boy wearing skirt
Photo Credit: (Yangyong de Haixing)

The Time My Son Wore a Skirt to School

The father of 7-year-old Lele explains why he supported his son's decision to wear a skirt to school, despite the inevitable backlash

If your 7-year-old son told you that he wanted to wear a skirt—to school, no less—what would you think?

You might think he’s just messing around, as boys do, and ignore him. Or you might encourage him to let his imagination run before explaining why this is something he can’t do. Of course, there are others who would scold the child, “Boys should act like boys. How could you wear a skirt?”

Recently, a boy named Lele expressed this desire. Rather than laughing it off, his dad took it seriously: He let his son wear the skirt to school.

The father recorded the experience and posted it online, attracting significant attention. Many people expressed their approval—what a cool thing to do!—but others questioned Lele’s dad’s actions, saying he “didn’t have the child’s interests at heart,” “would lead him astray,” “would harm the child,” and so on.

Whether boys can wear skirts to school is an issue that extends beyond the parent-child relationship. When some people think differently from the rest, and start to put those ideas into action, how should they deal with other people and themselves? And what attitude should other people have toward those who are different from themselves?

In today’s program, we talk with Lele’s dad, who goes by the online handle “Yangyong de Haixing (Starfish Doing the Backstroke).” He provides us with a full account of Lele’s experience on the day that he wore a skirt to school.


Skirts are swishy like fans

I am Yangyong de Haixing, and I’m 31 years old. My son Lele is 7 and is in the first grade. I’ve been a stay-at-home dad since he was 3.

One day, when school let out, my son told me very seriously that he wanted to wear a skirt. I asked him why, and he said it’s because skirts were breezy and cool. I said we didn’t have any skirts at home, and need to talk it over with his mom first.

At the time I wasn’t all that surprised; it wasn’t the first time he had asked to wear a skirt. He had already asked me many times when he was in kindergarten. When he saw girls wearing skirts, he thought the way the skirt swished back and forth was like an electric fan, and thought they looked pretty. But he would usually get distracted by something else, and this idea of wearing a skirt never made it into reality.

Actually, his mom and I thought this was all very normal, because he was always bringing up outlandish ideas as we went about our daily lives. When he was little, his dream was to be a tree-climber; later this turned into, “I want to be an old granny who sells ice cream.” I told him, “Selling ice cream should be easy enough, but being an old granny might be more of a challenge.”

One day he wouldn’t stop drinking water, so I asked him why. He said, “Because I want my pee to be really clear.” After some back and forth, it turned out that he wanted to fill up the toilet bowl with pee without anyone noticing, “because the water level in the toilet bowl is always going down, and I really want to fill it up with pee just once.”

Lele is an extremely cheerful, optimistic kid, and he doesn’t care what others think of him. Even if it’s a grown-up he’d just met, as long as they seem friendly to him, he’ll chat with them about his family, his friends, what he did at school… he’ll talk about anything. One time he was telling the doorwoman that he had started playing the piano. She asked him, “How’s practice going? Is it hard?” He said, “The learning curve is pretty steep, it’s tough. I don’t know how long it’ll go on like this—maybe I just have to grit it out for a couple years and then it’ll get better.” That’s just his personality.


Go ahead, draw attention to yourself

When our son said he wanted to wear a skirt to school, we were very clear with him: People might make fun of him, they might tease him or look at him funny. But he didn’t care one bit. He likes to draw attention to himself—like every kid. His mom and I thought, sure, go ahead and draw attention to yourself.

We didn’t blindly go along with him; we considered the situation from all sides.

First off, it looked like the school regulations didn’t forbid children from wearing skirts. And skirts are a very ordinary clothing item, a normal thing to wear.

Where teachers and the school are concerned, we considered three possibilities. First, the head teacher might find you very odd, but let it pass.

In the second outcome, the teacher might scold him for being out of line: “You’re a boy, how could you wear a skirt? Don’t do it again!” That was the next possibility we considered, and also the most likely one.

The third possibility is that the school might decide to severely punish the behavior, and call in the parents for a serious talking-to.

His mom and I thought we could handle that. After all, first-graders are not going to be malicious. They are really quite innocent, and might find the whole thing funny.

The other thing is, I understand my son’s personality and his relationships with his teachers and classmates. I thought he could handle it, because he gets reprimanded by teachers all the time. And the teachers love talking to him. If he were a different kid with a more sensitive disposition, who had trouble dealing with harsh words from his elders, I might not have allowed it at all.

So we thought there wasn’t much of a problem with him doing this—regardless of the reactions he received, when he came home we could help him parse things out and process his emotions.

The Chinese boy who wore a skirt to school reads a book with his father

Lele and his dad reading together (Yangyong de Haixing)


The tree has grown a tail

Lele’s mom suggested borrowing a skirt from a female classmate, but Lele said that their skirts didn’t look good, and was very adamant about picking his own. So that day, after he finished practicing piano, they took Lele to go buy a skirt. On the way to the shopping center, Lele could barely hold back his excitement.

At the shopping center, he wouldn’t let me go into the store—only his mom could go. His mom picked out two skirts for him: a gauzy pink one that he didn’t like (“not cool”), and a dazzling sequined one that he also didn’t care for (“too girly”).

Finally, my son picked out a blue denim skirt with white trim. He also found a girls’ shirt with a rainbow sequined popsicle on the front. The next day he put on both items. But next to the skirt, no one paid attention to that sequined shirt.

There weren’t many people in the shopping center. Though my son was holding the skirt the whole time, nobody paid him any mind. I thought it was very much like Kafka’s Metamorphosis, where nobody noticed that the protagonist had become a beetle—neither did anyone notice the boy with the skirt.

It was the same on the way to school the next day. All the adults only saw the world at their own level; nobody saw him wearing the skirt.

At the school gate, the principal of moral education and a male teacher kept looking at him, but they couldn’t be sure he was really wearing a skirt. Finally, the security guard noticed him, since he usually greets my son. He burst out, “Hey, this can’t be right! This can’t be right…” But before he could do anything, my son had already buddied up with his friends and entered the school.

Not ten minutes after he went in—before I had even gotten home—I received a text message from his head teacher. This was the first and only feedback we received from the school that day. The head teacher said, “How could you dress your son like this? His classmates will make fun of him for wearing a skirt.”

At the time I replied like this: I said I didn’t really have any reason to deny him this request. But if the school regulations said he couldn’t wear the skirt, or if it created a hassle for the teachers, then let me know; I definitely won’t let him wear it to school again. Later the head teacher sent a few more messages in response, but recalled them before I could read them.

When I got home, I updated my WeChat Moments feed with an account of this little adventure. At 3:30 that afternoon, I went to pick my son up from school. He was in high spirits. When his classmates came out, they were all saying to their parents, “Look, Lele wore a skirt!” The parents came over and looked, had a laugh, and everyone dispersed.

The whole way back I was asking him how his day went. He said lots of people had gathered around to look at him—his class, the class next door, as well as some old kindergarten classmates who called their entire class over to see.

He was most excited about the fact that the girl he liked in his class also thought he had done something very cool, that there was nothing wrong with him wearing a skirt—maybe the other boys should try it too! Another girl told him that seeing him wearing a skirt was like seeing a tree with a tail. He thought that was very funny.

The Chinese boy wore a skirt to school, which garnered mixed reactions from classmates and friends

Lele on his way to school (Yangyong de Haixing)


Three seconds of pain, one second of joy

As we approached our building, his spirits began to flag. I asked him what was going on—were there also some sad moments in his day?

He said that he had been reprimanded by a few teachers, but didn’t want to talk about it with me. I said, “Ok, talk it over with mom then,” and didn’t ask him anything else.

When we got home, his mom was already waiting for him with some sliced fruit, but he didn’t eat any of it. His mom asked whether anything sad had happened that day. Unable to hide his hurt any longer, he started crying to her.

“The way I felt all day today was, three seconds of pain, one second of joy, three seconds of pain, one second of joy.” This is how he described it to his mom.

First he had been reprimanded by the head teacher. I knew his head teacher well—a classic Beijing guy, very funny, very open-minded.

The head teacher had said, “Why are you wearing a skirt? In the future, don’t wear one to school again.” This was the only thing he said, and didn’t broach the subject again during the rest of the day.

There was also a minor episode that day, which was gym class. The gym class requires all the students to wear pants, including the girls. With this in mind, his mom had packed him a pair of pants specifically so he could change before gym class, but he got scolded by the teacher anyway.

Maybe because the boys in his class are very mischievous, the gym teacher punished all the boys by having them stand in time-out. But my son said that he was also singled out to be individually scolded, but he couldn’t remember what exactly the teacher said.

Lele jumping around at a beach

Lele practicing his long jump on the beach (Yangyong de Haixing)


Getting his skirt lifted

Aside from being reprimanded by teachers, there was another thing that upset my son: another boy lifted up his skirt!

His mom and I had emphasized to him before: It is not okay for other people to look at your underwear, and it is not okay to let others touch your private parts. So the incident might have made him feel extremely uncomfortable.

At the time my wife and I thought the boy’s actions were quite inappropriate, so we asked him, “Were you just playing around, or did he purposely lift up your skirt?” He said at first they were just playing, but after the teacher rebuked him, the other boys started lifting up his skirt to harass him.

For school-age children, teachers’ words carry a lot of authority. I imagine the other kids thought he had done something very wrong, something bad, to be scolded by a teacher.

So I asked my son, is this something we need to take up with your classmate’s dad, and have him apologize to you? If you don’t think it was a big deal, just some horseplay, then we won’t go make a fuss.

After he thought for a while, he felt we needed to take it up with the other boy’s dad. So we got in touch with the boy’s mom, who was out of the house at the time. When she heard about the incident, she was shocked. She also thought it was a very inappropriate thing to do, and said she would have the dad get in touch with us and apologize.

The next morning, we happened to bump into the boy’s dad, who was also there dropping him off at school. He took the incident very seriously, telling his son he ought to apologize to his classmate. The boy couldn’t help himself and blurted out, “But he wore a skirt yesterday!”

I didn’t scold him, but I did tell him very seriously: “He may have worn a skirt yesterday, but lifting up someone’s skirt is inherently disrespectful whether it’s a boy or a girl wearing it. It is a very inappropriate thing to do.” His dad also reprimanded him, saying that under no circumstances was it okay to do such a thing.

“If a man puts his hair in pigtails, is it okay to yank on them? If he wears earrings, is it okay to yank on them?” By the time I finished saying my piece, the boy was cowering by his dad with his head bowed. He had already realized that he was in the wrong, and apologized to my son.

But my son had already wandered off; as soon as he saw me talking to the boy’s dad, he knew the incident had already blown over. Later, when he came home, he told me he and the other boy had a great time playing together for the rest of the day.


It is normal to be different

Most hurtful of all was the civics and morality class he had before getting out of school. He said the teacher had spent the whole period chewing him out. His mom and I were astonished—could the skirt really have provoked the teacher to that point? His mom then asked him what the teacher said.

The teacher had severely condemned his actions, saying that boys should not wear skirts, and that boys should be proper boys. “I have taught at this school for 30 years. You are wearing a skirt just to get people to look at you, to show off how special you are—I could see this at a glance. You don’t need to do these things.”

The teacher’s words made a big impression on him; he originally thought it wouldn’t be such a big deal. He thought it would simply be an interesting experience, knowing that his parents didn’t think it would hurt anyone either. I perceived that the dressing-down might have changed his mind, that he now thought that he had done something wrong that could hurt the people around him. This caused him great distress.

During the course of this ordeal, there were two girls who stood up to engage the teacher in debate—one of them was even the class monitor. She thought there was absolutely nothing wrong with my son wearing a skirt, that he could wear one if he wanted to. They said, “Boys can wear skirts, and we can wear pants and do the things that boys do.” I thought those two girls were just incredible.

I really didn’t think to charge into the classroom to confront the teacher; not at all. I feel that it’s very normal for both teachers and children to express their own views.

At the time, we told our child, we can’t fully agree with what your teacher said; we don’t feel that your actions actually hurt anyone, and feel that it’s something harmless between first graders.

We gave him many examples: “Look, your dad is quite unlike other dads”—he takes care of the dishes and cooking, drops him off and picks him up, he doesn’t have a particularly stable job. Many of my friends and classmates call these things into question as well.

His mom added: after she finished her master’s and chose to go for a doctorate rather than going back to work or becoming a stay-at-home mom, people around her would ask, “Why are you having your husband look after your kid? What are you even doing?”

I also gave a few examples of friends of mine who worked in the arts: some were bald, some wore braids, some had tattoos, some pierced their ears—this was all very normal, and their lives were happy.

My son seemed to follow my reasoning, but wasn’t fully convinced. I figured he was still taking it all in, starting to see that others’ opinions didn’t define an individual.

That’s when my wife and I took out our phones to show him all the support and admiration he had received from our friends on our WeChat Moments. He knew many of these uncles and aunties, often chatted with them, so when he saw that these familiar adults all supported him—even praised his choice of skirt—he was overjoyed.

I also told him, there were also some uncles on our Moments who had expressed their disagreement or opposition, and this was very normal as well. Those people are also my classmates and friends, and we can’t just distance ourselves on account of this, or go pick a fight. Gradually, he started to understand. At that point he went over to eat some fruit, and we started to talk about other things that happened at school. For him, the experience was well and truly over.

Because the teacher had told him not to wear a skirt to school again, this was now a school mandate. So from then on, he never wore a skirt to school again.


Supporters with ulterior motives

For our child, the incident was already over, but for us as parents, the repercussions were still unfolding. The most direct reactions came from his grandparents on both sides.

His maternal grandfather is a military veteran, a very traditionally masculine kind of guy—he thought there was no issue with his grandson wearing a skirt, as long as he didn’t go mincing around. Boys will always be boys, and skirts have nothing to do with it. His maternal grandmother is also quite open-minded, and was okay with the whole thing.

But his paternal grandparents took it entirely differently. My mom was furious. She thought that it was a terrible decision, over-the-top, a stupid thing to do. She thought we had given no thought to the consequences. Whether it was the psychological impact of wearing the skirt at school, or some kind of impact on his view of gender, she said we couldn’t know what might happen. If there ended up being some kind of negative impact, it would be too late for us to regret it.

I told my mom, this isn’t as serious as you’re imagining, and your grandson hasn’t suffered any great impact; it’s nothing that we couldn’t handle.

My mom even thought that our online supporters must have ulterior motives, saying one thing but feeling another. “They may support you, but I’m certain that they wouldn’t let their own children do such a thing.” And to her, those who wrote negative comments only had our best interests in mind.

She brought the incident up four or five days in a row, particularly after her own friends started spreading the news around. She felt it was a very shameful thing—as if I had suddenly gotten a sex change and everyone was finding out about it.

Only after I told her that my wife’s parents approved of my son’s choice and supported him, did she slowly begin to come around. I told her, “It’s just that people have their own opinions; as grandparents on each side, you certainly love Lele more than anyone else on this earth, perhaps even more than we do as parents.” It was only then that my mom seemed to realize that maybe our supporters didn’t have any ill intent, or had failed to think things through. This was how she was finally able to put her worries behind her.

Lele begging on the side of a street

Lele “begging” on the street in Germany (Yangyong de Haixing)


Becoming a beggar

Haixing and his wife are also not your typical parents; neither of them had followed a path deemed “normal” by society. After Haixing’s wife finished her master’s degree, she began studying for a doctorate. So not only was she unable to contribute to household expenses, but was also under significant pressure.

Haixing was a designer at a media company. He was very well-paid, and the family was able to hire a nanny. To outside observers, he was on an upward trajectory in his career; his friends thought he should start his own venture or go on to greater things. But Haixing thought that spending time with his kid and taking some pressure off his wife were higher priorities. So when their son was 3 years old, he decided to become a stay-at-home dad, taking on work in his spare time. This has significantly reduced his income.

I was suddenly struck with the sense that my kid had grown up, that he was no longer the little creature he was at 2. We noticed back then that he had a lot of bad habits, so it was time to give him some guidance. When he was three and started going to nursery school, he started having his own opinions, started observing and mimicking. I realized then that I should spend more time with him, because if you tell your kid to be good and obedient, tell him what to do, he won’t necessarily do it—but a child will definitely mimic what you do. This is also how my dad raised me; us spending time together was perhaps more important than anything else.

My son was curious about the whole world. I never questioned or suppressed that curiosity; he had an urge to express it, to communicate with others. He felt a sense of goodwill toward every part of the world. When the “uncle” who collected our trash came by, he would go out specifically to talk to him, see how his day was going.

If he looked unhappy, we were there for him. We let him cry, and we also had him tell us what he was feeling—was it anger, hurt, or sadness? We wanted to help him express his feelings rather than blindly scolding him, “How could you cry like that, you’re a boy! Big boys don’t cry!”

In 2019, our family took a trip to Germany. There, he was struck with a bolt of inspiration—he wanted to become a street performer, because he had noticed that even though Germany’s transients didn’t have much money, they seemed to have a lot of freedom. He thought it looked like fun. He brought it up to me three or four times, and in the end I agreed.

That day, we had gotten some paper cups from a convenience store. When he saw the cups he said, “I want to be a beggar. Can you give me one of those cups?” Then he asked me for a 1 euro coin and put it in the cup, and sat down at the edge of the sidewalk to be a beggar.

We stood about five or six meters away, taking pictures and observing his reactions. In truth, he was in a world of his own, paying no attention to others at all. It wasn’t that he wanted money, but that he wanted to experience a particular feeling for himself.

Because we were concerned the police would come over, we agreed upon a 10-minute time limit. Nobody was interacting with him at all. As the seconds ticked down toward the 10-minute mark, a young couple finally stopped in front of my son. The girl insisted on giving him money, but the guy didn’t want to. He kept trying to tug her away, but she was persistent. Finally, they gave him two euros.

My son was shocked and thrilled. He thought being a beggar was so cool—what a rush!

As we watched, my wife and I kept trading meaningful glances. We thought that this could be an excellent teaching moment. After a short exchange, we told him, “You were awesome! You tried being a beggar and managed to make some money—these are your first lifetime earnings! But why do you think other people gave you money?” My son didn’t say anything. He hadn’t considered that question.

I said, “You saw that lady. She was very insistent about giving you money because she saw that you needed help—regardless of whether you actually needed it or were just playing.” His mom said, “This is because she is very kind-hearted. She saw that you needed help, so she did something about it.”

“In our lives, if we meet others who need help, what should we do?” I asked my son. His mom and I wanted to convey a message to him: that we ought to help others to the best of our ability.

If my son doesn’t care what others think, but is simply driven to do things. Whether it’s being a beggar or filling up the toilet bowl with pee, I think it’s great that he does it. Even if these things are deemed meaningless in the adult world, or are outside of our own societal framework, it doesn’t matter; I want him to have room to grow. Otherwise, in 15 or 20 years, when I ask him what he wants to do—“I dunno, whatever is fine”—and what do you want to study?—“I dunno, whatever is fine”—then we’re really done for.

Whether he wants to do auto repair, drive an excavator, become a chef or barber or jewelry designer or foodie... it’s all fine by me. If they are desires that come from within, then we want to protect them.


An ordinary skirt

We asked Haixing a question: Looking back on the whole experience, was there anything he wished had gone differently? Haixing said no, he was satisfied with how things turned out. He did, however, later message the teacher to apologize for not giving notice that his son would be wearing a skirt to school.

At 7 or 8 on a weekend morning, when we were still sleeping in, he was already up. He put on the skirt himself and ran downstairs to buy us a quick breakfast.

When I got up and saw him, I didn’t say anything—as if he had just put on some socks.

But I actually followed him surreptitiously, watching him pitter-patter down the street. After 15 minutes, I also entered the breakfast place. “Having breakfast, son? I’m up now too.” He was eating and chatting happily with his classmate and his classmate’s mom, so I sat down at the neighboring table.

So that weekend he wore a skirt downstairs to grab breakfast, and then went out to ride his skateboard. He found it inconvenient, maybe because the skirt would catch on things, so he changed into a pair of shorts after he got home.

Translated by Nathaniel J. Gan


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