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The Boy-Girl Gaffe

Jon Whittle

I made my son cry nine hours ago.

I wake Jackson up at 7 a.m. In order for him to have enough time to slide out of bed, get dressed, have a bowl of Raisin Bran Crunch, shoot suction cup darts from a Nerf gun at the sliding glass door, pack his backpack and buckle himself into the car seat, we need 38 minutes.* (*—Extra time built in for impromptu cartwheels, somersaults and ninja poses). But last week, his mom decided that he's now old enough to choose his own clothes in the morning. Which is fine by me, but there's one problem: when it comes to fashion, his body is in Florida, but his mind is in upstate Wisconsin, or possibly southern Greenland. He wears winter gloves around the house, and sweatshirts over his karate uniform (it wasn't cold outside, and we weren't on our way to taekwondo). This particular morning, he wants to wear an Izod over an Izod. That's right: the dreaded double Izod. Absolutely not, Kanye West, you will dehydrate at recess. So he goes back to the closet. Staring. Murmuring. Staring. Murmuring. Precious minutes are ticking by. Finally, I have to light a fire under his Transformers undies. I say, "Come on, Jackson, you're being a girl." "A girl?" he asks, looking confused and almost frightened. First comes the high pitched wheeze, a balloon losing air. Eeeeeeeeeeeeee. Then the tears.

My initial reaction is to walk out of the room. Maybe I should give Naomi Campbell a minute to collect herself. When I return a few minutes later, I hear blubbbering through the door. And it hits me: bad job, dad. That was a dumb thing to say. I hadn't seen the boy shed a tear in a week or so, and he's weeping before breakfast. I walk into his room. "Jackson, I didn't mean you are actually a girl," I explain. "What I meant was girls typically care more about clothes than boys do." Now he's looking at me like the RCA dog: head cocked to one side, hearing something that's utterly confounding.

Whether I like it or not, I'm now in a discussion about gender roles and stereotypes with a 6-year-old. This is not a pre-coffee talk to have. I guess my dad was onto something: he never had the gender roles and stereotypes talk with me. That's not how we operated. We grew up on a horse and cattle farm. When I was 11, my dad brought me out to the stable to see a cow giving birth. We stood there together in awed silence. No words, no birds, no bees. But lesson learned nonetheless.

But my inclination is to overexplain things. So now I'm blathering on about boys, girls, similarities, differences, etc. But I can't take back the girl comment. If I'm lucky, he'll forget about it. But considering he can name all the Jedi knights and clone troopers in Star Wars, probably not. 

My childhood memories of my dad aren't verbal. They're visual. I can close my eyes and see images of snowmen with charcoal briquette eyes; midday naps on the living room rug; placing a dusty barn blanket over a newborn calf. When Jackson is my age, will he remember his dad calling him a girl? I don't know. If I'm smart, I'll flood his brain with 90,000 great memories. And years from now, when he seaches 'dad' in that big Google between his ears, hopefully my comment won't show up on the first few pages.