This week a story about Virginia dad, Paul Henson, and his adorable three- year- old son Caiden has been blowing up the internet. Paul allowed Caiden to dress up as Elsa from the movie “Frozen” and even agreed to dress up as Anna—Elsa’s little sister. Caiden & Paul’s story reminded me of an experience that I had when my son Kamani was around three or four.
I was leaning on a wall at my son’s preschool, waiting the requisite 10-15 minutes it always took for him to accept that it was time to go, when another little boy caught my eye. The boy, whose name escapes me after all these years, was wearing sparkly, ruby red slippers. I looked around to see if any of the other children were “dressed up” since the preschool always had a healthy stock of make-believe clothing. However, not one of the other kids was wearing anything out of the ordinary. I’m sure I must have looked perplexed; I was definitely confused and conflicted on the inside. Why was this little boy wearing “girls” shoes?
As the universe would have it, the boy’s father was the next parent to arrive. We exchanged pleasantries and then without warning he turned to me and asked, “What do you think of my son’s shoes?” My brain was screaming because I had no idea of the answer. Honestly, I don’t even remember what I said. I believe that I mumbled something like…”interesting” or “nice shoes.” His dad responded by telling me how much his son loved the “Wizard of Oz,”especially Dorothy. He shared that when his son saw the sparkly, ruby red slippers in Target he had to have them. The dad beamed with what I interpreted as excitement and pride. I smiled politely, all the while wondering whether or not I would have bought the ruby red slippers for my own son.
I was clear that a little boy wanting to wear ruby red slippers was not an indicator of his gender identity or sexual orientation. Simultaneously, I was clear that my son’s gender identity and sexual orientation would not have changed my love for him in any way. So why did I care? Why weren’t the shoes a no brainer? At the time, it seemed complicated. During my son’s early years, I was young, black and single. For anyone who is wondering why that matters, there’s a pervasive belief in this country that single mothers (especially black and brown ones) are somehow responsible for everything from poverty to poor educational outcomes. A complimentary and equally negative myth is that women can’t successfully raise boys into men. To combat that, I wore imaginary Wonder Woman power cuffs daily. I used them to deflect stereotypes about what would become of both of us. Bottom line: I cared too much about what people would think and say about me, my parenting and my son.
When Paul Hansen posted that adorable picture of Caiden dressed as Elsa he said, “Keep your masculine bull (use your imagination) and slutty kid costumes, Halloween is about children pretending to be their favorite characters. It just so happens, this week his is a princess.” Paul anticipated the silly and potentially harmful comments that would come as a result of his sharing the picture. Yet, he was brave enough (and likely excited and proud enough) to share it anyway. Paul is teaching Caiden deeply important lessons about identity, masculinity, love and courage. All children should be so lucky.
Most of the posts and stories I’ve seen about Paul and Caiden have been overwhelmingly positive. It isn’t lost on me that gender, gender identity and race could have impacted the reception of this story—though I would love to be wrong here. Would the response have been the same if Caiden’s mom had posted the picture? What if Caiden identified as a girl? Would it have mattered if Caiden or his dad’s racial background had been different? Who knows? Perhaps the most important question is, “Would you buy the sparkly, ruby red slippers for your son?”
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I would absolutely buy the red, ruby slippers. Isn’t life about exploring, learning, and finding what speaks to you? If my son wanted to wear the ruby slippers it would be a no brainer. If my daughter wants to wear football pads and boycott dresses we acknowledge and respect it. It’s likely tomorrow that they switch. This world pigeon-holes people and when we are viewed as individuals and allowed to live our truth wonderful things happen. Be open and good things will follow.
I loved this blog, Erica — for the simple fact that I never thought how this could have been taken if it were a mom doing this with her son — or a single parent of color. You made me think, which is always good. I don’t think anyone denies that what Paul Henson did was amazing. The question is would it have been a different reaction if the parent role was a different gender or race. Thank you for this powerful piece. I loved it!
Thanks Amy. Reading Paul and Caiden’s story was just inspiration I needed to share my experience.
Erica, thank you so much for your perspective on this subject. When I saw the article about the father and son, I was happy to see that he was willing to do what made his son happy and not care what others might thing. Reading your thoughts about wether you would have purchased the ruby red slippers for your son, made me think about my own upbringing: Why was my single parent mother always trying to get me in skirts and dresses? The lesson learned is, let your children experience life, they’re going to be whomever they’re going to be wether you or anybody else likes it or not.
Ditto. Paul Henson not only taught Caiden deeply important lessons about identity, masculinity, love and courage, he taught us all.