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My son chose pink and purple shoes—and I let him buy them

boy pointing to pink shoes
ViDI Studio/ Ruslan Ivantsov/ Shutterstock

I took my six-year-old son shoe shopping. All his other shoes were too tight or too small, with toes sweetly peeking over the edge. Three shops later, he found the only pair he was willing to try on. They were bright pink and purple with a glittery silver design on top.

There are many parenting moments which have caught me off guard. This was one of them. He is a real rough and tumble boy. He loves ninjas and sword fights. His favorite color has been bright red for as long as I can remember. I stared at the shoes and suggested he try them on to see if the pair fit comfortably. He took a size too large and the very kind, nonjudgemental salesman showed my son how to undo the straps and put them on. He refused to try any other shoe. He refused to try a smaller size. These were his shoes.

As he sat down to try them on, I quickly ran through numerous possible responses. Here are the ones I chose not to use:

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No, you can’t have those: It was a knee-jerk response. He’s a contrarian. He likes to push boundaries. If I told him no, it would have made the shoes that much more appealing to him. He is also starting to choose his own clothes, his favorite colors and developing his style. Immediately saying no would undermine his confidence in making his own style choices.

These are shoes for girls: Obviously, years of marketing and media have indoctrinated us with the idea that pink is for girls. Purple is for girls. Sparkly and glitter are for girls. The boy shoes on the shelf were black, dark blue and orange. For a kid who loves color, light-up heels and glitter, these were just not going to do it. The part of my brain that stores random facts also chirped in that in the Victorian era boys wore pink and girls were dressed in blue. Girl and boy colors are cultural and social constructs.

Your friends will tease you if you wear these shoes: Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. Maybe teasing him about his shoes will teach him how to stand up for the things that are important to him. Dealing with criticism is a necessary skill, one many of us struggle with, even as adults. The same is true for dealing with bullies and learning to stand up for oneself.

What will…say? What will your dad say? What will your super conservative grandfather say? What will our friends, church, teachers say? This question would have led to shame, guilt and a downward spiral of questioning his self-esteem. Obvious terrible responses, which would place his self-worth in the hands of others. Self-worth and self-esteem are exactly that—of the self. They need to be internal forces. If I had voiced these concerns aloud, it would have become a self-fulfilling prophecy with my son replaying these same questions in his own head. And, in fact, my husband was upset when he first saw the pink shoes and, in a quick whispered conversation, asked if we could return them.

Here’s what I actually did:

  • Sent my mom a semi-panicked text message. It’s great to have a sounding board, even just to share my own insecurities and fears as a mother.

  • Allowed him to try on the shoes. Told him to walk around the shop. I asked him if they were comfortable.

  • I told him the most important thing is that the shoes are comfortable and that his feet don’t feel sore or squeezed.

  • I came down to his eye level and asked if we could talk. In a very calm voice I told him there are many people who believe that pink is only for girls. Immediately his face fell, his little shoulders slumped, his hands held tighter to the shoes. But, I said, anyone can wear any color they like. Pink isn’t just for girls, it’s for everyone. He smiled and asked if he could wear the shoes out of the shop.

When he came home from school the next day, he said a friend had laughed at the shoes. He dealt with it and has worn the shoes every day since. Parenting is a series of unexpected challenges and raising humans to advance beyond the world’s expectations. Maybe we can start by reminding ourselves, and our children, that pink is for everyone.