By Fiona Leary Boucher
For months, my son had been asking me to sign him up for soccer. Every day during school recess, he and his classmates chased a ball across a field where green grass was on a slow surrender to a growing oval of dirt between two goals. There were few rules, an unlimited number of players, and no teams. To say he was passionate is an understatement.
After registering him for the town’s soccer league, we received a list of equipment to purchase and headed to the sporting goods store. My son is not known for silence, but when we walked inside his quiet eagerness bordered on awe. A store clerk greeted us, showed us to a rack with neon-colored shin guards, and frowned at the low selection.
“Is pink okay?” the salesman finally asked me.
I held my breath, so many thoughts racing through my mind that I was afraid to say the wrong one. However, it wasn’t my decision. I looked at my son, who either hadn’t heard the question or didn’t understand why pink shin guards would be a big deal, and I repeated it for him.
“That’s fine,” he answered.
My son held onto the shin guards and we moved to the next item on our list. My heart was pounding the entire time. I was so proud of him and certain he was going to rock those pink shin guards even as I thought up excuses to return them and convince him that we would find something “better” at another store.
What stopped me was the knowledge that if I had put those pink shin guards back on the shelf, I would have undone all of the hard work on values that we are trying to instill in my son: tolerance, equality, respect, and confidence.
Unprepared for my own reaction, I felt ashamed. I had graduated from a women’s college and was taught to see gender inequities. I live in a diverse town in a progressive part of my state where other parents strive to raise their children with many of the same values I have. Why then, would I feel an impulse to reinforce gender stereotypes with my own son?
Because people can be cruel. Because my son is past the age when boys wearing pink tutus and sequined shoes is seen as adorable. I worried that it would take just one snarky comment to sew the seeds of self-doubt and crumble the foundation of values we have been laying for my son.
But there was another reason why I hesitated over those pink shin guards with even more insidious implications: I am a product of my society, just like everyone else. From the very beginning, we have been conditioned to behave and think in specific ways that are deeply embedded within us despite where we learn, where we work, and who we meet. Social conditioning is not an excuse to justify any form of discrimination, but it can help us understand our own biases and their pervasiveness in daily life. I truly believe that a boy should wear pink shin guards if he wants to, but I cannot undo the fact that I have been raised in a society that discourages males from embracing feminine emotions, occupations, sports, toys, or clothes, and that this conditioning produces visceral reactions like the one I experienced in the store.
What’s even more troubling is that I wouldn’t have thought twice if I saw a girl choosing blue shin guards. Women have fought tooth and nail for gender equality and have made considerable strides in male-dominated arenas. We encourage our girls to be strong, independent, fierce, a message that has been normalized in popular culture through a recent string of Disney heroines like Merida, Moana, and Elsa.
But in preparing our girls to enter a man’s world, we continue to devalue women. After all, do we encourage or teach our boys to cross the gender barrier? When they do, are we praising them or are we rebranding the attitudes, behaviors and styles they adopt, like the “man-bun”? I can’t help but wonder what our world would look like, for women and men, if we freed our boys from enforced gender stereotypes.
As a mother, I think a lot about the kind of men I would like my sons to be. I think about the ways in which women are disregarded, disrespected, and dismissed, and I think about my responsibility to raise sons who treat women as fellow human beings. In a #MeToo era, rife with subtle and not-so-subtle signs of toxic masculinity, it seems like an impossible task with enormous stakes. We spend so much time trying to cultivate and present our most perfect selves to the world, but if we do not stop to recognize our biases when they occur, how can we address them in a larger context? How can we move forward if we do not teach our children the lessons we were not taught? How can we see progress if we do not set better examples than the ones that were set for us?
On the first day of soccer practice, my son put on his new socks. They reached half way up his thigh and dangled beyond his toes. I had bought the wrong-sized socks by mistake. He rolled them off, unperturbed, and pulled the pink shin guards over his bare legs.
At the soccer field, he raced to join his teammates while I trekked to the sidelines with my folding chair. I looked at the players’ legs in private amusement: they all wore socks over their shin guards. No one could even see what color they were.
And then my eye fell on one boy who was quick with his feet and in firm control of his soccer ball.
His socks were pink.
Fiona Leary Boucher lives and writes in Connecticut. She is the mother of two lovely and very rascally boys.