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My fourth grader proudly brought home the first entry in her weekly writing journal. She was supposed to describe someone in her family, and she chose to write about her 4-year-old sister.

“Sophie is a feisty, fun, talkative tomboy,” she wrote, and I was surprised. It was the first time I had heard anyone describe my second daughter that way, and I wondered where my oldest had gotten that idea.

As I sat at the kitchen table considering the accuracy of her assertion, my preschooler zoomed into the room wearing her Transformers T-shirt and whinnying like a horse. She did have markedly different interests than her big sis at that age.

The Transformers craze took me by surprise. My oldest child would have never watched that show, nor would she have ever picked up a random object and “pshoo-pshoo”d anyone with it. She didn’t say things like, “You knocked me over and I died,” which I’ve heard during the height of Sophie’s wild, imaginative adventures.

In fact, shortly after my eldest’s fourth birthday, princess fever hit. To be honest, I was a bit dismayed. As a well-educated feminist who tries not to subscribe to unrealistic, idealized images of beauty, I didn’t appreciate what the Disney princesses stood for. I tried to rail against this burgeoning interest; I even desperately picked up a copy of Cinderella Ate My Daughter as a coping manual of sorts.

And the phase passed in time, leaving behind a well-rounded little girl in its wake. The day my first grader quietly requested that we please buy her a different backpack, that she didn’t want to use her Little Mermaid one anymore, I actually felt sad. So when her younger sister came along, I was fully prepared to accept and embrace the girly-girl interests as passing novelties.

And then my second child took me completely by surprise, as second (and third, and fourth) children tend to do. Her latest obsession is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — whichever turtle is the “funny one” is her favorite. She loves riding her scooter; she flies down the street with the precision and grace of a future X-gamer. Pretending to be a horse is Sophie’s other talent — the “neigh” that peals from her tiny body is downright impressive — and she has dozens of plastic horses strewn about her bedroom.  Unicorns, fairies, and princesses are okay, but they most definitely take a backseat to playing with her “bots.”

The day before her 4th birthday party, I received a voicemail from the grocery store bakery.

“Great,” I spat to my husband, gritting my teeth. “They’re having some sort of problem with Sophie’s birthday cake.”

When I called back, the woman politely told me they just wanted to confirm her cake design, which we had excitedly selected in the store.

“It’s the Transformer one, the one with the two robot things stuck in it?” I offered helpfully.

“Oh, that’s what we have down, we just wanted to make sure . . .” her voice trailed off.

“Ohhh,” I said, finally catching on. “Because it says ‘Happy Birthday, Sophie on the cake.”

I completely understood, but still felt a wave of the same irritation I experienced in the greeting card aisle when I selected a Transformer birthday card that read, “Roll out, birthday boy!” on the front; I later crossed out the word “boy” and scrawled “girl” in black Sharpie.

She’d wanted a Transformer-themed party, and she couldn’t have been more thrilled.

My little girl loves her robots. She’s athletic. Her black-and-blue knobby-kneed legs stick out under carefully selected dresses only occasionally, as she customarily prefers to dress like a drunk, blind hobo. Her imaginative play involves far more action and adventure and far fewer baby dolls than my childhood play did, or her sister’s for that matter.

Does that make her a tomboy? I don’t know. She sure loves her some glitter, and Anna and Elsa have a good deal of street cred in her eyes. I’ve always tried my best to avoid applying gender stereotypes to my children, or anyone else’s children for that matter.

As her mother, I will make every effort to give her the freedom to avoid contorting herself unnaturally to fit into boxes or adhering to rigid labels as she grows. I don’t know if I’m raising a tomboy or not. I’m raising Sophie.

Stephanie Sprenger is a freelance writer, editor, and mother of two girls. She is the co-editor of The HerStories Project, a writing and publishing community for women. She blogs at stephaniesprenger.com, and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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