Yesterday, after I had finished getting dressed, Eli came into my room and said, "Mommy! Why are you wearing a collared shirt?" I said, "Because I like this shirt," to which he replied with a small smile, "But you look like a boy!".
"Really!?", I thought, "This coming from a boy who wears a sparkly Dora nightgown to bed and wigs and leg warmers!?".
I had to laugh, but I also had to be serious and take the opportunity to drive a lesson home. I asked him how it made him feel when people said he looked like a girl because of something he was wearing ("sad") and asked him how he thought it made me feel when he said I looked like a boy because I had a collar on my shirt ("sad"). I reminded him of past conversations we've had about not poking fun of someone because of what they are wearing or what they look like, that the important part of a person is what's on the inside. He seemed to understand (for the moment, anyway) and he turned around and scampered off to his Barbies.
This conversation appeared to resolve itself easily enough, but I know it's one of many that we will continue to have in order to reiterate the lesson.
I thought about this last night as I put Eli to bed and he told me about all of the things he plays with in his classroom. He told me about the "dress up" center. I asked him what he likes to dress up as and he said, "a builder". I have to admit, I was surprised. I was expecting him to say something like a princess or a ballerina since that's what he likes to dress up as at home.
"What do you like about dressing up as a builder?", I asked.
"The hat," he said.
Okay...so maybe he's going for a Village People kind of thing?
Still, something about this didn't sit right, so I pressed on and after a bit of digging, I got the answer that I knew was the real one lying under the surface: "People think I'm a girl when I dress up in girls' clothes."
"Does that make you feel bad?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
Of course, my first instinct was to be sad and feel sorry for him. I hate the idea of Eli not being Eli because he's worried about what other people think. I hate the idea that questions about wether he's a boy or a girl could upset him. But I also am beginning to learn that a person isn't necessarily being mean when they ask if he's a girl when he's wearing a dress or a wig. Sometimes, they are just being curious. They just want to know.
It's the same principle that applied to when he wanted to know why I was wearing a collared shirt. He wears a collared shirt to school. He's a boy. In his mind, boys wear collared shirts. And his mother, a woman, was wearing a collared shirt so he thought I looked like a boy. He wasn't necessarily being mean, he just was pointing out what was obvious to him and questioning something that doesn't fit into his framework.
This exchange helped me tremendously. It gave me tools to offer to help him construct open and honest answers to those questions that inevitably come up. Hopefully, a more cut and dried approach can help avoid hurt feelings when someone asks, "Why do you a have a Barbie lunchbox?". He doesn't have to assume that they are teasing him and the assumption that they are asking out of curiosity may offer him the ability to respond in a matter-of-fact way, taking the emotion out of the equation completely and perhaps avoiding an upsetting situation.
Of course, I'm not naive enough to think that everyone out there who asks is simply being curious. I know this isn't case. But for now, it is the case and so for now, this is our approach.
As I finished tucking Eli into bed last night, I asked him if he wanted me to get him a new lunchbox, maybe something more subdued (his lunchbox right now is pink, sparkly and has a big old Barbie across the front). He looked at me, wide-eyed and serious and said, "Oh NO. I LOVE my lunchbox."