“My son likes all things pink and sparkly and has always preferred “girl toys” like dolls and dress-up. The holidays are a weird time, though, because his aunts and uncles still gift him “boy” toys that he couldn’t care less about. They say they don’t have a problem with it but are pretty conservative and I’m not sure they would be on board with buying a 7-year-old boy nail polish. Is this something I can talk to them about, or should we just keep accepting the gifts graciously year after year?”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Julie Tarney
Your son sounds delightful—and wise, too. He knows sparkly things are fun for everyone. He’d probably have a high five for my artist neighbor, too, who describes pink as “the happy color.” As for your son’s conservative aunts and uncles, I’m sure you’d agree that they could use a little loosening up! But how to do that without the conversation being uncomfortable for you or them is the next question.
Relatives who gender stereotype their nieces and nephews often have a difficult time stepping outside of the status quo on child’s play. Even though more and more people and toy stores alike are coming around to the idea that toys have no gender, there are still plenty of people who still see child’s play as black and white or, in this case, pink or blue. I imagine their brains’ electrical wiring misfires at the mere thought of their nephew polishing his fingernails. The idea just doesn’t compute for them. But thanks to the plasticity of the human brain, a thoughtful shift in expectations is possible.
You know all the hats you wear as a parent . There’s personal assistant, personal shopper, chauffeur, fix-it expert, head cheerleader, and snuggle specialist, to name a few. Well, sometimes there’s the added duties of gift-recipient advocate and relatives’ educator. The challenge with that special ops assignment is how to present your case in a non-threatening way, so I understand your hesitancy to even broach the subject with them.
A phone call without warning might put them on the defensive. Even bringing up the stereotyped toy issue in a regularly scheduled chat could catch them off guard. And that might be uncomfortable for all of you.
My suggestion is to skip the call and just send a warm and very brief email instead. Think of it as a little nudging communication from you that ideally will trigger some new thinking, re-learning, and practice on their part.
Here’s what I might write if I were in your shoes:
“Dear Aunt and Uncle,
In your continuing efforts to be your nephew’s favorites, I wanted to pass along some gift ideas that would make his holiday this year extra special.
He would be over the moon with any one of these things:
• A nail polish set
• The game Twister
• Smooshins Surprise Maker
• Kids Walkie Talkies
• A Toys R Us gift card
Please accept these suggestions in the warmest and most loving holiday spirit. 😊
P.S. There are some more great ideas in this blog post I found about gift ideas for non-typical kids.”
While your list will contain items you know your son would want most, there are probably a few gender-neutral toys, games, or art projects that he’d be happy with too. Mixing them in can give the more as-yet-unyielding relatives a few options.
For aunts and uncles who live out of town, you could consider a different opening paragraph, to be a bit more direct about the distance between you. For example, you could open with something along the lines of: “I know it can be tricky shopping from far away for a seven-year-old who likes nontraditional toys. So rather than default to a stereotyped “boy” toy, I wanted to share some ideas that would absolutely thrill him.”
You get the idea. Of course, any version of my suggestions would include your own personal touches. I think this approach might be just the gentle push your relatives need to better understand and respect your son’s uniqueness. And that in turn would make this an uplifting, loving, and sparkly holiday season for you all.
If, however, they reply with any pushback or opt to send a stereotyped “boy” toy anyway, then feel free to take additional action. Perhaps a more serious conversation with them about acceptance and celebrating their nephew’s differences would be an appropriate way to start the New Year. Right after your son’s mani-pedi.
Julie Tarney is an advocate for LGBTQIA youth, speaker and author. Her award-winning memoir, My Son Wears Heels: One Mom’s Journey from Clueless to Kickass (University of Wisconsin Press 2016) and blog of the same name are about her experiences raising a gender nonconforming child in the Midwest in the 1990s and what she learned from him along the way about gender identity, gender expression and self-acceptance. Julie is a board member for the It Gets Better Project, blogs for HuffPost Queer Voices and is an active member of PFLAG NYC’s Safe Schools program. She was named a “Favorite Queer Hero of 2016” by HuffPost and one of BlogHer’s “Voices of the Year” in 2015. A longtime resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Julie now lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she can often be found cheering in the audience at her creative director and sometimes-drag-artist son Harry’s performances.