Driving into the school’s pickup lane, I searched the crowd of children for my own carpool gang. I spotted my son, laughing heartily. He wore a black heavy metal concert T-shirt — a gift from his dad. Hanging conspicuously from his shoulder was a backpack — not his own, but one I recognized as his sister’s. It was white with a bold print of purple, black and pink butterflies and flowers. My son strutted to the car, flaunting it.
Six kids climbed into my van, laughing and chattering their hellos to me.
I greeted them, then asked my son why he had his sister’s backpack. The kids’ voices piled on top of each other, hooting and laughing.
“I knew that was her backpack!” one called out.
“No, it’s mine,” came my son’s sassy reply, as the kids continued to laugh. “Mine broke this morning,” he explained to me, shrugging.
“Should we get you a new backpack?” I offered. “We can go after you finish homework.” He declined my offer, as well as several more offers over the following days. He had no desire to go shopping to get him one that was less, well, less girly.
I’ve never fully understood the gender-neutral movement. Some parents go to great lengths to avoid ingraining boy- or girl-specific tendencies in their children. The efforts to keep from limiting girls to “girl stuff” and boys to “boy stuff” seems limiting in itself, creating a limited style in itself.
My kids pick their own clothes. My daughter loves color, but she also enjoys wearing her brother’s hand-me-downs, creating an edgy look that would fit in at any Ramones concert. My son’s style is largely based on comfort; he opts for mainly elastic waist bands and soft shirts. It turns out, my son also enjoys some clothes based on their entertainment value, such as the flowery backpack.
As the days passed, through the open door of my van in the pickup line, I heard snippets of the teasing he seemed to welcome. “Goodbye, butterfly princess,” one girl called to him. He waved, clearly enjoying the shock value and attention he was receiving from carrying his sister’s old backpack.
I stopped offering to take him shopping for a new backpack. While surprising, his self-confidence and good-natured receipt of the ribbing made me proud. It’s good to be able to stand out.
Then one night, just as I’d changed into my jammies, plopped on the sofa in front of a Royals game and popped the top off a beer, I learned everything had changed.
“Mom, can you please take me to get a new backpack?” he asked me. He looked worried and added in earnest, “I really need it tonight.”
I sighed, put my unsipped beer back into the refrigerator, and got up to change back into my clothes, resolved to indulge him in this sudden request.
It turned out, kids he didn’t know — kids from a younger grade — had made fun of him. Daily ribbing from friends had not bothered him, but passing comments from strangers had stomped his confidence.
Self-expression is a tricky thing, and kids have to feel their way through their options. Some “jokes” aren’t worth the risk.
Overland Park mom and freelancer Emily Parnell writes alternate weeks.