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How my son is teaching me to let go of my ideas about what boys should like

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“I want these shoes!” my child exclaims with a bounce.

I follow my son into the “girls” section of the store, where he points to the “Frozen” princesses Anna and Elsa. There’s no mistaking his excitement, or the femininity in those rose-colored clogs. Joining in his happiness, I hand him his new shoes. Now, though, I’ve missed the shopping attendant who has come up behind us. Pointing to the other side of the store, she says, “The boys section is over there.” Like Anna and Elsa, I’m frozen. It feels like she has pointed out so much more.

I look down at my 4-year-old and hope this information doesn’t deflate him. The last thing I want is for him to feel he’s wrong in his choice and, therefore, wrong in his own skin. Luckily, we’re home free. He’s engrossed in his purchase and hasn’t noticed. I had no idea when I started down this parenting path that my son’s heart would be in danger of constant breakage because the world would judge him for picking out “girly” shoes. I am a bargain shopper, but I didn’t bargain for this.

From an early age, my kid has loved playing on both sides of the toy aisle, and he has always seen beyond corporate fashion barriers. He took such joy in having the freedom to choose what he liked regardless of gender stereotypes that once he was old enough to pick toys and clothes, I let him take point. These days my colorful kid loves wearing pink, blue and everything in between. His toy choices range from train sets and dragons to tea sets and dolls. He’s his own person, and stereotypes do not confine him.

What I didn’t count on was all the anxiety I’d feel fearing strangers’ and friends’ critical reactions to my son’s choices. All it takes is one negative comment to change his self-image, possibly forever. This is why I’m always on guard, to keep his fragile heart safe from the sharp judgment of others. And it’s not just adults, it’s his peer group, too. I’m surprised, and saddened, when he tells me that other kids school him on how boys cannot play dress-up in an actual dress, or how kids laughed at him one day for picking out a princess book. I reassure him that we see girls wearing pants and reading about trucks, and boys can wear dresses and read about princesses; but am I telling him the truth?

Out of an overpowering need to protect, I’ve gone so far as to hide some of his toys when we’ve had play dates. I’ve sent his dolls on a much needed vacation — to the back of his closet. In my mind this will keep him safe. I’m desperate to preserve his ability to choose what he likes, because in those moments I can see he’s experiencing all of who he is. My heart would break if I saw that joy squashed by others' thoughtless judgment. So to safeguard the image of himself he’s so carefully crafting, I borrow his tiara and play the evil queen, exiling all of the princesses from his room.

As I place a couple of glittery dolls in his closest, I look around at all the trucks and trains, and his room looks more like what our culture considers masculine. Only then does the alarm in my chest abate. He’s safe, and I can breathe easier. Today, he (and I) will not be judged as “weird.” Today, I will not be a “bad” mom. It doesn’t matter that I love raising my child this way or that he’s content, because if I really wanted to protect my kid why in the world would I allow him to participate in such an unconventional lifestyle?

My son is already on the social fringes, and I’m holding his hand every step of the way. He has shown me that parenting without traditional gender tags is designed to allow any child to be who they choose to be — not who adults (or anyone else) wants them to be. Walking through a toy store moves me to happy tears because this kid sees no divisions — only inclusion. There are no labels and therefore no limits. This is why, standing in his room after I’ve hidden the more traditionally feminine toys, I pause. I wonder: Am I doing him a disservice by protecting him this hard? Am I limiting him?

I am programmed to defend him, but turning his room into a more socially “acceptable” play area feels wrong. I’ve always supported his autonomy, but would he feel that support in this case? This truck and train room isn’t even close to demonstrating that. By hiding half of his toys, I’ve hidden the best parts of him: The most imaginative bits that shine brightest. These attributes should be celebrated, not shamefully concealed. His choices are a powerful reflection of who he is, and hiding them limits him in a way he doesn’t limit himself. As it turns out, I’m more afraid of judgment than my son is.

I will give back his tiara and stop being ruled by fear. Perhaps trying to always protect my kid isn’t where my focus should lie. Judgment will happen. It may hurt. But it would be better to focus my energy on giving him the tools to deal with that judgment. That includes my constant support. With that as a foundation, we can create a dynamic where encouragement, rather than a fear of judgment, is the greatest force in his life. Again, I’ll take a page from his book … there’s a strength in his innocence, and I want to encourage that strength, not show him how to hide it in the back of his closet.

“I love her!” my son exclaims, hugging his doll.

“I love you!” I exclaim, hugging him, happy to support him on the road to being true to himself. And happy to let this little boy in princess shoes lead the way.

Tonilyn Hornung is the author of “How to Raise a Husband.” Her essays have appeared in Cosmopolitan, Elle, Redbook and other magazines. Find her on Twitter @tonilynh.