“I had a nightmare about princesses,” A, my six-year old son recently told me. He had a look of haunted exhaustion on his face, like if he heard one more word about princesses he might just give up on life completely.
A prefers monsters. Like the character Hagrid from Harry Potter, he finds the most ferocious creatures to the be the most worthy of his love. The more fangs, or claws, or poison sacs, or dragon wings, or spiky dinosaur ridges, or lava-spewing pustules the better. Lately, he’s had a particular affinity for the two-foot tall white-furred ferocious yeti that he received on his birthday. That day, he spent hours letting the yeti defeat each one of his super hero toys in turn, then the heroes returned for more rounds in greater numbers, yet the yeti stood triumphant in the end.
I recently came across a video of A when he was three. In it, he looks at the camera with his bright blue eyes while he lovingly pets the spiky back of a green T-Rex.
“His name is Terminus,” he says when I ask him. “He eats mommy snakes, baby snakes, and one spider.” When I ask him if Terminus has any friends, he tells me, “No. He ate all his friends.”
Terminus lined the toy shelf for years next to A’s other favorites, with names varying from Apples Juice to Ocean to Shrug. He always chose names out of the blue, but the names always stuck. But it wasn’t just dinosaurs, it was tigers, rhinos, trolls, ogres, snakes, dragons, and man-animal mutated hybrids of any kind. They soared and swooped through the house unendingly, A always perfecting their roars.
Yet A had nightmares of princesses. I read between the lines, hearing him say that he had nightmares of girl toys and girl things, anything less than roaring and horrid beasts that devoured anything before them. To him, princesses were sweet and pink and they sang songs and wanted to kiss boys, all terrible things that, to him, were much more frightening than a monster.
Yet A’s older brother, J, age 8, prefers princesses. Even as a baby, he reached for toys that would be considered more nurturing, like baby dolls, soft rabbits, and cute mice. More recently, he’s had a slight obsession with horses, and girls who ride them shooting arrows. He’s always been thrilled at the small and innocent being able to be the most powerful of all, saving the world against impossible odds and perhaps falling in love along the way.
Several months before, I had purchased him a collection of child versions of the Disney Princess toys, and, in order to make the set something the boys would play together, we endowed each princess with her own super power, so they could band together to form the Princess Patrol and fight evil. Belle was the leader and was super smart, Cinderella could make boys fall in love with her, Pocahontas was a natural hunter and tracker, Mulan knew kung-fu, Snow White could control animals, and Ariel was a super fast swimmer. There were 11 of them in all, and the boys took them on a myriad of adventures before the princesses, like every other toy for children these days, ended up on the bottom of the toy box because a new toy was receiving all of the attention.
My sons are being raised by a gay dad and a straight mom in two households, and we are a united front when it comes to parenting. Rather than enforcing any sort of gender or cultural norms, we have always let our sons just be themselves. We encourage kindness, fair play, honesty, teamwork, sharing, and listening, but we have never tried to change their interests. And for years now, their styles of play have melded together seamlessly, monsters fighting alongside princesses, instead of against each other. Just the other day, the giant yeti was helping to protect the little girl’s horse farm they had set up in the backyard, and all helped in the attacks against them. (I often play the villains).
Lately, I’ve been encouraging creative thinking and teamwork skills between my sons while embracing their individual play styles. I sat them before me, telling them they were going on an epic quest.
“You will be the Mystical Monkeys,” I told them. “Please select your names.”
J, excitedly wringing his hands, couldn’t pick one. “I, um, oh gosh, I don’t–um, I choose, um–”
“Speed it along, son.”
“Okay, I’m Betty!”
“And I’m Banana!” A followed.
And so the adventures of Betty and Banana, the Mystical Monkeys, began. They were each given one super power, passive powers I chose to encourage thinking. Betty was granted the power to change the color of anything, and Banana to turn invisible for a few seconds at a time. They retrieved a magic coconut from a treetop after fighting off an army of tarantulas (though A called them “try-ranch-ulas”) before swimming across a sea full of kissing mermaids. After a series of quests, Betty could then grow rabbit ears to jump high, and A developed a fire fist and a rock fist. They braved the Valley of the Stone Trolls, unscrambled the words to a magic spell, and entered a cave to answer riddles from a witch.
As they fell asleep, I contemplated their intersecting worlds. Dinosaurs and bunnies, super heroes and little girls, poisonous snakes and brave ponies. Betty and Banana. Their three baskets of toys overflowed, signs that they are well-loved and a bit spoiled, with both vampires and fairy queens, yet they both slept, breathing the same air heavily.
Every parent wants to give their child what they didn’t have. For me, that means raising my sons with a strong sense of identity, asking nothing more from them than to be exactly who they are and to know that they are loved.