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When my six-year-old son races over to me in a toy store asking if I can read him a story, I don't hesitate.
"Of course," I say, without missing a beat. Then I glance down at the book he hands me. Strawberry freaking Shortcake.
In that split second, I realize I have two choices: I can either hunker down and read him the book, hoping that the dessert-themed Strawberry Shortcake doll and her TV, movie and merchandise spinoffs won't turn into his latest and greatest obsession; or I can attempt the tried-and-tested trick of parents everywhere – distract his attention with some other shiny thing in the store.
Knowing my little guy, there's fat chance that the latter would fly. So, resigned, I take a deep breath and lead him toward a bench. As he worms himself into the nook under my arm, I read with gusto about Strawberry Shortcake and the same berry-tastic friends I remember from my own girlhood.
As I regale him with a tale about the gang welcoming Cherry Jam to Berry Bitty City, my son can barely contain his excitement. All the while, I'm left wrestling with Shortcake in my mind.
After all, I am a modern mom, striving to be open-minded and progressive when it comes to raising my child. But man alive, it's a slippery slope. How long before this innocent, new-found interest in Shortcake evolves into a hoard of merchandise – lunch bags, bedding, dolls?
A week from now, will my son be begging for a bedspread just like the one that adorned my childhood bed (while all the boys my age had Luke Skywalker on theirs)?
Will he be coveting not just Shortcake, but all of her bubblegum-smelling besties: Huckleberry Pie, Blueberry Muffin, Raspberry Tart, Orange Blossom, Plum Puddin' and Lemon Meringue?
Panicking, I swat away visions of my son in the schoolyard waxing lyrical about the wonders of Shortcake. I've got to nip this thing in the bud, I think, before he comes home sporting a matching pair of black eyes.
Like every other parent on the block, I would do everything in my earthly power to protect my boy. But who am I to limit or otherwise sway his interests? He likes what he likes. The last thing I want to do is clip his wings. Except if they're pink and glittery, maybe.
I turn the page and spare a thought for the mom whose son I saw bringing a My Little Pony backpack to school. The teacher told her to send a different bag from here on in because the boy was being teased.
"Appropriate" is the term that gets bounced around a lot by school administrations. As does "bullying," a word that strikes fear into the hearts of parents.
But kids don't come with built-in gender detectors: They're little kids, for Care Bears' sake. Maybe that's why marketing departments to this day keep the line between boys' and girls' toys firmly etched in blue and pink. Should I tell my son "Thou shalt not set foot into the pink aisles?"
I must admit that in my time, it wasn't all Strawberry Shortcake for me.
One moment I might have been dressing Barbie and Ken for a hot night on the town, and the next I would be playing Space Invaders on the Atari (at the risk of revealing my age), or reconfiguring an army tank into some kind of menacing-looking robot. More often than not, though, Barbie won out, so my interests toward the girlie dominated my play.
Still, I'm not sure how my mom felt about the Transformers. If she disapproved at all, she never let on. I have a feeling that even today, it is easier for girls to "cross over" into the realm of boy toys and hobbies than vice-versa.
When I reach the end of the story book, I tell my son to return it to the shelf where he found it so we can get back to the business of buying a friend's birthday present. Mercifully, my guy doesn't whine or badger me to purchase Meet Cherry Jam! For now, at least, he's had his fix and is happy to move on.
In the weeks that follow, aside from watching the occasional Shortcake video, my son drops her like, well, a hotcake. But it could quite easily have gone the other way.
And you know what? I would have stood by him. Because, as I learned in the toy store that day, bullying is not about changing who you are and what you like in order to please others: Bullying is about bullies learning to respect and accept everyone, no matter (to use a Shortcake analogy) what flavour they happen to come in.
Julie M. Green lives in Toronto.