for including the parts where you (now) aren't proud of how you acted at first.

  9. This is a terrific piece and you are a terrific dad! I'm happy that there are starting to be more and more parents like you out in the world today, raising kids.

  10. My little (male) cousin chose my very pink with hearts hand-me-down backpack to wear to kindergarten when presented with many options. It didn't predict anything about his adult personality, other than he knows what he likes and is confident in his choices.

    I mean…not a parent…but it sounds like your child is in good hands. 🙂

  11. I took a psycholinguistics course in college where I came across a study about the colors that kids like. The setup was that the kids were put alone in a room with identical scooters in different colors, and just asked to pick one to play with on the playground with other kids. All kids (boys and girls) would pick the color in the brightest hue. So if neon pink was the only "bright" color, every kid would pick pink. When given a choice between only neon colors, every color was picked at close to the same rate.
    So basically, when parents aren't influencing kids decisions about color, kids will pick whatever catches their eye, pink, blue, or otherwise.

  12. This was such a great read, thanks for sharing your story! The issue of pink totally made me think of a few articles I read some time ago about pink being a neutral and even masculine color, and so I went digging to find them..
    http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2010/03/25/when-pink-was-for-everyone-1950s-bathrooms/
    http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2008/12/21/men-in-pink-two-velasquez-paintings/

    I think the fact that you noticed your discomfort, sat with it, and thought about it….shows how very accurate the 'modern dad' title is here…bravo. May more fathers raise their sons and daughters with this questionining (and of course, mothers as well)

  13. Pre-20th-century, boys & girls were dressed identically until around age 5-6, & then boys were "breeched" meaning they were allowed to wear pants instead of the dresses they'd been wearing like all little kids did. We've pushed this gendering of infants back earlier & earlier than we ever did for eons of time. Nobody used to care, at least not until the kid was of an age that they could be promised into marriage to someone (for the upper classes, of course 😉

    • We have family photos of my grandfather (born in 1912) when he was a "little girl". He wore dresses with long wavy blonde hair. That's just what everyone did back then! For me, I struggled a little when my son (3 1/2) picked out a pink strider bike at the store. Not because I thought he shouldn't have a pink bike, but because I worried that other kids might pick on him. But we decided to get it for him because it made him happy. And no one (to my knowledge) has said anything negative about the color.

      • Yes! We have a similar portrait of my great grandfather, who also himself always referred to it as "the picture of me when I was a little girl."

        Nowadays it seems like the best chance you've got is the christening gown…

        • Even christening gowns are going the way of the dodo for boys. I've seen a lot of white pantsuits being sold for christenings (and I've seen them used). Because, apparently, you can't put boys in skirts.

  14. When I was a kid, I consciously decided (as soon as I could consciously decide things) that my favorite color was blue and not a "girl" color like pink or purple because, as a girl, I didn't want to be like most other girls (real? imagined? I have no idea). I held on to this for so long that I did not realize that I actually liked wearing pink and red (and that the colors suited my hair and skin tone) until I was about 22 years old. Though I was working in reverse by rejecting pink, it still shows how silly the gender association aspect of colors is. Pick items in colors that make you happy, no matter who you are or how old you are.

    Meanwhile, my little half-sister is a vehement fan of pink and purple, and I love hearing her declare with such enthusiasm how much she loves these colors, the same ones I rejected at her age.

  15. My 3-year old son is finally potty-trained. After I bought him Frozen underwear (size 4 girls). This morning he picked "Elsa panties!" and told me it was rude to pee on Elsa's face, so he's not going to do that today. (Hooray!!) He then grabbed his pink Minnie Mouse microphone and a red Lightsaber and proceeded to attack his brother while belting out "Do you want to build a snowman?" Right now, he has fushia fingernailsand Hulk green toes. He will only wear the navy blue and gray hoodie, but he desperately wants pink sparkle Crocs. I hope he's always like this.

  16. Seconding (thirding? fourthing?) the people who said that what makes you a modern dad (and a great dad) is that you noticed yourself thinking this stuff and applying it to your son, stopped and thought it through, and stopped doing it. We are none of us perfect, and the best we can hope for is to be self aware and willing to change!

  17. I love all of this. We are all culturally coded to have these reactions. What is most important though is how we are willing to reconsider what we have internalized, what is and isn't normal, and what we can do about it. You are a phenomenal dad and a great role model for your son. Keep doing what you're doing!

  18. This Dad has no place referring to himself as a 'modern father' or similar. He certainly is not modern, but worse is not open minded. In his favour, at least he has now acknowledged this and is working to improve. A shame that this is necessary though.

    • Whoa, judgey. Are you perfect in your every thought, with no childhood prejudice or leftover bias? This guy recognises the bias that he holds, whether from upbringing or just exposure to society, and he questions it and tries to correct it. I would say that makes him both modern and open minded.

      If only perfect people are allowed to be considered modern in your world, perhaps you are the close minded one?

  19. Thanks so much for your story – I am right there with you!

    I'm pregnant and before we knew what gender we would have, I was adamant (to myself) about not gendering our baby's stuff ("girls don't need pink – there's lots of colors to choose from"), thinking about how we could gently coax our family away from gender overkill, etc.

    After we found out that we are having a boy a few weeks ago, suddenly when I was looking at some clothes, I found myself thinking, "I don't know – that seems too girly." It made me realize how far more concerned I had actually been with our prospective little girl being clad in pink than a prospective little boy blue.

    So: I can only agree with your comments about brainwashing from an early age as well as the comments from readers about the gender-value discrepancy. Great job reflecting and adjusting – and kudos to your wife too! I hope that we can navigate as well in our family. 🙂

    On an aside, I think what also trips us up IS that everything seems to be gender-marketed. Yes, that top does look too girly for a boy. Why? Because it's styled exactly like grown women's clothing instead of just like KID CLOTHING! That's okay to a point (tiny versions of normal things are just supercute), it's just gone too far!

    • Yes, and even things that are "gender neutral" in their design have gendered additions. My daughter was wearing a beige onesie with a reindeer on it today. But because it came from the girls section, it has scalloped trim and a little now on the neck. All her pants (navy, black, etc) also have scalloped lacy ankles. Why? They're equally cute without them, and I'm sure those little touches stop people from buying them for their boys, which is too bad.

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