We found them in all the stores on a recent shopping excursion. There were tons of them, as I flipped through the racks for my son, among the typical footballs and soccer balls and shirts that just proclaimed “SPORTS!” One, in a size 3T, read “Ladies’ Man.” Another, again in toddler sizes: “Sorry ladies, I only date models.” Then there were the ugly sports shirts: “I Always Win.” “Winners Rule.” Add a dash of troublemaker and a few more womanizer shirts for good measure.
These are the clothes I’m supposed to put on my kind, sensitive boy? Shirts that sexualize tiny kids? Shirts that push toxic masculinity? Shirts that promote an aggressive, unhealthy notion of competition? Other than this stuff, there wasn’t much left. Lots of branded characters, and maybe a dino shirt or two. Those were our options.
We didn’t buy any kids’ clothes that day.
Slogans like these are what most kids in America are wearing, because this is what most stores are offering. Sweet little boys are sporting shirts with slogans that embrace toxic masculinity. Competition. Never being wrong (“My Brother Did It” was another shirt we found). Objectifying women. Valuing toughness, whatever that means -- and usually it means, “Suck it up, buttercup. Crying is for sissies. Be a man!”
There are other ways to be a man.
Boys Will Be Good Humans by Free to Be Kids
We need to combat this limited vision of boyhood and masculinity in any way we can. That means that we need to care about the messages our children absorb from all sorts of sources. And yes, that includes their clothing.
If you’re sitting behind your screen thinking, “Well, what the heck is wrong with a football shirt?” Well, nothing. There is nothing inherently wrong with a football shirt. But there is something inherently wrong with a system offers nothing but football shirts. There’s no choice. This sea of shirts emblazoned with sports imagery offer only one way to be a man.
But we know there are also cat guys, whose favorite shirts have cats and kittens on them.
I'm a Cat Guy by Free to Be Kids
There are little dudes who dig bunnies.
Good Listener Bunny by Free to Be Kids
And there are boys who are proud to be superheroes of love and kindness.
All of these are viable ways to be boys. And boys deserve wardrobes that reflect that.
As for the straight-out toxic messages – it’s time to simply ditch them. When you put an 18 month old in a “Ladies Man” t-shirt, you’re sexualizing him, which is super gross, and you’re objectifying women, which is also gross. And those “I Always Win” and “Winners Rule” t-shirts? Well, winning is fun. But you can’t base your identity on it, because someone, sometime, is going to come along and beat you one day. Then where will your sense of self lie? And what do those shirts say about your attitude towards people who don’t win?
Positive Fashion for Awesome Boys by Free to Be Kids
Four years ago I got so fed up with trying to dress my son that I started designing slogan tees for kids that push back against the negative messages in mainstream clothing stores. Today we have dozens of designs and ship tons of shirts to kind, awesome kids every single day. I've quit my day job. I'm proud of that. But more than that, I'm super proud to see the double-takes when I take my son out in his Boys Will Be Good Humans and Super Kind and Tough Like Mommy shirts. I see people reading them. They don’t glance over them the way they do other little kid shirts. These shirts give people something to think about.
Boys need these positive alternatives. It can seem ridiculous: the fight is so big, and the shirts are so small. But these positive slogan tees are a spark. They’re a spark for our kids, and they’re a spark for those who see them. They help combat the toxic culture around us. They give our boys a choice beyond sports, sex, and competition - and that's a choice boys need, and a choice they deserve.
We need positive kids’ clothing. And we need it badly.