My son wanted Minnie Mouse underwear. Here’s what we did.

When I was at the finish line with my 3-year-old son, I was looking for Minnie Mouse underwear. Check any online or in-store retailer and you’ll see: Minnie Mouse and every other female character you can think of is printed exclusively on underpants labeled “girls.” For boy-specific briefs, you’re stuck with Mickey or Pluto. Good luck if you want the whole gang: Boy and girl characters – like boy and girl toys, clothes and shoes – do not occupy the same spatial plane.

If we believe in equality and inclusion, it is important that early in the children’s development we create space to experiment, experience and grow outside narrow labels. For me and my son in that measure, these labels raised questions about why we separate the sexes in the first place and how this separation affects how each of us sees the world.

In the end, we solved our underwear dilemma through crowdsourcing and boldly: We put him in “girls’ underwear”, a size up. He wore them without a sense of strangeness or difference, confused when the kids tried to correct him after catching a glimpse of his underwear at group potty time. “I think they said it was girls’ underwear because it has girl characters on it,” he said. But later, when he wore his Disney princess socks to school, he began to realize that the label “girls” was seen as inferior and strange – a source of ridicule.

Separating people into categories has a negative effect on children’s worldview, and at an early age reinforces harmful stereotypes. Children are set up early on to use limiting frameworks when they address issues such as gender, race and ethnic identity. The more we teach children that people’s differences should place them in separate buckets, the more they will find those buckets appropriate.

Conversely, a wider space of understanding can spread such exclusivity. A study shares that empathy – the ability to live in or understand another person’s perspective – can reduce human bias and improve real-world interactions between those who are different. In the meantime, the California Department of Education recommends that education about gender inclusion start early.

I am not aware of the realities of a society that has thrived on categorization. Recent attacks on transgender rights in schools and legislation discouraging all gender identity education through fourth grade, as passed in Florida, represent an increasingly fervent backlash to expanded gender labels and norms. The idea that we should stick to our own corners, like segregation from the 1950s, is as old as human existence, but one that has proven to prevent society from flourishing.

Take, for example, single-sex schools. Human behavior experts and neuroscientists have rejected the idea that boys and girls should learn in separate schools. Studies of same-sex schools have also shown that these institutions contribute to creating harmful stereotypes and promote inequalities between men and women.

Similar points were raised in Brown v. Board of Education by psychologists Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark, whose research showed that black children preferred white dolls, having internalized the preferential treatment of white children over black children. Boys who are teased for “dressing like a girl” will similarly internalize messages that suggest a superior position of men over women. Girls will too.

The author’s son celebrated his fourth birthday with a basketball and My Little Pony party.

So how do we proceed? Pushing past the mainstream means facing harassment and being safe from it. Children – 3 or 15 years old – are not emotionally equipped to deal with these consequences. But we as parents can help build a supportive environment. When I asked other parents how they handle clothes, most said they steer their boys toward the boys’ section—even if they want pink or unicorns—to save them humiliation. It may feel like an OK self-preservation strategy, but should our fear of how they will be treated dictate how fully they can express themselves? Our own upbringing is perhaps the culprit – generationally outdated undertones of sexism and misogyny that misguide us about what it means to enjoy a cultural moment deemed feminine rather than masculine. If femininity hadn’t been so reviled, would we care if guys embraced it?

My husband and I have told our son that people won’t always understand his styling choices, but the popularity of his choices shouldn’t shape his preferences. In the months following the underwear incident, he consistently opted for “girly” things: a tie-dye pink baseball backpack, My Little Pony figurines, and most recently sparkly Skechers that light up in pink and purple hearts. I try my best to disarm the categories created by others while teaching him that his peers may have a different opinion.

Even as the conservative debate heats up, more people are seeking a fluid gender space—a space where gender assigned at birth does not dictate cultural gender expressions. Echoing in pop culture, we’ve seen Harry Styles wear sequined suits and Billy Porter rock extravagant prom dresses. Hopefully, our children will learn to understand that the differences between them are not as great as retailers suggest, and that at the end of the day, underwear is underwear and shoes are just shoes.

Avni Shah is a novelist and communications strategist, and the mother of two young boys. The daughter of immigrants, her writing focuses on themes such as culture, identity and belonging. Avni has written articles for USC News, Trojan Family Magazine, Viterbi Magazine, Bangalore Review and others. Originally from New Jersey, she is a WriteGirl mentor and Op-Ed Project Ambassador, and currently leads communications at the Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab at the USC Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles.

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