“Is That My Son in a Pink Dress!?”

I’m sure you agree that it’s no fun being the manager (or teacher) on the receiving end of a tirade from a parent who thinks you are letting something bad happen to their child.

How can we deal with this kind of emotional subject and put the parent at ease?

OK, it’s never going to be easy to change the mind of someone with a strong, emotional point of view, but we can pre-arm ourselves with a few facts to use in the best interests of their child. Maybe we can make a difference…

I love to play with dollies,
I have one for a toy,
I keep it very secret,
Because I am a boy!
(Althea Randolph)

"If I see my son in a dress again, I'm going to take him out of this centre!"

I’m sure you agree that it’s no fun being the manager (or teacher) on the receiving end of a tirade from a parent who thinks you are letting something bad happen to their child.

How can we deal with this kind of emotional subject and put the parent at ease?

OK, it’s never going to be easy to change the mind of someone with a strong, emotional point of view, but we can pre-arm ourselves with a few facts to use in the best interests of their child. Maybe we can make a difference...

Let's start by getting some background.

Today's parents have a strong desire to make their child’s gender clear to all onlookers but this hasn’t always been the case. In fact, it’s a fairly recent phenomenon.

The Case for Pink and Blue, Is Not Black and White!

Roosevelt BW

Do you recognise the person in the picture?

The photo was taken in 1884 when the boy was 2½ years old. His appearance was normal practice at that time. He wore a dress – and would keep doing so until about the age of 6 or 7, which would also be the time of the boy’s first haircut. The child’s outfit was not considered feminine, but gender neutral. Needless to say, the boy did not turn out to be a sissy! (You can see who it was here.)

For centuries, children wore white dresses up to about age 6. In fact, in portraits dating before 1850, it is nearly impossible to distinguish between boys and girls – the cut of their clothing was identical, with lace, ribbon and braided trim used for both.

For the most part, it was just a case of parents being practical. Dresses made toileting easier, the white cotton could be boiled and bleached without fading and the clothing could be handed down to subsequent children.

But it wasn’t solely about practicality. In those days gendered dress was actually considered inappropriate for young children. Their asexual innocence was seen as one of their greatest charms. Baby boys were not thought of as masculine, and to suggest otherwise was in poor taste. Only grown men were ‘manly’. As Paoletti puts it in her book (see Resources below), “Manliness had a whiff of sexuality to it, so to describe a toddler as ‘manly’ had a risqué air to it like referring to a little girl as a ‘hottie’ would be today.”

Isn’t that a significant change!? Modern parents work hard to proclaim their child's gender, while their great-grandparents felt it was more natural for young children to look like asexual cherubs.

On with the history lesson…

Pink and blue (and other pastel colours) did not start appearing for babies until the mid-19th century. They were not seen as gender identifiers until just before World War I - and even then, there was quite a degree of ambiguity. Paoletti quotes a June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw's Infants' Department:

"The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl."

Other sources at the time said blue was flattering for blonds and pink for brunettes; or blue was for blue-eyed babies and pink was for brown-eyed babies!

It wasn’t until the 1940s that today’s colour ‘rules’ started to become established - and manufacturers and retailers eagerly embraced them. Businesses have a vested interest in ‘genderising’ clothing; it makes it more difficult for parents to hand off clothing from one sibling to the next. But gender-neutral clothing still remained popular until about 1985, when there was a sharp upswing in gender-specific clothing. Paoletti cites two possible reasons:

  • Prenatal testing meant expectant parents learned the sex of their unborn baby around halfway through the pregnancy. They could then hit the shops for girl or boy merchandise (usually justified as ‘planning’ for the baby!).
  • The second was the rise of feminism in the '60s and the desire at that time to raise children (especially girls) as ‘gender neutral’. Those children of the '60s appear to have rejected that philosophy when raising their own children in the '80s. (The same phenomenon was seen in the early years of the 20th century, when the boys subjected to the Little Lord Fauntleroy craze in the 1880s and 1890s thoroughly rejected the ‘pretty, effeminate, mamma’s boy’ style for their own children – and in fact initiated the trend away from children in dresses that continues to this day).


Little Lord Fauntleroy suit

So, it’s only been a handful of decades since the segregation of colours (pink and blue) became an ‘iron rule’. And it's been less than a century since dresses for young boys were considered completely normal attire. In fact, there are men living today who wore dresses as children. Clearly, being made to wear dresses as a young boy has no long-term effect (apart from embarrassing baby photographs!). But, what if a boy wants to wear a dress as part of their play?

Is Wearing a Dress a Problem?

According to modern gender theory, children learn what to call themselves (the words ‘boy’ or ‘girl’) in infancy. Then they begin to connect the terms to other things, including clothing. They learn to assign gender using hair and clothing clues about a year before they learn the genital differences but there is a long period (roughly 3 to 8 years of age, strongest around 4 or 5) when the child knows their gender but is not convinced of its permanence.

In other words, a boy lives in a world with no restrictions on what he can be – a pirate, a super-hero, …or a girl. For most boys, wearing a dress can be thought of as simply exploring that world, and it's no different to dressing up as a pirate. (Imagine telling parents you worry their preschooler is on the way to becoming a pirate because he likes to dress like one!)

Come to think of it, that’s a great analogy to use for parents.

Tomboys and 'Tomgirls'

To academics, ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are not the same. ‘Sex’ is used to denote the biological difference between men and women. ‘Gender’ refers to the cultural differences – distinctions in role, appearance and behaviour.

Biological sex is not binary (either/or). As many as 1 in 100 adults have genetic or physical attributes other than ‘standard’ male or female. As many as 1 in 1,500 babies have genitalia that is sufficiently atypical that a specialist is consulted. Therefore, it follows that gender (being based on sex) is not binary either. In other words, we don’t each sit at one end or the other of a gender binary. And if someone doesn't fit our image of one end, it doesn’t mean they are headed all the way to the other!

A tomboy with a preference for male-style clothing is a good example. The girl may not exactly sit at the feminine end of the gender binary, but she can happily (and without anyone even noticing) dress to accommodate her preference. It has no stigma and will not be seen as a precursor to maleness or masculinity; it may even be seen as endearing or attractive. We don't give our ‘tomgirls’ the same freedom. (The English language has no positive term for the boy equivalent of a tomboy, so we invented one: tomgirls!). Dresses are widely considered female-only attire, leaving no socially acceptable expressive options for boys.

Maybe we can help your parents recognise this imbalance?

…and Beyond

Of course, we must leave the door open to the possibility that some boys will have a more pronounced ‘gender incongruence’ (once called gender identity disorder). They will go beyond dressing up to insist they actually are girls. Clearly, wearing or not wearing a dress while at your centre is not going to be a 'decider' for these children - and it’s likely a parent would know about this well before seeing their child in a dress at preschool, anyway. (If you're wondering if you have a child with gender incongruence, this may help.)

Food For Thought...

If you're dealing with an upset parent, the following may help:

  • A boy wearing a dress during play is not going to turn him into a deviant or affect his gender identity!
  • For centuries, boys wore dresses until the age of 6 or 7. Clearly, there is no connection between wearing a dress at that age, and conflicting gender identity later in life.
  • A child does not grasp the concept of their gender being permanent until around the age of 6 or 7.
  • There is no socially acceptable (invisible) alternative for the male equivalent of ‘tomboys’.
  • For some boys, their ‘gender’ may be at odds with their ‘sex’, but there's not many children in this situation.

It’s really sad to be distracting a boy away from something they love to do, just in case their parent sees them.

That’s a sad message for the child, too…


1 reply on ““Is That My Son in a Pink Dress!?””

One of my first altercations with a parent, as a new manager, was exactly this. I’ve never forgotten it. We all know some boys like to wear dresses. I had a wee man at one centre who arrived each day and put on the same tutu. Everyday. His Mum asked if she should be concerned. He was such a boy in all his other play! 🙂

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