So there we were—Big Truck Day 2009. It’s exactly what it sounds like—lots of big ol’ trucks rolled out by the Baltimore Public Works Museum. My son Milo, just shy of his third birthday, was wearing a black-and-white pirate shirt, Converse sneakers, and gray pants. (Yes, this is important to the story.) I was on stroller duty with our nine-month-old, Willa, as Milo giddily ran from truck to truck. He was in heaven. As he climbed into one big rig, the truck driver who was manning it took one look at Milo and remarked to my husband, “We don’t get a lot of ladies up here.”
Of course, my husband and I had a huge laugh over this, and I’ve probably retold this story at least 20 times. But I can tell you exactly why that man thought Milo was a girl: his hair. At that exact moment it was longish—his curls touching the top of his shoulders—sort of a Farrah-Fawcett-meets-Carrot-Top-type thing. And all that man could compute was long hair must equal girl.
Yes, yes, it happens all the time: A passerby coos and makes a fuss at a kid in a stroller and gets the gender all wrong. But that’s usually a baby, sporting a bald head and a gender-neutral shade of yellow or green. (Why do you think so many newborn baby girls have barrettes hanging by a thread in their wispy hair?)
People first started calling Milo a girl just after his first birthday. He was definitely too young to figure out what was happening. But as he got older, I began to wonder if he was noticing the mistake. I loved his curls to death, but was I doing some sort of permanent damage to his psyche? From age 1 to 3, there was someone at least once a day—the cashier at the grocery store, the receptionist at the doctor’s office, the neighbor around the corner—who called him a girl.
I felt guilty. Was I confusing my boy? Upsetting him?
Then I felt bad for feeling bad. Who cared what other people thought? Who cared about their assumptions? Do I really have to worry whether my toddler is having an identity crisis because some stranger calls him a pretty girl?
So I asked an expert, Dr. Gina Richman, director of the Child and Family Therapy Clinic at Kennedy Krieger Institute.
“I grew up in the ’70s—my boyfriends always had longer hair than me,” she joked. But seriously, “You’re not gender confusing your son,” she reassured me. “Your son doesn’t have any idea the way boys and girls look. There is a lot of leeway in what parents do and how parents provide for their kids in terms of appearance, and roles are very meshed between boys and girls. There are girls with little pixie cuts and boys with long hair. Boys who wear Dora the Explorer sandals and girls who like to wear work boots.”
Gender confusion she says, is an “internal process that has nothing to do with how parents dress their kids.”
While my friends were supportive—“let it be free” seemed to be the general consensus—I could tell others thought I was being self-indulgent, that I was somehow letting my own personal tastes overshadow the needs of an impressionable child. After all, I’m a style editor—appearance is important to me. My husband Ron and I have always dictated our kids’ looks: no teddy bears, sports memorabilia, or Disney characters on their clothes. Instead, our kids dress like, well, us. Was I being shallow?
I turned again to Dr. Richman. “Children are a reflection of who we are and our beliefs,” she told me. Plus, “you have a very small window to be self-indulgent with your kids. So I say take advantage while you still can!”
And besides, part of Milo’s identity was his hair. He loved to shake his head and feel it move and whip it around the bathtub until everything was soaked. The coiled mop, the occasional dreadlock, and the soft ringlets—that was a part of Milo I never wanted to tame.
And, most importantly, neither did he. As soon as Milo was able to express it, he told me that he truly loved his hair. He would say to me, “No, mommy. I don’t want my hair cut. I like it just like it is.” (Though, in fairness, he says the same thing about his fingernails.)
My husband Ron, with his own head of (now thinning) curls, is the genetic mastermind behind Milo’s hair.
Throughout his childhood, Ron always wanted long hair. He even rocked a mullet in the ’80s, although his hair was so curly that it actually grew vertically in the ’90s.
“If time hadn’t caught up to me in my late 30s, I’d grow my hair long once again,” he told me.
But while I can often roll my eyes when someone calls Milo a girl, I wonder if Ron takes more offense. I mean, no man wants their son to be called a girl.
“I think it’s funny when people mistake him for a girl,” Ron tells me. “It means he has a sweet face. I also think that people don’t pay attention and assume without really looking at someone closely. Milo has always been his own person from day one. And his hair is an extension of his confidence and amazing personality.”
Ron says that, at this point, he just brushes it off.
“I used to get mad because my first instinct is to always protect my children,” he explains. “Now I just laugh. Or maybe I’m just numb because it happens all the time.”
And in the end, what does any father want but for his son to score one day with the ladies? “I have no doubt the women will be knocking down the door to get to him.”
Ultimately, it went deeper than the hair. Ron and I shared a tiny feeling that people were imposing their assumptions about gender—their biases, if you will—on our family. And we wanted nothing to do with their anxieties.
Consider all the buzz about Angelina Jolie’s daughter Shiloh Jolie-Pitt and her “boy” cut and clothes. It became such a source of controversy that Life & Style magazine felt compelled to ask, “Why is Angelina turning Shiloh into a boy?” Maybe a more pertinent question might be: “And why do you care?”
My friend Claudia Towles owns aMuse, a great toyshop with locations in Fells Point and Quarry Lake.
“I’d say 60 percent of the people walk in with a gender bias,” she told me. Towles always tries to tell her customers—in a positive, constructive way, of course—that “regardless of gender, all children need to experience different developmental challenges in order to encourage their physical and cognitive growth.”
It can be overwhelming to think about how much you can screw up your kids. Right at the time when we parents are still learning how to be parents, well, that’s when kids are at their most moldable. But there’s no one right way to raise a child. Maybe it’s just about letting them be who they are and play (safely, of course) with whatever makes them happy—be it a harmonica, pirate ship, or purse.
Milo likes all three. Just last year, I was at a birthday party and Milo was clomping around the house in his friend’s princess heels. They sounded awesome on the wood floors.
“Milo really likes those shoes,” one of the parents pointed out to me. Twice. Her tone suggested that I should be alarmed.
Look, I’m not saying I’m mother of the year or anything—but come on. You really think I’m bothered that my kid is wearing hot pink pumps? And I sure as heck wasn’t going to tell Milo a boy wearing girl’s shoes was bad. As aMuse’s Towles says, “When you make it a negative stereotype, there’s nothing positive in it for a kid.”
Now at three and a half, most of Milo’s curls have settled into waves, but he still wears it long. Surfer dude hair, my husband calls it. Willa’s hair—right on cue—has turned into curlicues. And wouldn’t you know it, just the other day, someone called her an adorable little . . . boy.