We’re friends with a family with a somewhat gender-variant son, Q, who likes pink and wears his hair long (and identifies as a boy, you can read their smart thoughts at labels are for jars). Leigh has played with Q a few times, and thinks he’s fabulous, and specifically asks if we can play with him again after we see them.

She also insists that really he is a girl.

I tried a few different approaches along the lines of “Well, boys can like pink too” or “How would you feel if someone told you you were a boy even though you know you’re a girl?” or “Ira wears pink sometimes. Do you think he’s a girl?” (answer: “Of course not,” while looking at me like I’ve completely lost my mind). And after all of this she says “OK, Q is still a girl.”

I asked one of Q’s moms about how we might help Leigh understand, and she asked Q for his thoughts as well. They suggested explaining to her that some kids are “stereotype breakers.” So yesterday, I tried it out.

I asked Leigh if she still though Q was a girl (she did) and asked if she knew what a “stereotype” was (she didn’t). So we talked about how a stereotype is when almost everyone does things one way, like most girls her age really like pink, and most boys don’t, so that’s a stereotype (and that might not be exactly right, but close enough), but that some people break stereotypes and they are “stereotype breakers” Like Q for example. He doesn’t fit the stereotype of a boy because he really likes pink and has long hair. She mulled it over. We talked about how our family breaks stereotypes because we have two moms and not a mom and a dad like most families. She definitely got that one and looked pretty proud of herself. I told her when I was a kid, I was a “stereotype breaker” because I didn’t like dresses or pink (“You already told me that Mama.” — which I did, when she was three, and her response was utter shock and a proclamation of “You really shouldn’t have done that Mama.” I guess I made an impression if she still remembers over two years later).

She thought and thought on this for a while, and I was worried maybe I’d just yammered on way too long in a boring parental way, but then she looks up at me brightly and says “You know Grandpa? He has a ponytail. He’s a st…st…what was it again?” “A stereotype breaker” “Yeah. A stereotype breaker.”

So she gets it. I finally made some sense.

I’m really grateful to Q and his mom for passing on this idea, and when I thought about it in this way, I realized I just must have sounded a bit out of touch to her before. If she looks around, all the girls wear pink and virtually none of the boys do. When I say something like “boys can like pink too” it is pretty much completely foreign to the preschool landscape. It was like I was ignoring a basic truth that was plain as day. But in talking about “stereotype breakers” I could acknowledge what to her is plainly fact, and then open up some room for Q, and for her as a kid in a queer family, and then for Grandpa’s ponytail (though I sense she may have some lingering disapproval of my childhood wardrobe choices).