My Husband's Insistence on Gender Norms Makes Being a Boy Mom So Expensive

Here's why kids'-clothing gender norms need to go out the window—both for our wallets, and for the world.

An image of a stack of money on a colorful background.
Photo: Getty Images. Art: Jillian Sellers.

I would love to save some serious money by decking my son out in some hand-me-down, pink-striped leggings from the neighbor girl. Or let him wear his cousin's old princess dress for Halloween instead of shelling out for a brand-new Star Trek suit (is that a thing?). But I can't. Nope, my husband insists that our son dress "like a boy"—whatever on earth that even means in 2021. And his unnecessary enforcement of gender norms makes being a boy mom so expensive.

Hand-me-downs from friends with girls or my son's dress-wearing boy cousin are out of the question. My husband insists that, while it's OK for girls to wear dresses, pants, rompers, or, hell, walk around in a shower curtain (but make it fashion), our son shall not be permitted to accept free clothes if they might be considered "girl clothes." This includes rompers, jumpsuits, pink socks, and anything with a bow. So, we have to shell out for a whole new wardrobe every time my son grows a few inches. It seems like whenever I go shopping, girls have racks and racks of options, while boys have the same stereotypical, few choices.

But here's the thing: Enforcing gender norms with kids—be it through their toys, clothes, or behaviors—isn't just unnecessary; it's downright dangerous. Not only that, but the amount of money we parents, as a group, spend on kids clothes (especially within the fast fashion industry) is astronomical; according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, families spend up to $1,280.00 annually on kids' clothing. The good news is that taking advantage of hand-me-downs, Buy-Nothing Facebook groups, and clothing swaps are all ways you can seriously cut down on the money you spend on your kids' wardrobe—but not if you have to ditch half of those clothes for being the "wrong" gender. As if clothes ever, really, had a gender in the first place—just ask any 19th-century boy in a dress.

Here's why clothing gender norms need to go out the window—both for our wallets, and for the world.

Kids—nay, humans—should wear what they like.

Clothing is meant to cover your naked body. That's it. As long as your kiddo is comfortable, happy, and not naked, does it really matter if their shirt has rainbows or race cars? No, it does not.

Does your little one love to twirl in circles? Then they would probably enjoy a skirt, regardless of whether they are a boy or a girl. Do they love dinosaurs? Then let them wear dinosaurs, even if the shirt is also camo and says "stunt master." Will your daughter care? No. You shouldn't either. Making your child feel shame or embarrassment over something as silly as a dress—or worse, making them feel like being their truest, most honest self is somehow disappointing you—is a trauma they will carry with them into adulthood.

Plus, it's a myth that only transgender children enjoy wearing clothes that are stereotypically "for" the sex they were not assigned at birth. Chances are, if your child is not expressing any signs of gender dysphoria, and you ask them why they prefer wearing certain clothes, you'll get a response like, "I like that it's shiny" or "it has pockets" or "I like when I spin and it goes wheeeee." Assigned-male children who love dresses do not all identify as girls. And guess what: If they do, that's also perfectly OK.

We should prioritize functionality over fashion anyway.

That means: Anything with actual pockets. Many a small girl is dismayed and disappointed when she discovers that the pockets on a lot of "girl clothes" are fake. Little girls have just as much need for pockets as boys; they, too, have rock collections to house, small creatures to scare their parents with, and the odd button or stick to save for later. Or maybe, because clothing in a "boys'" size 6 has at least a couple extra inches of fabric than a "girls'" size 6, even though they're the "same" size, girls who want that extra coverage and durability should feel free to lean towards the "boys" clothes.

Also, exploring gender identity, especially through fashion, is a perfectly normal part of childhood development, and kids are way more likely to grab an article of clothing that is comfortable and in which they feel good—rather than an article of clothing that looks cool but is uncomfortable. Kids want to toss something on and be on their way—and not have to have it cross their mind again.

As a former Montessori teacher, I have witnessed on more than one occasion children who said they didn't want to play at recess because they didn't want to "mess up" their outfit, so they sat on the sidelines and longingly watched the other kids getting muddy and having fun. When their parents came to get them, often the first thing they said would be something to the effect of, "oh good, you didn't get your dress dirty!'' If kids' clothing impedes them from playing, they shouldn't be wearing it.

Kids should be allowed to emulate their heroes—of any gender.

Kids like to copy the people they look up to. The four-year-old boy who lives in Wonder Woman pajamas isn't necessarily wearing them because he's genderqueer, or wants to challenge the definition of gender fluidity, or insists on making a statement against the patriarchy. Chances are, he's wearing them because he loves Wonder Woman and wants to be as fast and strong as her someday.

Similarly, if your daughter wants to wear a suit to your cousin's wedding because she wants to match Daddy, maybe she's exploring her gender identity, or maybe she just plain looks up to her dad. Both are great. My nephew loves to wear dresses, and bows, because he wants to be twins with his mom. And who can blame him? "Girl" clothes tend to be the ones with the sparkles.

If you're unsure about how to talk to your kids about gender and the arbitrary / nonexistent gender binary, here's how to explain being non-binary to your kiddos.

Sensory situations often call for gender-free solutions.

Especially for kids with sensory issues, like my son who has autism, clothing may be a trigger point. Maybe they find jeans or shirts constricting, but the freedom and looseness of dresses and skirts appeals to them. Or maybe there's a glittery sequin shirt they like that calms them when they rub the sequins back and forth—but the sequins are on a mermaid's tail, which somehow makes this "for girls."

Aside from the obvious (we should all let our children pick out what clothing feels right to them), specifically with a child with sensory issues, it's best to focus on clothes with soft fabric, and no stiff seams or tags that bug them. And whether that's a dress, or a peacock Halloween costume, or pajamas, it's fine. Certain companies, such as Lark Adventurewear and RAGS, make super soft, unisex clothing—rompers, shirts, pants, and more—that are perfect for kids of any gender with sensory needs.

All clothing is unisex. Period.

Clothes are clothes. Thankfully, more and more clothing lines and companies are focusing on gender-neutral clothing rather than separating things into "boys" and "girls" sections. But here's the thing: All clothing is unisex anyway. Any item of clothing can be worn by anyone, regardless of their gender—and by enforcing gender norms, not only are you forcing your kids into boxes that don't exist anymore, you are doing a serious disservice to yourself, your kids, and your wallet.

Why would you turn away clothes that are free (and already loved and broken in) just because they might be considered the "wrong" gender for your child? Remember those Victorian boys in dresses? Clothing is clothing. As long as it's accessible, affordable, and safe, we should all be able to let our kiddos dress how they want to dress—and be who they want to be.

So, I've started letting my son choose his own outfits for school. Most of the time, his shirt is on backwards, his bottoms are inside out, and just last week I realized he was wearing three pairs of shorts at the same time. He's doing great. Now, I just need to convince my husband to accept any-gender hand-me-downs, and my bank account will be doing great, too.

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