"Buy Your Son That Kitchen Set!"
“First you were one year old, and then two years old, and then three, and then four… and how old will you be next week?”
It was hard not to listen in on the adorable conversation taking place next to me on the train. The young mother had her son on her lap, and the little boy, though clearly exhausted from a long day, was eager to discuss his upcoming birthday.
“What do you want for your birthday?” his mom asked with a smile. The little boy responded swiftly and with excitement: “A kitchen!”
Then my ears really perked up. I thought of yesterday, when my coworkers at a "Media Summer School" event for underprivileged youth panicked as they thought we had mistakenly bought pink school planners for 14-year-old boys. They’d be humiliated, the other kids would laugh, they wouldn’t want it—they breathed an audible sigh of relief when there were enough black and blue ones to go around.
Now, this little boy was actually asking for a kitchen set—certainly gasp-worthy by that standard of expectation. Having read one too many articles and seeing just enough YouTube videos to know that parents and strangers don’t always take kindly to little boys with “girly” interests, I braced myself for his mother’s response.
“A kitchen? Like your sister?”
The little boy said yes, making clear that he especially wanted a toaster oven. His mother didn’t flinch, and spoke to him in the same loving tone as before.
“Do you want a bike? Or a scooter?”
The young boy, easily distracted, chose a scooter over a bike and wanted some new black sneakers to go with it. They talked about the party he’ll have at the zoo as he drifted off to nap on his mother’s shoulder.
This little conversation was anti-climactic but important. At age four, the little boy admired his sister’s kitchen and had an interest in cooking of his own. And although I have no doubt that this loving mom will make her son very happy for his fifth birthday, I’d be willing to bet he won’t be unwrapping a kitchen set.
And just like that, his interest might fade away. He’ll have fun with his replacement gift, the scooter, and play soccer outside in his new black sneakers, but he won’t learn how to make toast or bake something tasty.
While FOX news pundits (and sadly, many others) may preach that the domestic female and dominant male roles are the natural order and that anything else is “terribly wrong,” there are a million little reminders that it’s not the case. When I was a seven-year-old girl, I sported a “boy haircut” and wore my “Bugle Boy” T-shirt almost every day, ripping the heads off family friends’ Barbies and opting for the Ninja Turtle version of the Polly Pocket (I hope at least a few of you can enjoy these wonderful 90s references). My three-year-old brother was getting his first make-up set and enjoyed wearing his Poison Ivy kids’ costume to the store and my outgrown purple one-piece bathing suit to the pool. He loved dolls, and it was pretty annoying when that one high-tech one glitched and demanded "More blueberries!" in the middle of the night. But none of it was weird to us—like most kids, we knew what we liked and what we wanted for our birthdays. The only difference is that we got what we asked for, whether it was girly, boyish, or anywhere in-between.
My brother’s love for make-up was later complemented by a love for horror movies—he taught himself to make the goriest, most convincing wounds and loved to give my parents and me disturbingly realistic scars, deformities, and injuries. I eventually grew out my hair, outgrew the Bugle Boy shirt, discovered Limited Too (ah, the 90s) and happily embraced strong female role models like orphan Annie, Matilda Wormwood, and the sluething Olsen twins.
Little did we know, our parents were more clued into our short-lived gender-bending interests than we had been. They had spoken to each other privately about how both my brother and I should be free to love who and what we want to love, and be who we want to be—they even discussed saving up money in case I really wanted to have that sex-change surgery I had been talking about. But it turned out they didn’t have to—though I still feel comfy in boys’ hoodies and have never been one for heels, my brother and I have grown up to be happy in our own skin. Nevertheless, my parents’ unconditional support undoubtedly helped shape the people we are today—well-adjusted, confident, happy with ourselves and open-minded to others’ differences.
I’ll always be grateful to them for that—for encouraging me and my brother to be ourselves at every stage of life, explore all our interests and form our identities without judgment or pressure to conform. And if I may say so myself, we turned out pretty great (but sometimes I do wish they had drawn the line when I insisted on wearing a hideous red beret in my school picture that same year).
While I was happy to see the mom on the train not cringing at her son’s “feminine” request, we’d all be better off if parents’ unflinching response to a boy wanting a kitchen could be, “And what color do you want your oven to be?” When a boy asks for a kitchen, that doesn’t make him weird—but it could be the start of a future Top Chef, or at the very least, a very happy boy who gets to unwrap the perfect gift on his birthday. Steering kids towards normative gender roles doesn’t right any wrongs; their beautifully curious and open minds haven’t committed any wrongs to be righted. While my tomboy phase was temporary, other children have different journeys in forming their gender identities-- and all parents should embrace their children for whatever path they take. Maybe then we’d have 14-year-old boys confident enough that they wouldn’t have their livelihoods crushed by an association with the color pink, and adults who could celebrate diversity rather than use their differences as weapons against others.
Buy the boy the damn kitchen.