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>And no pink sneakers for you, young man

>Oprah’s pal Dr. Phil offers advice to a mother whose five-year-old son likes girls’ clothes and Barbies:

“This is not a precursor to your son being gay,” explains Dr. Phil. He’ll know that in time, but this is not an indication of his sexual orientation.

Dr. Phil tells Robby that she has a job to do: “Direct your son in an unconfusing way. Don’t buy him Barbie dolls or girl’s clothes. You don’t want to do things that seem to support the confusion at this stage of the game … Take the girl things away, and buy him boy toys.”

Most importantly, he tells Robby, “Support him in what he’s doing, but not in the girl things.”

One, “Robby” needs to clean up her act and refeminate her name. Two, we wonder why boys don’t read more. Three, any man who makes a career of sitting around on a couch to chat with the ladies is in no position to throw purses.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Michael Grant says:

    >I thought the advice pretty on-target.

    Among the things we do as parents is protect our kids from society at large and other kids in particular. No doubt the day will come when a little kid can cross-dress without suffering the consequence of ostracism, but we aren't there just yet.

    Kids are not our little social experiments or agents of political change: they're kids. And what parent's do is smooth the rough edges of life for them, even if it means a degree of hypocrisy on our part and a lack of perfect devotion to an abstract ideal.

  2. >Without pink sneakers, how can he appear on the cover of a YA novel?

  3. Roger Sutton says:

    >But, Michael, I don't think Dr. Phil is advocating "protecting" the kid; he's telling the mother the boy needs to learn proper gender roles, and that there are proper gender roles. And if that's not social engineering I don't know what is.

  4. Michael Grant says:

    >I read it more as Dr. Phil acknowledging that gay/straight is a pre-existing biological fact the kid will figure out when the time is right. (I have no idea when that is.)

    Of course we have a limited snippet to judge from but my assumption — perhaps wrong — was that he was saying, basically, straighten the kid out for now, he'll know when it's time to un-straighten.

    Slightly tangential: I suspect we'll have less flamboyance in the gay community going forward. Identifying as part of a group is more important when that group is oppressed, when it's important for your numbers to be counted. I think the future looks more like Cam and Mitchell (Modern Family.)

    I was in SF with my 13 year old son, stuck in traffic on the Embarcadero when he said quite calmly, "Hmm, there's two naked guys." Sure enough, two stark naked guys on bikes. My thought was not, "Now my son is traumatized," it was, "How 1980's."

    I have a lesbian character in GONE. Total number of emails, Tweets, Facebook messages, from kids upset by that? One. Vastly outnumbered by the kids hoping she finds true love.

    The generation coming up basically just doesn't give a damn about race, gender, ethnicity. It simply doesn't register with them. Yes, there are still bullies who exploit gayness as a targeting device but that's a fading, dated kind of thing that reads to most kids as puzzlingly irrelevant.

    (And the captcha is Sting? Seriously?)

  5. >I'm with you, Roger.

    I think it is interesting that in (what are now pretty conventional) stories about girls who want to do boy things, the adult who tries to stop them from wearing pants or climbing trees is portrayed as narrow-minded and eeeeevil. Whereas in the real world I think parents who try to keep their kids inside the gender lines do it because they love their kids and don't want them to get hammered by their society.

    I agree with Michael Grant that we try to norm our kids to keep them safe–I do that myself even as I trying to create a safe environment for them to grow in whatever direction they are inclined. But I think often about what it must have been like to send the six year old Ruby Bridges to school every day and where we might be if that mother hadn't been willing to put her child at such risk in an attempt to change the world.

    Most times the only lesson I can draw from this is that Parenting sucks and I should have stuck with a cat.

  6. Brenda Ferber says:

    >Name a toy that girls aren't "allowed" to play with. Name a color that girls aren't "allowed" to wear.
    Impossible, right?
    But boys can't play with dolls, can't wear barrettes in their hair, can't wear dresses or nightgowns or even like the color pink.
    It's ridiculous!
    Dr. Phil is so wrong on this one. The important thing for parents to do is support their kids in knowing themselves and in becoming their best version of themselves. Boys who like girls' clothes and Barbies are expressing themselves as individuals. What's bad about that?
    Parents who are hung up on what people will think are teaching their kids to not trust themselves. Believe me, society will come in and shout its message loud and clear. Parents should be the sane ones!

  7. >Dr. Phil talks about the boy's "confusion," but it seems to me that it is the grown ups who are confused. The boy knows what he likes.

  8. Michael Grant says:

    >Name a toy that girls aren't "allowed" to play with. Name a color that girls aren't "allowed" to wear.
    Impossible, right?

    Not really. There are lots of "boy" toys — action figures, Darth Vader masks, swords — that society isn't too comfortable with. My daughter likes all those things, and compounds the issue by being Asian so their assumption is she'll be quiet and bookish (nope.)

    Parents who are hung up on what people will think are teaching their kids to not trust themselves.

    Do you have kids?

    Let me ask you something. My daughter wants toy guns to play with. How does that register on your tolerance meter? Because what I've found is that "be yourself" presupposes that the results will please the liberal sensibility. (I'm a liberal myself.)

    Sometimes trusting yourself and being yourself and all the rest of the Oprah language means kids very different than what one expects. How about dropping the f-bomb every five seconds? How about obsessing over the TSA and the 4th amendment? Dropping out of school in 7th grade? Craving guns and a motorcycle? Between my son and daughter I have all that and more.

    There are no doubt parents who are trying too hard to dominate, but the opposite of oppression is not necessarily what you expect it to be.

    (Captcha: hystiory? Come on, now.)

  9. >Don't forget you should never buy a boy one of those Fancy Nancy or other Pink Books- He might just read it!

  10. >So funny that there's a popular new book out now where a mother has fits over her daughter being too girly and liking pink and princesses too much.

    Considering that the ideal female role model in YA fiction is the tough-guy imitating, physically aggressive kick-ass grrl, t's coming to the point where we're not going to want anyone to be like a girl. Even if they are girls.

  11. Brenda Ferber says:

    >Michael, I do have kids. Boy-girl twins who are now 16 and a 15 year old son. So I have a little experience with gender roles and parenting.
    I believe girls are allowed to act "boyish" a lot more than boys can act "girlish" in our society.
    And I never said parents should allow anything and everything. Toy guns and swearing and not trying hard in school… these are all things where parents need to influence their children. But dolls and girls' clothes? I don't see the harm.

  12. Michael Grant says:


    Fiction tends to demand action. An active character will trump a passive one, so with that decided you're down to whether that active character is a boy or a girl.

  13. Michael Grant says:


    Right, but what you're saying is that kids should be themselves only so long as being themselves conforms to a new and more liberal — but no less restrictive — standard.

    So on the question of my tomboy daughter playing with toy guns, even though that's her being herself, that's a big "No," and I would be a bad parent for letting her. But if my son wanted to wear a dress to school that would be okay, and I would be a bad parent for stopping him.

    You're opening one door, shutting another, and still imposing your prejudices on the kids, and incidentally, on other parents.

    I played with toy guns when I was a kid. Still haven't shot anyone. Never wore a dress and yet I still support full equality for all Americans and have since long before that was a mainstream idea.

    I would just say beware liberal intolerance. Let's not forget that one of the most effective threats to free expression in kidlit and YA lit and media generally comes from Common Sense Media — a liberal group.

  14. >Michael, you are saying that girls are naturally passive and must behave like boys in order to participate in action? It's either kill people with swords or gossip and knit?

  15. >Brenda Ferber said: "Name a toy that girls aren't "allowed" to play with. Name a color that girls aren't "allowed" to wear.
    Impossible, right?"

    This is so true. Our society still FREAKS over boys being feminine. Another comparison: how many books/movies have girls with masculine nicknames [ie Sam or Georgie]. Can you think of any ever where it was cute or cool to have a guy with a girl's name for a nickname?

    All I can think of is Laurie from Little Women… but nothing from anything even remotely recent.

    Also – Dr Phil wasn't into protecting the kid from bullies etc. If so, the conversation would have been about context – not about refusal.

  16. Brenda Ferber says:

    >Michael, I just don't understand the harm of a boy testing out traditionally girl things. (and vice versa). Who gets hurt in this scenario? Where's the harm?

    Also, who is calling you a bad parent for letting your daughter play with toy guns? Not me.

  17. >"Among the things we do as parents is protect our kids from society at large and other kids in particular. "

    I agree this is sometimes necessary to do, but Dr. Phil is advising that boys shouldn't play with girly things—the same thing society tells us to do. Perhaps the child is transgendered or gay. Why force him to play with boy toys? Being yourself is what people need to be happy.

  18. >Uh…since when is Common Sense Media a LIBERAL group?? I wasn't aware it was officially affiliated with any political or social persuasion, although it's gotten into some controversy recently with reviewers who have shown pretty conservative sensibilities when rating books.

  19. Roger Sutton says:

    >Dr. Phil seems very clear on the fact that playing with Barbie/dressing up is a distinct phenomenon from where a child is some variety of GLBTQ, but what he doesn't explain is why he thinks such activities need to be discouraged. Michael assumes it's because he's trying to protect the child from scorn/bullying, and I think it's because Phil is more afraid of homosexuality than he lets on or even knows. And I agree, nobody is going to freak when a girl plays with Transformers, although butch lady friends of mine tell me that adult tolerance of "tomboy" traits definitely curdles in adolescence.

  20. >Roger said: "although butch lady friends of mine tell me that adult tolerance of "tomboy" traits definitely curdles in adolescence."

    They need to read more YA fantasy and historical fiction.

  21. Michael Grant says:

    >Uh…since when is Common Sense Media a LIBERAL group??

    From the start.

    I've been engaging them, so I've done some research. Of those on the board who made political contributions, 100% went to Democrats, especially to Hillary Clinton. And most on the board did make contributions. There's not a Republican to be found at CSM.

    Further, check their reviewer pool: easily 90% are drawn from the Bay Area and Portland, OR. Neither a hotbed of conservatism.

    Despite this we've nailed them for one overtly homophobic reviewer who they promptly apologized for and disappeared.

    That said they continue to have a harder time with gay sex than straight in YA books. (See their rating of Will Grayson.) Although my real beef with them is their lack of transparency — they refuse to explain the criteria they assign their reviewers, or to explain how they recruit their reviewers, or to discuss any outside business income (if any) involving Mr. Steyer and companies that pay CSM for their services. Etc…

  22. Michael Grant says:

    >Michael, I just don't understand the harm of a boy testing out traditionally girl things. (and vice versa). Who gets hurt in this scenario? Where's the harm?

    The harm — if any — is from the reactions in society — friends, schoolmates, other parents and so on.

    I had no problem with my son playing with dolls — I seem to recall he did at one point. And I have no problem with my daughter buying toy guns at Knott's Berry Farm, or being the most badass little girl at her Tae Kwon Do. (I also have no problem with giving my son unfettered internet access and allowing him to curse like a sailor. Because, seriously, no one alive gives less of a shit what society wants or likes than I do.)

    But I did stop my son on one or two occasions when he was younger and chose clothing that would mark him for trouble at school. Allowing him to unwittingly walk into a situation that might end up with him being ridiculed or ostracized — and then enduring the undying sequelae of that — is not my idea of good parenting. My primary obligation is not to social progress, but to my kids.

    Let's say one or both of my kids is gay. Do they have the same right as any gay adult to decide whether they choose to face the (thankfully diminishing) societal negatives of outing themselves? If a gay adult can legitimately choose to remain closeted — and while it annoys me, I think they can — then it follows doesn't it, that a kid, who has yet to even grasp the potential downside, should be guided toward a more cautious path that preserves their individual choice?

  23. >We want to see more involved and loving fathers in society. And yet if a little boy wants to play with a doll we tell him no.

    The boy wants to play with a Barbie, but we take it away and hand him a truck instead. If I were the kid, I'd be confused.

    I'm just frustrated with this whole double-standard thing. If you go to the toy store, you have to get stuff from the pink aisles if you have a girl or the black aisles if you have a boy. Boys have better clothes but if you put them on a girl, it's obvious from the style that she's not supposed to wear them because now she looks like a BOY. And vice versa.

    I guess it's the whole "we must compartmentalize the sexes" thing that's going on. If we raised girls who can change the oil on the car and build a gate, and guys who can sew a button on a coat and whip up a frittata, we'd have a society that would be a lot more functional, not to mention handy.

    I don't know why I'm not in charge of everything.

  24. Alex Flinn says:

    >As the mom of one flagrant nonconformist (not in gender ways, in other ways) and one equally flagrant conformist, I can tell you that what parents say will do little to change what a child basically is. That said, I do tell them. I think it's good for them to know what society thinks, what they're up against, and that there is another way (and yes, I think the one who is overly conforming needs to know that too). I doubt Ruby Bridges' mom sent her to school, saying, "Don't worry; Everyone's going to love you."

    While playing with Legos or cars may not be frowned upon in girls, a girl playing with ALL boys' toys wouldn't go unnoticed. There was a girl in Meredith's class who wore boyish clothes, had a boyish haircut, and always chose the Bob the Builder lunchbox and Thomas the Tank Engine T-shirt. She wasn't ridiculed, but she was definitely thought unusual.

  25. >You'd be amazed how much flak a girl (my girl) gets for doing "boy" things and – horrors – not owning anything pink.

    Of course, telling that boy he can't have Barbies isn't going to make them at all more attractive, is it?

  26. >Of course our kids are shaped by our responses. My daughter (4) repeats what I say all the time. I'm sure if I tried to steer her away from her interests, she would notice. She might not stop; she's very contrary (yay!). She might decide I was a jerk instead of developing a sense of shame or feeling like she needed to hide her interests from me. But she would not be unaffected.

    IMO, denying a child's passions is no way to protect him, but is actually a great way to hurt him. Michael, I hope you take a better attitude toward the lesbian in your fiction than you must do to the lesbians in real life. Apparently you think if my daughter develops a crush on another little girl, I should steer her away from such things for fear of ostracism. Instead, we try to teach her integrity and courage, let her know that other people are just plain wrong sometimes, and try to create a world where people are safe being who they are.

    But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe my wife and I should pretend to be roommates, because she's bound to find out that some people think we're disgusting and that's gonna hurt. Maybe we should stop raising her in her Jewish heritage, because this world is still full of anti-Semitism. Yep, she'd be better off being Protestant. We'll change that right away.

    And she just told me that she changed her mind and no longer thinks that "hearts are girl shapes, not boy shapes" and "boys can't wear dresses." I will make sure to tell her she's wrong, because allies of dress-wearing boys come in for a lot of crap.

  27. >Amy:

    Spare me the "more liberal than thou," crap. Unfounded accusations of homophobia — based on precisely nothing — don't help the cause, they damage it. Cry wolf when you spot a wolf, not every time someone disagrees with you.

    Of course we tell children to conform their behavior to societal norms to some extent. The job of a parent is to find the sweet spot, neither repressive nor so indifferent to consequence that we leave our children vulnerable.

    Maybe we should stop raising her in her Jewish heritage, because this world is still full of anti-Semitism.

    In point of fact Jews surrounded by anti-semites quite frequently did soft-pedal or even completely conceal their religious identities. Maybe you could explain why it would have been a great idea for Anne Frank to fly the Mogen David out of her window. After all, integrity and all that.

    Let's take a less, um, Nazi example: did gay soldiers have a right to conceal their sexuality under DADT? Should their moms and dads perhaps have outed them in the interests of integrity?

    You're trying to take a complicated situation and reduce it to platitudes, and you're doing it in the interests of ginning up some satisfying moral outrage.

    Grow up. Life is complicated. Sometimes it's not black and white. In fact it's almost never black and white. It's depressing to see liberals with no more sense of nuance or complexity than a Bible-thumping, 10 Commandments spouting Alabaman.

    You have real enemies. Go fight them. I'll help you. Don't cheap-shot your allies just to get an indignation high.

  28. >That last is still me, Michael Grant. Accidentally signed onto a different Gmail account.

    I wouldn't want anyone to think I was hiding.

  29. >Michael, of course it is complicated. Of course we try to walk, and teach our children to walk, the line between being true to yourself and putting yourself in danger. But the advice that you called "pretty on-target" acknowledged no such complexity.

    And then you said, in apparent criticism of a parent who would fail to direct her five-year-old son away from girls' clothes and Barbies, "Kids are not our little social experiments or agents of political change: they're kids." I'm just following the thread– Roger's post, your comment, which was the first–and in that context, your comment seems to be saying that allowing children to explore their unconventional interests is turning them into "social experiments" or "agents of political change." But the mother was not imposing political beliefs on her son; Dr. Phil was. If she disregards his advice, maybe she will let her kid be a kid. THAT kid, the kid he actually is.

    Better advice would have been how to prepare her child for the ostracism he might well face, how to build a community around him that would support who he is, etc. You don't sound like someone who sees the world in the stupid, simplistic terms of "girl things" and "boy toys," so why endorse Dr. Phil's black-and-white view?

  30. >Amy:

    First of all, I'm glad we've both stopped shouting at each other. Although we're probably less entertaining to Roger now.

    I absolutely want gay kids to be who they are.

    But you live, I believe, in Palo Alto. Palo Alto is not Tulsa or Richmond, VA. Palo Alto is a university town, rich as hell and very liberal or liberal/libertarian. It's not really at all representative of the bulk of the US.
    California's 14th — Palo Alto and most of Silicon Valley — went 70% for Obama, and I'll bet Palo Alto itself was closer to 80%.

    Choices that might make perfect sense for a kid attending the Palo Alto schools look very different in most of this country.

    A little kid "being himself" is a hell of a lot harder in most of this country than it might be where you or Roger live. You're asking that kid to face maybe a decade of consequence for being himself.

    That's a decision individual parents have to make. My sense of what Dr. Phil was saying was to the effect of look, it will do no harm in the long run if you steer your kid toward "safer" behaviors now. But as I said above, we don't have a lot to go on and we're all more or less guessing as to his intent.

  31. Roger Sutton says:

    >I think there's a difference between protecting a child from bullying and discouraging him from expressing himself. Not letting a boy wear a dress to school (although some of the Horn Book moms tell me that is now acceptable in the admittedly liberal schools their kids attend) because he would be bullied is different from not letting a boy play with Barbies because they are toys for girls.

  32. >Roger:

    Fair enough. But what would liberal reaction be if the little boy used Barbie to make a gun? Little boys will do that. Are we all as open-minded when the child being himself engages in gun-based play?

    My own Barbie experience: I played with them, although I was 16 at the time. My first job was at Toys R Us where I ran the doll aisle. (I used fake ID to get the job.) I was working 60 hour weeks leading up to Christmas and was probably not the most mature employee there. So from time to time I would entertain myself by bringing Barbie and Sharpie together to make what I like to think of as "enhanced" Barbies.

    Apologies to customers of the Marlboro Heights, MD Toys R Us from Christmas 1970.

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