“My 5-year old son just started school and loves My Little Pony. He was so proud to pick out his My Little Pony backpack to start school. However, now that he’s in school, the other boys make fun of him for having a ‘girly’ backpack. How should I help him handle this?”

Question submitted Anonymously
Answered by Karen Thompson

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Karen Says:
I’m sorry to hear about your son getting teased. I hope this answer helps and if not, maybe at least it will give you a place to start.
You have probably already done this, but you definitely need to have a short conversation with your son, making sure he knows you support him (that you are happy and proud for him to express himself however he wants). Years ago, when my son was teased about playing with “girl” toys, I told him he could play with whatever he liked. It made me sad, though, that even at that young age, he was made to feel bad about the toys he liked. If your son knows, going in, that he is okay (and supported by his mom and dad) just the way he is, it may help with some of the sting of the teasing.
I know this is a lot to put on a little person, but your son also needs to know that some kids won’t understand and may try to make him feel bad. There’s also the option of him choosing a different backpack to take to school, and then using his other one at home or to go to grandma’s house. That should be your and your son’s decision, though—not the school’s nor the other children’s. There are and will be places where it is not safe for your son to express himself, but again, that is between you and him. Having said that, though, “discomfort” does not necessarily equal “unsafe.”
Are you able to email or talk to his teacher? If you are, then maybe you can alert her to what is going on so she can be aware and try to head it off as much as possible. My niece is an elementary school teacher. She said that many times, teasing and bullying go on out of the teacher’s sight. At the very least, talking to her may give you a sense of what she thinks about teasing and how she handles it in her classroom. Also, look up or request the school’s policy on bullying. Most schools have them and are trying to teach non-bullying communication proactively.
If anything does happen—if your son is hurt or is afraid to go to school—contact the teacher and the principal, utilizing the squeaky wheel strategy. That lets them know that you are listening to your son, watching what they do, and are ready to become a nuisance if need be. : ) This is where the knowledge of the school’s policy on bullying will come in handy. You’ll know if they are in compliance and you’ll have some heft behind your complaint if you have to make one.
So now your child needs some tools. Giving him something to say when he gets teased may not stop the teasing, but he won’t have to try to think of something on the spot. My editor and I thought of something like “I know you don’t like this toy, but you don’t have to play with it,” or “I like this backpack and that’s why I carry it.” Another tool to give him would be physical activity—something age-appropriate that he enjoys and is good at. A confidence booster. In my experience with gender-nonconforming kids, they so often live in their heads, where they’re not being teased, that I think they forget about being present in their own bodies. Martial arts and team sports—all of those are good, but I also think bike riding, swimming, dancing, gymnastics, taking care of animals, and building things are all also good. I’ve noticed that children who are involved in things like this seem to carry themselves differently. And that definitely helps when being teased.
There is a ton of good information online, some of them specifically geared toward making schools safer for everyone. Try looking into Safe Schools, GLSEN, StopBullying.gov and Pacer.org. If you can’t find anyone local who can help you, and if you’re comfortable doing this, Google PFLAG.org and see if you have a local chapter. I’m not suggesting this because I think your son is gay, but because they are usually involved in Safe Schools projects. If they can’t help you, they may be able to guide you to someone else who can. I’ve also noticed a huge number of blogs and stories online by moms who are dealing with this same issue.
I hope some of this helps. Please know that you’re trying to do the best you can, and somewhere in between your son bashing someone with his backpack or coming home in tears, there is a reasonable solution.

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Karen Thompson currently serves on the board of Lucie’s Place, an organization dealing with LGBT youth homelessness in Arkansas, and as Vice President of the Little Rock, AR chapter of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Karen is also a member of the Center of Artistic Revolution, an LGBT youth-centered organization in Arkansas. Karen works in loving memory of her daughter, a force of nature, Lucille Marie Hamilton–the one who taught her everything (1988-2009).

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