You find your perfect pair of shoes and you couldn’t be more excited. They are exactly what you’ve been longing for and you are finally walking very happy steps in your pride and joy.
You get to your destination and are met with mean comments about the colour of your chosen shoes, you feel upset, hurt and you start to question your choice of footwear. You definitely liked them in the shop but now it seems they weren’t the right choice after all – I mean they can’t be when your friends are telling you that the colour is not for you.
You feel confused because now you like them but hate them all at the same time. You love them because they were exactly what you wanted, you loved the colour, but you hate them because suddenly it appears your choice means you no longer fit in with your peers.
Imagine that. In a space of an hour going from happy to sad and now feeling completely unsure about your ability to make good decisions. That leaves you with a funny anxious feeling in your tummy.
Now imagine you’re 4.
Imagine you have no way of understanding why the way your friends responded makes you feel differently, no idea what this physical sensation you are feeling is. You are so confused and anxious that you begin to feel angry.
I received a question through messenger off a follower on my Facebook page:
“Hi, wondered if you post questions for followers, or if you would give me some advice. My 4 year old son wanted some pink shoes recently and had wanted them for a while, so we bought him some and he loved them. He's worn them to preschool for four days and then told me kids had been telling him they were not for boys and has worn blue wellies into preschool the last 2 days. It has really affected his confidence and he's been get explosive and tearful and anxious this week. Am looking for help in helping him feel safe and confident in his choices.”
This is a heart-breaking question because there is no clear-cut answer.
In this scenario we must focus on building up confidence so that he feels less concerned by what his peers say, it would have been a response he wasn’t expecting, why would he when the shoes were perfect for him?
This is where approaching the early years setting and discussing the situation that has arisen is great. If they are a good setting they will take this on board and do some planning around this issue. At my last setting boys paraded around proudly in dresses and heeled shoes and the girls dressed up as builders, they’d swap outfits over and I can honestly say there was never a murmur of “That’s not for boys”, or “That’s not for girls” – I appreciate this is not the case everywhere.
Children are building their confidence all the time and being able to make decisions that are right for them is a big part of that, although the comments have hurt him now, if dealt with appropriately it could be used as something that will build him up instead of knocking him down.
Books can be read at home and importantly in setting too. Early Years settings should have a child led approach to planning so that when issues arise they can use that to make informed choices.
These 2 books are an easy place to start as they help to raise the topic of gender equality in a way that helps to teach empathy and build self-confidence -
Talk to your child about the anxiety they are feeling. Explain to them what anxiety is.
Get help with this here -
We can’t solve this situation for him, but we can help him to learn from it and gain the confidence to put those wonderful shoes back on his feet.
Relate to your own experiences (I know I had plenty of them) and talk them through with your child. Use stories and role-play with small world toys to act out scenarios similar to his own, be consistent and go gently; it’s important not to add any feelings of shame or guilt.
Has Dad got a pink shirt or jumper he can wear? Can you make a collage together of boys wearing pink and girls wearing blue, boys as nurses, girls as footballers and all those other old-fashioned stereotypes, using old magazines or google images?
Empathise with his feelings and use activities and modelling, acknowledge that he’s angry for all the reasons discussed at the beginning and check for clarification of this.
Be there, continue to love him and try to stay calm and not worry; although painful to watch, he is going through a learning experience that could help him in the future.
Now, if only I had this knowledge when I went for the cherry red Doc Martins instead of the black – it would have saved me a lot of pocket money spent on black shoe dye.
Jennifer Wyman is founder of Bridge the Gap and an emotional education consultant and trainer. A qualified early years practitioner and mum of two with over 21 years experience within the early years sector.