Both of These, None of These, All of These — Sometimes, Always, and Never

I am raising a pink princess ninja astronaut fairy who sometimes wants to be rescued, mainly when she’s tired because it’s a good excuse to cuddle. The rest of the time, she’s busy fighting off the greedy king, pulling me out of the mud, or locking up the mean crocodile. Or maybe dancing ballet on Jupiter. Other days, she’s the one causing trouble — the evil witch casting spells, or a scary troll under the bridge. But at the end of the day, as she will often tell you, with hands on her hips, fully serious, she is “JILLIAN.” Not 100% girl, not in the way you mean it, not even when wearing two pink dresses with a tutu underneath. She might change her mind, regardless of what she’s wearing, and you better keep up if she decides to be a dinosaur instead.

I had a hard time when Jillian first started getting interested in princesses, and everything pink and pretty. I had tried my best to give her a diverse environment, with clothes and toys in all colors of the rainbow, but she began to choose pink. And pretty dresses. Only dresses. She declared she wanted to be a princess, even though it was clear she wasn’t really sure what that meant, exactly. But jewelry, layers of tulle, and a magic wand were definitely involved.

My change of heart started at a birthday party. The birthday girl opened up her dress-up box, and began pulling out wings, dresses, wands, and crowns. The girl’s older brother joined in, as did Jill. And I realized I was more uncomfortable with Jill wearing a princess dress than with the boy wearing one. That’s because I saw the boy wearing a dress as dress-up, in the spirit of pretend and fun. But with Jill, I saw it as putting on an identity, one that valued her looks over everything else, and that is my deepest fear with raising a girl.

However, I realized that I couldn’t deny the part of her that enjoys dressing up anymore than I would be willing to deny that little boy his desire to wear fairy wings and a tutu.

I no longer fight Jillian’s desire to be a princess, I accept it — but in a way that works for our family. Princesses have to learn all sorts of skills, including wrestling.

It’s a challenge to keep it as something fun instead of something necessary. She has to wear shorts and a t-shirt to the playground, for example, which is always a fight, no matter how pink or how much we try to sell it as “princess” play clothes. And one day, we were heading to my parent’s house for dinner after a few hours running around outside, and she insisted on changing into a dress. No, we told her, let’s just go or we’ll be late. “But I won’t be PRETTY!” she yelled.

It was a stab to my heart.

Being beautiful is fun and enjoyable. For some reason, we as humans are wired to enjoy things cute and pretty. However, I don’t know why it is so hard to teach Jill that being pretty is much further down on the priority list than getting to dinner on time. That her body is first and foremost for moving through space, for being strong enough to dance and play all the games and do things she wants to do. But I won’t stop trying to teach by example, by valuing her abilities and mind and creativity and joy over the clothes she’s wearing.

Yesterday we went to the lego store, and Jill spent a concentrated half an hour at the open lego bin, picking up and discarding bits and pieces, sorting through, talking quietly with herself. The she triumphantly held up two identical creations, and announced she was done. The store owner asked, “Oh, what did you make? Earrings?”

Jill answered in response, “No, they’re aero-bots. For keeping the good guys safe.”

We encounter this sort of thing every day, the assumption that she will be more interested in how she looks than what she can accomplish. That she will be busy making jewelry instead of objects to protect her against the monsters at the edges of her dreams. So that is why I get upset when people say that it’s clearly nature that makes men and women so different. I agree, there are aspects of Jill’s personality that are traditionally viewed as feminine. I see those aspects in boys, too… but in boys, everyone works to discourage those aspects while they embrace them in Jillian.

So next time you see a girl with a lego creation or a pretty dress, just ask her what she made. Don’t guess, don’t assume. What is she pretending to be? What does she want to be when she grows up? What games does she like to play? Consciously offer ideas that you would think are reserved for boys. And do the same for boys. Let’s open up the whole world to both genders.