What do we do when our child wants to do something that much of society deems unacceptable, yet the action is not harmful to anyone else? How do we best support and protect our child? This is the crux of the issue raised in Sarah and Ian Hoffman’s groundbreaking new children’s book, Jacob’s New Dress.
When young Jacob wants to wear a dress to preschool, his parents must make a decision. Do they say no, believing it will keep him from being taunted? Or do they say yes, believing it will allow him to be true to himself? These are difficult, even agonizing, decisions that can have lifelong ramifications.
“Mom?” whispered Jacob. “Can you help me make a real dress?”
Mom didn’t answer. The longer she didn’t answer, the less Jacob could breathe.
“Let’s get the sewing machine,” she said finally.
Jacob felt the air refill his body. He grinned.
When I first began to research gender-based bullying, I remember asking author and expert Lyn Mikel Brown about this very type of dilemma. “What if a mom tells me she won’t let her son wear a pink jacket because she wants to protect him from being teased?” I asked Brown.
“The mom is actually protecting the stereotype and the people who will be threatened by the pink jacket, not protecting her own child. A better way to protect her child is to let him be himself and help prepare him to negotiate the world's response,” Brown replied. It was an astonishing revelation to me, yet it made so much sense.
In Jacob’s New Dress, Hoffman and Hoffman do a masterful job of showing how this situation creates anxiety for each party: Jacob, his parents, and even his bully.
- Jacob is anxious for parental validation and feels like he can’t breathe when his parents are thinking about his dress.
- His mom and dad are initially anxious and unsure. “Dad frowned. You can’t go to school like that.” “Put on some shorts and a shirt under that dress-thing,” Mom said.
- His bully, Christopher, is threatened by Jacob’s choices and even asks his own dad whether or not boys can wear a dress. “Christopher shook his head. “I asked my dad, and he says boys don’t wear dresses.”
Christopher treats Jacob unkindly, but we see how his behaviors are influenced by the beliefs of his father. The book is realistic, because it demonstrates how hard it is to combat stereotypes. Although Jacob’s teacher expresses support for Jacob, it is not enough to sway Christopher. But the fact that the teacher does support Jacob is a key point in this story. Having an adult at school who is an ally is critical to creating a culture of acceptance for kids who are different, and without this character, it would have been harder for Jacob to hang in there when the going gets tough.
We watch as the little boy’s parents move incrementally toward acceptance, led by Jacob’s mother, who overcomes her hesitations and eventually helps Jacob make a real dress. The next big test is when Jacob shows the dress to his dad.
Dad looked up from his book.
“Mom and I made a dress,” said Jacob quietly.
Dad studied the dress. Jacob started to get that can’t-breathe feeling again.
“I can see you worked hard on that dress,” said Dad.
“Are you sure you want to wear it to school?”
Dad nodded back and smiled. “Well, it’s not what I would wear, but you look great.”
With both his parents and his teacher on board, Jacob is positioned to feel resilient and empowered the next time that Christopher taunts him. Jacob is able to cognitively reframe what is happening and find his inner joy.
I swallowed against a lump in my throat as I read Jacob’s story, so deeply did it touch me. I found myself cheering for Jacob, for his earnest parents, for his teacher, and for the students trying to sort out what it means to be a boy or a girl.
If you read Jacob's New Dress with your kids, I recommend asking the following questions to foster meaningful discussion:
- “How would you feel if someone told you not to wear your favorite clothes?”
- “Why do you think Christopher is upset that Jacob wants to wear a dress?”
- “Why do you think Jacob feels like he can’t breathe when he is waiting to see what his parents will say about his dress?”
- “What types of activities could Jacob’s teacher do with the class to help the kids expand their ideas of what it means to be a boy or a girl?”
- “What would you do if Jacob were in your class?”
How do you think a teacher can help kids overcome stereotypes about what it means to be a boy or a girl? Email me your ideas for a classroom exercise, story, or activity! On March 28, 2014, I will pick a winner and send you a free copy of Jacob’s New Dress, autographed by author Sarah Hoffman, along with an autographed copy of my own book about bullying.
Send your contest entries to firstname.lastname@example.org
Portrait of an Adoption is written by Carrie Goldman, the award-winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.