Dear Carolyn

DEAR CAROLYN: I have a 5-year-old nephew who is starting kindergarten. He is a fantastic little boy who likes “boy” things like cars and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but he REALLY likes many “girl” things like Doc McStuffins, Minnie Mouse and My Little Pony. He is the most interesting 5-year-old boy I know.

When we were at the store, he picked out a My Little Pony lunchbox for school. He was very excited! His mom is worried he will get picked on, and so am I, but I am also concerned about sending the message that he should not be himself. I want him to love school, make friends … but not change who he is. The next thing to buy is the backpack, and he will want Doc McStuffins. Mom feels she should steer him toward a plain one (no characters).

How do we encourage him to be himself and also not set him up to be picked on because he doesn’t like traditional “boy” things?

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– E.

DEAR E.: But he does like traditional “boy” things — and “girl” ones.

I don’t doubt he’s interesting, but in my experience those tastes are typical. Unless there’s someone over their shoulders shaming them back to their side of the gender line (sadly not a hypothetical), kids will like what they like, and that means superheroes, bright pink and dinosaurs often live together in harmony in a child’s imagination.

That some adults, and apparently 99.5 percent of toy marketers, want to “fix” this by shaming kids into conformity is, to my mind, an obscenity long overdue for hard societal pushback.

Unfortunately, though, the shaming and its correction are all thought up by adults but executed by innocent proxies, the children themselves. And so wrapping your nephew in pink and sending him off to fight … his? our? gender battle is an uneasy mix of empowering, naive and cruel.

So, some suggestions, easiest first:

(1) No characters (except us, of course). Devotions change but backpacks need to last, so plain it is.

(2) No labeling things “boy” or “girl” until the kids absorb those concepts for themselves.

(3) Once our kids did understand boy-girl expectations, we made it very clear: We thought it was stupid, the whole idea of deciding that a color or hobby or show could be male or female.

(4) Just as their tastes are up to them, so is a decision to risk ridicule. “Warning, some people might give you crap for wearing that — but I don’t care if you don’t.” The risk varies by community, but, overall, your nephew has cultural winds at his back.

(5) When the choice is made, back it.

(6) Foster independence. A conforming kid can be tormented by peers, and a pink-wearing dude can own the place. Plus, over the course of a childhood, everyone gets mocked for something. What’s inside trumps what they wear or carry.

So, the best way not to “set him up” is to nurture for inner strength. Love kids, accept them for who they are, and, this can’t be overstated, allow them to fend for themselves sometimes — making breakfast, playing, problem-solving — to build both specific skills and general resourcefulness. Indulgence, by contrast, breeds helplessness.

This is the parents’ job, yes, but villagers’ influence can be profound.

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