Conflicting Responsibilities

I’m in a quandary: I’ve got a humdinger of a dilemma. A puzzling parenting predicament to ponder.

J & L will be 4 years old in March, and after lengthy discussion have decided they want a “Ben and Holly” themed birthday party. For those of you not familiar with “Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom”, it is a children’s cartoon about Princess Holly the fairy, and her friend Ben who is an elf.

L had the idea that all the party guests could come dressed as fairies or elves, which was met with enthusiasm by J – though when I suggested that L dress as Holly and J as Ben, J replied “I don’t want to be Ben, I want to be the Wise Old Elf”. I reassured him that this was not a problem, and I would get him a long white beard to go with his elf costume.

The next day it was evident that J had been giving the party some thought. He told me he had changed his mind and no longer wanted to dress as the Wise Old Elf, but now wanted to be a fairy. “That’s fine” I replied. “King Thistle is a fairy, you could have a crown and wings just like him?” J seemed satisfied with this response. But then a couple of days later J told me “I don’t want to be King Thistle. I want to be Holly”.

For as long as J and L have been playing “dress-up” J has enjoyed putting on pretty dresses. Sometimes he asks for lip-gloss too and announces to the mirror “I’m a very pretty girl!”: I have never questioned his choice or his right to do so, and haven’t given too much thought as to the reasons, as I couldn’t do more than guess even if I wanted to get to the bottom of it. Maybe he hears me telling L how pretty she looks in her princess costume and wants to receive the same compliment. Maybe the social difficulties caused by his autism mean he is less aware of gender-based notions of appropriate clothing. Maybe his sensory difficulties mean dresses are more physically comfortable for him than trousers. Maybe he is gay or transgender. Maybe he enjoys the joke of wearing the “wrong” clothes in the same way he often laughs when he says something of which he knows the opposite to be true.

The point is, it doesn’t matter. At home he is free to wear what makes him happy and be a beautiful fairy princess alongside his sister. He doesn’t always choose the dress when we’re putting costumes on – sometimes he is Iggle Piggle; sometimes he is the Grand Old Duke of York; sometimes he is a robot. But the choice is always his.

And so to my dilemma. Do I let J go to his own birthday party as Holly, wearing a pink sparkly dress and fairy wings? To be honest at first it didn’t even occur to me to tell him “no”. But then I got thinking. And now I’m confused. For every argument for letting him wear the dress, I can think of an equally valid counter-argument. Maybe a list of pros and cons might help …

Reasons to let J wear a pink dress to his party

  1. He should be able to express himself in whatever way makes him happy.
  2. It won’t hurt anyone, and if people don’t like it that’s their problem.
  3. L can choose whatever she wants to wear (I wouldn’t stop her being an elf) so why shouldn’t J?
  4. It will be hard to explain why he can’t be “Holly” whilst still making it clear that his general preferences are valid and acceptable.
  5. We should be setting an example to other children that they should be tolerant and accepting of difference.
  6. A parent should teach their child to stay true to themselves rather than conform to please the masses.

Reasons not to let J wear a pink dress to his party

  1. The other children might say hurtful things, either at the party or in the future.
  2. The other parents might judge us and talk negatively about J or me – to each other and to their children.
  3. J might be stigmatised for a long time as “the boy who wore a dress”.
  4. J already acts differently to his peers due to his autism – wearing a dress will only serve to accentuate his differences.
  5. There will be lots of other opportunities for J to dress up in pretty costumes without doing it in such a public way.
  6. It is normal practise to invite every child in the class therefore there will be a lot of children and parents at the party who I don’t know, and who don’t understand J.

All I can say is that I am pleased I don’t have to rush into a decision. I believe that I have a clear responsibility to teach J to be true to himself and not ever feel he has to conform to please others. I also believe I have a clear responsibility to help J understand socially acceptable behaviour and to protect him from a world that is not always accepting of difference. My problem is in deciding which responsibility takes precendence in this instance.

I can see that there is a third option here – a compromise costume. Maybe J could wear a pink top with trousers and fairy wings. And I’m not ruling that out … but for the purposes of this discussion that essentially equates to telling J he can’t wear a dress and be Holly at his party, as this is certainly how he will see it.

So to anyone who is reading this post – I would genuinely love to know your thoughts. I’m not considering “parenting by majority vote” but it would be great to know what you’d honestly think if you saw a little boy in a pink fairy dress. Tell me what you’d do in my shoes?!

Maybe asking for your opinions is highlighting for me the most difficult part of being a single parent. I had thought the most difficult part was not having someone else to take a turn when you’re called for the tenth time during the night. Or having to turn down fun social invitations because you can’t find a babysitter. Or caring for two children when you’re ill. But it turns out I was wrong: the toughest part of single parenting is having to take full responsibility for the most difficult decisions. Being solely accountable if the decision ends up being the wrong one.

I guess I need to accept that sometimes I’ll make the right decisions as a mother and sometimes I’ll make the wrong decisions. The important thing is that all my choices are made with the very best intentions … made because I adore my children and want nothing more than their lasting happiness. And more than anything else, whatever I decide about J’s party costume, I think all I can really hope is that he’ll look back one day and say “Mum [didn’t] let me wear a fairy dress to my party because she loves me”. Whether J’s preference for wearing pretty dresses lasts six months or sixty years, as long as he knows his Mum loves him completely, truly and unconditionally forever, I will be happy to accept I’ve done a good job.

9 thoughts on “Conflicting Responsibilities

  1. This isn’t easy to decide. Much depends on the community you live in and the relationship with other parents. I live in a college town and there is a big dose of open-mindedness that goes along with that. I’m also pretty close to the other parents in my kids’ circles–we’re all friends and our kids are friends. So, I know if my kid showed up in a dress or anything, no one would care. Some of the boys did pick the princess outfits or sparkly things to wear precisely because they were sparkly, fun, and nice to look at.

    If the kids are all the same age as your little ones, they probably won’t comment negatively now and likely won’t even remember later on. If the parents have closed-minded attitudes, though, it could be a different thing.

    How about a compromise? Suggest he pick out something gender-neutralish for the main outfit, but accessorize with some of the other items Holly might have.

    Good luck. Don’t get so stressed you can’t enjoy the party.

  2. Well, my little boy who will be 4 in Feb also enjoys dressing up in dresses, clopping about in my shoes, putting lip gloss on etc. he showed us his fave costume at nursery….a pink princess dress. He also likes superheroes, knights, pirates and other “boy” stuff. I dont think you have anything to worry about as his wish to dress as a fairy seems quite normal to me. I may be naiive but i dont think the other kids his age will be at the stage where they would think he was odd to dress like this. As for the other parents…..if they judge…..sod ’em!

  3. I agree – there seems nothing wrong to me. What does L say? I would ask for her thoughts. Adult interpretations and prejudices should not apply in my view! If he feels good and has the confidence to carry it off, go for it. I would be prepared however that he may decide to change during the party! There again, L might want to become an elf! x

  4. At his age, I wouldn’t worry too much about the other kids. Their notions of “gender appropriate” are not present like an adult’s. you might want to alert people ahead of time regarding your child’s clothing choices. Better yet frame it as since he’s doing this other boys are invited to do the same, or girls that want to dress as a boy. You might be surprised that he’s not the only boy that likes what he likes.

  5. You asked what would we think if we saw J in a dress? I would think, oh look, there is a typical 4 year old wearing a dress. Obviously his mum has decided he should be allowed to wear what he wants to his own party. That’s what I would think. I would probably have a giggle because he would look very funny clip clopping around in heels and a dress but it would be a loving giggle because I know him and can imagine him telling you he wanted to be Holly. Xxx ps found L’s picture she drew ages ago for me the other day and now have it up on my door!

  6. Great question to pose. The morality conundrum is endless. The reality question is, how big a deal is it to him that that’s what he gets to wear ? It already sounds like he’s being a little fickle, so I don’t think it would hurt to gently steer him away from a potentially confusing choice of outfit if he’s pliable. If he digs his heels in then let him wear what he wants. If he’s happy to go with something with less potential to cause disruption, then why take the difficult route for the sake of it. I wouldn’t ruin the party for him by refusing to let him dress as a princess if that’s what he really wants, but the consequences you’ve outlined are all potentially real and life’s tough enough so why invite or allow them if you don’t need to ?

  7. Thank you all very much for your thoughts – you’ve given me a lot to consider. It’s interesting to observe that of those who have commented (both here and on my Facebook), women are mainly saying “of course you should let him wear a dress” and men are largely saying “see if you can find a compromise solution”. Either way, no-one has said they’d be shocked, horrified, disapproving or angry to see a little boy in a dress, which is certainly very encouraging!!

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