The Lesson of the Boy in the Pink Ballet Flats

Who knows how this kid's life will turn out, but one thing's for sure: his parents actions can't protect him forever

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Have a Gay Day / Facebook

Amazingly enough, the big parenting story this week concerns a pair of pink zebra-patterned shoes.

Pink zebra-patterned ballet flats, I should add — because the details matter — which a five-year-old boy named Sam reportedly fell in love with at the shoe store, and then wore to his first day of preschool several months ago. Last week, his sister posted a photo of Sam’s shoes on Facebook’s “Have a Gay Day” page, noting that when her mom had pasted his picture on her own Facebook page, a number of relatives had come forward to lovingly warn that the shoes were “wrong,” would “affect him socially” and might “turn him gay.”

This infectious concern then went viral, with mom-blogger Mary Fischer wondering if the mother in question, however well-meaning, was perhaps setting her son up for a lifetime-scarring dose of “insults and ridicule” that a more reasoned choice of footwear could have prevented.

All of which led me to a couple of reflections:

1)  That my mother would have dismissed the pink zig-zagged confections as “not school shoes” — “school shoes” being sturdily-constructed cloddy things with laces and arch support, in dirt-defying shades of dark brown or navy blue. If the mom in question had simply reacted to the light-colored, impractical ballet flats with the kind of lip-tightened rejection that my own mother would have sent their way, the whole story would have been over. (And because we are all doomed to reject our parents before becoming just like them, I sent my own older daughter to preschool in her chosen shoes — black patent leather Mary Janes with leather soles — earning myself a talking-to from her teachers, who said she needed more sturdy shoes in order to run and climb with the other kids.)

And

2) That the reaction to the mom, the boy and the shoes reflects just how much magical thinking has seeped into our national parenting conversations.

The notion that a preschooler’s shoe choice — or a parent veto-ing that choice — will have a lasting effect on his life’s outcome, protecting him from the long-term risk of being a social outcast is, I’m sorry to say, absurd. So, for that matter, is the idea that his choice of shoes, on one particular day, is indicative of who he is or will grow up to be.

Now that Sam has entered the social orbit of his peers, his mother’s decisions regarding his footwear will be one very minor input shaping his personality and life experiences. If it were possible to protect him from being ostracized or bullied by counseling him against wearing pink zebra flats, how easy life would be. How much less painful, indeed, it would be.

(MORE: Why American Kids Are Brats)

I remember well what parenting felt like when my older daughter was in preschool. Every activity she undertook, every precious word out of her mouth, every behavior, every clothing choice seemed incredibly important.  Her life, the preschool world, our life together formed a warm little bubble, a totalizing reality drenched in high drama and deep meaning. How shocking it was to find, a year after she “graduated,” that she barely remembered her teachers and classmates at all! How incredible to think that the drawings, hand prints and yes, shoes, that summed up her whole being could so quickly turn into mere relics.

Looking back at both my daughters, there are many aspects of their early childhood experiences that have turned out to have lasting truth: their social and emotional styles and general temperaments, their physical and early learning strengths and weaknesses. The hard-wired, inborn stuff, in other words. The stuff that — despite all my best efforts — I couldn’t fully discern then, much less control.

It’s the very human drama at the heart of what we typically refer to, coldly and dismissively, as “helicopter parenting”: this attempt to use our own powers of control to keep our children happy and safe, which, these days, tends to mean making them successful, socially as well as academically, at school. But the magical bubble of very early childhood doesn’t last. Life happens to us all.

(MORE: The Movie “Bully” Is Good, but a Knee-Jerk Response to Bullying is Not)

And as for those rubber-soled Stride Rites that replaced my daughter’s impractical, much-loved Mary Janes; they didn’t make her run any faster or climb any higher. They didn’t take away the quirks — strengths and weaknesses — that left her out of step with her peers. They just made her look a tiny bit more like everyone else. From the ankles down, at least.

17 comments
ojonnae
ojonnae

I do not believe that these shoes will shape Sam's future, but I still think that the shoes should not have been bought for the boy in the first place.

Unknown225
Unknown225

Truly on my opinion, the comments are not even talking about the article. So we know that the young child was wearing pink shoes and some people say thats a act of being gay, not true. The child is young, he doesn't know what gay is so why should people even get worried. Plus he might not even remember about this, but after they posted it and so many have seen this, well there may be a 50 50 chance that he will.

hookenstein
hookenstein

Why does everyone feel the need to follow up their story of a son or other man who loves pink or played with dolls with a "he's not gay" comment?  It is like someone saying, "I'm not racist, I have black friends.".  

SarahMaywalt
SarahMaywalt

As a trans woman, I would kill to have some memory of my childhood where I felt like I could just be myself, but alas, I'm only left with memories of fear and shame. Let the kid wear the shoes, and shut up.

MathiasLocke
MathiasLocke

To the author and some of the comments: Oh the ignorance!  It doesn't take much knowledge of psychology or life to know that small things can make a big difference in a person's life.  At such a young age, if kids label him as weird (and they often will over things like this) it can stick with him until middle school- and then the fact that he was partially ostracized will still leave a lasting mark.  I'm not saying this will happen, but anyone should be able to recognize the possibility.  I doubt allowing him to wear these could "turn him gay" - but anyone truly educated on such a subject would understand that homosexuality is usually a result of genetic and sociological factors.

sambrit10
sambrit10

I don't have any problem with the mom allowing her son to attend preschool in those shoes, although I think I would have given the teachers an alternate pair of shoes on the side for him to change into if the other kids did tease and made him miserable. Odds are the other kids, at that age, wouldn't pay much attention, and I think it's great to support a child's desire to express him or herself rather than always conforming to the crowd. 

BUT I can't imagine why she thought it was a good idea to post that picture. Because of that, and the ridiculous ensuing media storm, this thing just may follow him through his life, or at least through his school years. I can see that picture popping back up in elementary school, middle school, and high school. I hope by the time he gets to high school, gender straitjackets will have loosened enough that nobody thinks much of it, but knowing how kids are, I have a hard time believing that will happen.

DBritt
DBritt

If he's straight: He will have a great laugh with his friends someday over this.

If he's gay: He will have a great laugh with his friends someday over this.

Some well-meaning acquaintances need to spend more time worrying about their own reaction to that patently hilarious photo and less about what the dreaded "other children" will think.

EaglesPain
EaglesPain

That child has huge feet for a 5 year old, I mean huge! Can anyone estimate the size? Looks like he broke that ankle too. 

 And what self-respecting parent would allow a child to go to school wearing pink zebra flats combined with an horizontally striped olive colored shirt? I mean, the jeans are working but the shirt and the dull gray hoodie are just wrong in this frightening "ensemble". That's the parental crime here, not teaching fashion sense or proper accessorizing.

ladysue21
ladysue21

I was warned by my mother that my son might grow up gay because I allowed him to have dolls. He loved playing with them, along with his other toys. He has grown up into a lovely man, heterosexual and a great father. Let the boy wear what he likes as long as it is sensible- which I would say those shoes are probably not.

erinewilliams07
erinewilliams07

Would this be an issue if he wore a Superman costume to school?  I see kids all the time in princess dresses and action figure costumes in public...because that's what being a kid is all about.  Childhood is too short to worry about the little things. This is the time kids can get away with wearing princess dresses with cowboy boots, dragging their favorite blanket to preschool, toting their beloved stuffed animal to the grocery store. My brother obsessively wore his red Power Ranger costume to school for a year. He eventually grew out of that phase, became an athlete and is now finishing his last year in school.  Let the boy wear whatever he wants. He'll look back at these pictures and have a great laugh. 

SherryMcEvers
SherryMcEvers

HE is a precious child reminding me of my very determined grandson who insist he loves pink! His grandpa wears flowers, pink, purple, stripes and polka dots on the golf course! (he's not gay) INdividualism is nurtured until someones narrow minded views and comments wreak havoc in what is otherwise a precious pic of precious happy child!!!

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

Nobody TURNS gay , one is born gay/lesbian . If he likes them , good luck to him .

JillRenshaw
JillRenshaw

@ojonnae says "I still think that the shoes should not have been bought for the boy in the first place"


Why?  Would you please explain for us why the mother should not have bought a pair of shoes that the boy (according to the article) fell in love with?

JillRenshaw
JillRenshaw

@MathiasLocke homosexuality might be caused by a combination of factors, genetic and environmental.  However, it is UNDENIABLE that the color of a pair of shoes that a child wears when he is five will have ABSOLUTELY NO EFFECT WHATSOEVER, ZERO, ZILCH, ON THE CHILD'S SEXUAL IDENTITY.  And anybody who says anything different is a f*cking retarded moron.