As a mom, I always let my daughter choose any outfit she wants. It's harder, but so vital, for boys too.

Working out one’s personal style should be fun, not fraught, and sometimes you have to let your kid just be a kid.
Boys dressing up and dancing
Orbon Alija / Getty Images/iStockphoto
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By Lily Burana

The frustration that some parents feel around gendered children’s clothing is not news; many a parent of girls has lamented the flounce vs. function divide in kid’s clothing departments, the pastel vs. primary colors stratification, and the utterly nonsensical differences in cut, sizing and functionality. Boys get “rough and tumble” clothes with dinosaurs and sharks and robots — and durable fabrics that are easy to wash and dry — while girls get glittered pouffery with some day-glo and butterflies mixed in, printed on cotton-lycra blend that puckers down a size upon washing, even in the gentle cycle.

Honestly, the disparity is disturbing, even as the parent of a girl and a femme of longstanding who feels no conflict about my own girly-girl ways. I like having long hair, wearing makeup and splurging on lash extensions. (The long French manicured acrylic nail tips had to go, though, when I realized how much they interfered with the daily tasks of parenting. “Mommy, I’m glad you got rid of your thick, pink-and-white nails” my daughter now says when I push down the flip-open bathtub drain with ease). But I didn’t feel good about passing my preferences along to my daughter as a mandate.

Once she was old enough to help me shop for her, I let her decide what to wear, as long as it wasn’t too flirty, too uncomfortable, too revealing or — cutting myself a break here — too high-maintenance. (Mommy needs a wash-and-wear kid. She can have dry-clean-only clothes when she's old enough to drive to the cleaner’s.) If she wanted mermaids and unicorns and hearts and flowers and cottony frills, cool. If she wanted trucks and robots and beige and camouflage, that was cool, too — there was nothing wrong with shopping in the "boys" department if that's where the marketing powers that be put the clothing she wanted. And if she wanted to mash it all up, wearing robot T-shirts with her glitter tulle, hey, she could knock herself out.

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But, especially as a parent whose child sees gender differences underscored in the military dress uniforms her friends' parents wear, I knew that it is less complicated to grant such sartorial freedom to a girl. (For the Army’s part, they are soon rolling out a more gender-neutral uniform that recalls the pinks-and-greens of The Greatest Generation.) Girls who veer into the boy’s department are more readily accepted, and in the back of my mind, I worried that, if I'd had a boy, helping him find any femme might break both our hearts — that he’d be met with teasing from other children, adult rebuke, or worse. And that feeling persisted no matter how much hope I held that the world is expanding its views on gender and fashion, however incidentally.

And then I saw a boy in a pair of sparkly silver shoes.

My daughter, who recently turned five, has a best friend at our military post preschool named Alvaro. Alvie, I noticed, has taken to sitting on the classroom’s alphabet carpet for Morning Meeting wearing cargo shorts, a superhero T-shirt, and glittery silver sneakers with lavender laces; sometimes he wears a hot pink zip-front hoodie.

Nobody cares. None of the other kids make fun of him. The teachers never comment, and I’ve not heard so much as a peep from another parent — even though the military, as a social milieu, falls on the traditional side. Alvie’s doing Alvie, and it’s no big deal.

My daughter sees Alvie as a fashion inspiration, in that he shows her she can dress how she likes. (I’d describe her look as "My Little Pony goes to Coachella.”). At Target the other day, she asked for sneakers just like Alvie’s. I’m glad they’re sharing a robust friendship and fashion-forward looks.

And, more than anything, I’m glad Alvie's mom stands by him. I've seen how important that can be: I have another friend, the matriarch of a deeply religious family stationed in Texas, whose 6-year-old son wears nail polish to school every day. He’d been doing it for a year before another kid teased him because it’s something “for girls.” His mother assures him that’s not true: It’s something for everyone who wants it.

Like most people, I’m not a proponent of obliterating gender, but I am an advocate for expanding our concept of how diverse it can be. There is life beyond the binary, and aesthetic freedom beyond the borders of pink for girls and blue for boys. I support allowing kids to explore, experiment, and blur the boundaries. Working out one’s personal style should be fun, not fraught. As parents, we can encourage kids in taking chances and developing preferences. Supporting your child in expressing themselves through appearance without pressure to conform to the “right” way to look as a boy or a girl can be part and parcel of letting a kid be a kid.

And it’s already happening, in corners far more conservative than you might expect.