On five-year-olds and gender roles.

Say you’ve got a five-year-old son who isn’t conforming to traditional gender roles. Specifically, he likes to wear skirts and dresses instead of the customary pants most little boys wear. Do you try to convince him to dress traditionally or do you allow him to cross gender lines in his clothing choices?

That’s the choice Nils Pickert of Germany faced with his own son:

Nils Pickert and his son.

The pair used to live in the well-to-do borough of Kreuzberg in cosmopolitan Berlin, where there was little or no reaction to Mr Pickert’s son wearing dresses.

The issue would simply spark debate among parents, he said, over whether allowing it was ‘wise or ridiculous’. For open-minded Mr Pickert, it was never even a question.

He would sometimes dress in a skirt or dress himself, during mild weather.

When they moved to a ‘very traditional, very religious’ little town, however, Mr Pickert’s son became too embarrassed to wear women’s clothing to nursery school – and asked his father if he would dress up again.

‘I didn’t want to talk my son into not wearing dresses and skirts,’ said Mr Pickert. ‘I had only one option left: To broaden my shoulders for my little buddy and dress in a skirt myself.

‘After all, you can’t expect a child at pre-school age to have the same ability to assert themselves as an adult completely without role model. And so I became that role model.’

Personally, I think Mr. Pickert is a great Dad for encouraging his son to be who he wants to be, but it appears I may be in the minority judging from the reaction in the comments around the web.

From the Daily Mail comment section itself we get the following:

What?? This is sick! They both need to see a doctor and the child to see a psychologist.

– Rob, England, 30/8/2012 13:51

what .hes a little boy not a girl he should not wear girls clothes hes 5 for gods sake why is the father encouraging this its sick.

– bee, plymouth england, 30/8/2012 16:24

OMG what is the world coming to with these people who seek to feminize their male children? Seriously, the child should be removed from the home.

– Action Bob, The Universe, 30/8/2012 16:01

And then from the comments on the FARK for this article which had a HERO tag associated with it:

Hero tag? Try Dumbass tag.

A good father wouldn’t let his five year old son dress like a girl at school or anywhere else.

– DmGdDawg

Sigh, what a failure of a parent. Your not helping your making it worse. Do you fix a leaking sink by saying, it isn’t the sink’s fault but it should be the kitchen that needs to accept the water better.

– Thisbymaster

Hero tag?


How about a farking ZERO.

Part of being a parent is to keep kids from doing stupid shiat like, say, wearing a g’damn dress to school when you’re a 5 year old boy.

– Hagenhatesyouall

I was bit odd as a kid myself and I took a fair amount of shit for it. No, I didn’t run around in dresses, but I was the 80 pound weakling who got beat up on a regular basis and my biological father died when I was 5 so I tended to be a little off-kilter from those two things just to start with. I was also ADHD and didn’t know it and that alone is enough to make you feel like an outsider who doesn’t really fit in and I eventually got to the point where I embraced my weirdness and just accepted that I wasn’t quite normal. I suppose that’s why my initial reaction to this story was to cheer the dad for supporting his kid instead of trying to force him to be “normal.”

I honestly don’t understand what the big deal is. The kid is five years old. It’s not clear he even has a concept of gender roles let alone why some folks would expect him to conform to them. It’s similar to the uproar over the J. Crew catalog that had a VP painting her son’s toenails in it. Holy fuck, the Far Right had a fit over that with FOX’s own Dr. Keith Asshole Ablow declaring the kid would need therapy in a few years to deal with the horror of his own mother forcing him to paint his toenails a bright pink color.

I’ve said before, including in that entry about the J. Crew catalog, that I’ve been known to paint my own toenails from time to time despite being an adult heterosexual male. It gets worse than that though. Back when I was a teenager I had a Unicorn phase that would rival any teen girl’s obsession with the fantasy creatures. I collected statues, had posters, the whole shebang. As an adult I’m not as into them anymore (though my obsession over all things otter is still as strong as ever), but the years that I was into them doesn’t seem to have affected my manliness all that much. Of course you could argue that I’m not exactly a man’s man to begin with, but it’s not like macho men have never worn dresses. Again in that J. Crew entry I mention the fact that at one point it was common for kids of both genders to wear dresses up until age 7 including such notable examples as Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Pic of Franklin Roosevelt as a child in a dress.

Roosevelt before he went on to become President of the United States

Seriously, what’s the worst that could happen? He turns out to be gay? That could happen regardless of whether he conforms to gender roles. Just look at the number of gay-hating Republicans putting on a manly front only to turn out to be gayer than the Village People when people aren’t looking. He could end up a transvestite? A number of men have managed to be quite successful while wearing women’s clothing. Perhaps he’ll grow up and want a sex-change operation. Again, that’s just a likely to happen regardless of what clothes he starts off in.

He might be more comfortable during hot summer days? Oh the horror! If only people would put so much energy into worrying about things that actually matter like whether he’s getting a decent education or whether the planet will be habitable by the time he grows up.

So the kid is a little different. Let him be different. We don’t all need to be the same.

11 thoughts on “On five-year-olds and gender roles.

  1. I was a participant in that thread, and was also surprised by the incredibly fearful reaction that so many people had. There wasn’t much of the usual Fark trolling bigotry, but seemingly honest people who apparently honestly thought that such an action could have horrible consequences for the boy. I think that most of those people must have grown up in times and places where such actions could get you a reputation and bullying for life. Thankfully, that part of the world seems to be slowly shrinking.

    The story reminded me of part of my childhood. When my cousin and I were about 7, maybe 8 or 9 years old (he was 1.5 years older) and we were visiting our grandma, we would raid her trunk of old clothes. It was filled with old dresses, everything from 1960’s dinner gowns to old depression-era stuff from the farm that looked like it came from the set of Little House on the Prairie. We’d dress in drag, put on grandma’s straw gardening hats, and do a sort of Minnie Pearl Hee-Haw routine in front of the whole family, who thought it was freaking hilarious.
    In all honesty, neither of our parents would have let us go to school like that….but still, they certainly weren’t worried or disgusted, or anything negative at all. There was no irrational fear that such playing had any huge meaning or possible consequences. I think my family has gotten more open and accepting over the years, but based on that Fark thread, some people seem to be regressing. Sad.

  2. Those reactions are truly ridiculous. From an anthropological perspective, gendered clothing norms are about the shallowest surface level expression of roles that are wholly culturally constructed in the first place. Whenever someone gets all up in arms about men wearing skirts my mind goes to two places. First, Braveheart. Then I get a bit more academic and point out that when the Persians invaded Greece one of the ways the Greeks otherized them was to point out their perceived femininity. Why were they feminine? Because they wore pants. Everyone knows that real men wear chitons. You know, baggy knee-length dresses that drape over a single shoulder. Now that’s manly.

    Seriously, who cares what the kid wears? Clothes are clothes. This is a total dad win.

  3. One small comment. Yes our whole family is just a tiny bit off kilter. But we care about others, try to share, pay attention when someone needs it. That is more important than whether your knees show or not! Also you are a manly man.

  4. There was a clue in the story. When they lived among big minds and big hearts, little attention was paid. When they moved to a little town with little minds and little hearts, it became an issue. Bravo for the Dad !!!


  5. Pingback: Links from Delicious for September 8, 2012 - Neil Turner's Blog

  6. Maybe I missed it, but dare they not call a kilt a skirt? Even English royalty dresses in plaids on occasion. Call a kilt wearing Irish or Scotch a sissy and you’re liable to get the livin’ shit beat out of you.

  7. For heaven’s sake, what is the problem here? Who cares what a child, or even an adult wears?

    If there’s a problem, find a kilt…

  8. A lot of years ago, I worked as an appliance technician (not the lonely maytag repairman). I was in one lady’s house, a single mom. Her daughter (3-4 years old) wanted a fire truck. She didn’t want dolls. So mom bought daughter a toy fire truck complete with extension boom with cherry picker. I thought that was rather cool. The mom was a bit defensive, but that could also be part of the territory of being a single parent.

  9. Nils Pikert has written an article about himself and his kid over at The Huffington Post that’s worth a read:

    Of course, the work of teaching our son how to interact with people — and how to get along with society and understand its rules and patterns — is mainly up to his mother and me. But he is my son, not my property. I don’t own him. If there is such a thing as owning a human being, he owns me. I made him, I dreamed of him, I longed for him; now he is in my life, and I am responsible for him as long as there is breath in me. So I teach him the rules and what to do with them. Not every rule makes sense. Some rules tell us to behave with violence and cruelty to other human beings, even if we have a distinct feeling that our actions toward them are wrong. It is not OK for anybody to mess with my son about his outfit. Hence I wear dresses and skirts so that any person who has a problem with that and feels the necessity to express his or her resentments can mess with me.

    Since I am an adult, people should feel free to call me out on my decisions. In this case, if you do, I will confess that I don’t particularly like wearing skirts or dresses. I’m like a soccer mom who doesn’t love the sport — but does love her kids. I couldn’t care more about my boy being a happy, self-assured, compassionate person. I couldn’t care less about the choices he makes on the way to becoming that person — as long as they cause no harm to himself or others. The ability to make these choices is his birthright — a right that I should help him to exercise, since I am responsible for his birth.

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