My four-year-old son has so many monster trucks, I run the risk of falling over one of them and breaking my neck every time I traverse the living room. But, eschewing old-fashioned gender stereotypes, he also loves to dance and Frozen is his favourite film. Last week he came home from nursery and said he needed a new rucksack as “the girls at both of my nurseries told me that boys can’t have an Elsa [from Frozen] bag. Elsa bags are only for girls”.
I asked my son whether he told them not to be so old fashioned. Remember, boys can do anything girls can do and vice versa. He looked sheepish and said, “I know that mummy but I was shy.” My heart melted but luckily for my pocket, he has decided he is keeping his Elsa bag. I was “that mum” who on the phone to the nursery managers straight away, and I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised when they both told me that they had various books about different types of families, and one of the nurseries had even hired a diversity specialist to educate their staff and help with finding books and resources.
Drunk and rude
A few weeks before, my mum saw some holiday photos of young Robbie dancing to a live band and suggested taking him to dance classes. I’d love to. However, on holiday we made friends with a family with two girls and every day my son danced to live music at the surf bar, and in the evening they had the kids’ club at our hotel. On the last night, the kids club did their dance party and my son came back down to sit with me. My heart broke as he sobbed, “the girls told me that dancing is only for girls and I looked silly dancing last night.” Even when I tried to go up dancing with him, he could not be persuaded. The family of the girls seemed pleasant but we were quite taken aback on the third night when the dad, who was a fisherman, after a few beers said to my [platonic] companion: “So are you a man or a woman?”. He was also quite rude, and when he finally realised that my friend was a trans woman, his wife apologised that her husband was just being “drunk and rude”. It is no excuse.
Two years ago we moved from Brighton back to my home town of Oban, on the West Coast of Scotland. We may or may not move back to Sussex at some point. What shocks me is that this kind of sexism in four-year-old kids can only come from the parents. Oban is the kind of place where most people start having kids between 16 and 25; are there really parents aged under 40, who teach their kids that only girls can like Frozen or enjoy dancing?
He wears a skirt
When I hear things like this, it makes me want to start house hunting in Brighton. Surely in Brighton, where loads of boys have surfer-boy hair, like my son, or even wear it much longer, this kind of attitude is in the past? One of my friend’s five-year-old son, Dilly, started wearing skirts when he started at reception class at a school in Worthing (near Brighton) and slightly amended their name. He’s a popular kid and the teachers have always been supportive. Occasionally a kid asks him why he wears a skirt. He is confident enough to say that he’s allowed to wear what he likes, and he like skirts. I have seen clearly visible trans kids at Oban High School but if my boyish son gets told he can’t have a Frozen bag, I can only imagine how the kids at nursery would react if he wanted long hair, to wear a skirt or to change name to a female / non binary name.
Another friend in Brighton has a son called Jack, who at first glance could easily be mistaken for a very pretty girl, with gorgeous, long, dark curly hair. I was quite shocked when I came back to Oban after my last Brighton trip; I was talking about Jack and Robbie in the pub and a 29-year-old fisherman who sat next to us interjected, “those poor children, the parents are forcing them to change gender because the parents think it is cool”. I’m not trying to give fishermen a bad rep and I’m sure they are not all stuck in the ice age. I asked him how many families with trans/non binary kids he had actually met? None of course. However my friend’s child ends up identifying when they grow up, I know for a fact, she has definitely not forced him to wear a skirt.
We are in an era where everyone is talking about how to support others with their mental health. It has been well documented that rejection by family and others is one of the main reasons that trans and non-binary people statistically are far higher than average to fall victim to severe and potentially life-threatening mental health problems. I don’t know about anyone else but I would think that most parents, like me, only want their children to be happy – whether they are playing with cars, Barbie dolls or both.
When I visit Brighton, if we have time we always go to some dance classes. A friend said she has noticed that since her son took dance classes in his first year of schooling, more boys take up dance classes outside school: good on those schools!
Back in Oban though, and I looked up the local dance class for my son’s age. The teacher at Argyll Dance Tuition was lovely and said boys are welcome but they don’t currently have any attending.
I’ve thought about it a lot. My son appears to have forgotten the comments and was dancing his little heart out to the music they played in Tesco’s last week. I just don’t think I want to send him to a class where he is likely to get teased for being the only boy, and the danger is that it could put him off for life.
By contrast, Facebook must have read my mind, as an advert for The Happy Wee Health Club’s 3-6 year old’s Born to Move Class popped up, so I contacted one of the owners, Katie Galbraith. Katie said the class is fairly evenly split between boys and girls. It’s a workout class that includes dancing to music rather than a full-on dance class.
Could it be that because this class isn’t labelled a “dance” class, parents of young boys are more inclined to send them?
Some friends responded to my Facebook post, suggesting I defy the norm and send him to the dance class I’d looked up.
So I paused writing this article and contacted the teacher at Argyll Dance Tuition, asking if she would consider trialling a boys-only or, at least, a boys-welcome class. “Of course!”, she replied.
So watch this space. It might seem like some people in Oban are stuck in the 70s on this issue but we can change the world, one dance class at a time.