German father Nils Pickert wears a skirt in solidarity with his son.
I'm usually against Father of the Year Awards. While the recipients are no doubt great fathers, the idea of making fatherhood a competitive pursuit with its own award is about as meaningful as beauty pageant awards.
But there are exceptions to every rule. My vote for Father of the Year — no, scratch that — Father of the Decade, goes to German father Nils Pickert.
Pickert made headlines around the world last week when pictures of him wearing a red skirt while out walking with his 5 year old son, who was similarly attired in a red dress, circulated on the internet.
Like many small boys, Pickert’s son prefers wearing dresses, and was being bullied at school. Rather than just give his son a pep talk about being true to himself and not listening to what anyone else says — or worse, buying him some footy shorts and ordering that he ‘man up’ — Pickert led by example, donning a red number in the street with his son in a very public demonstration that it’s not only okay to be yourself, but it ought to be encouraged.
While many comments on the news sites that carried the story were supportive, seeing Pickert’s example to his son as an example of unconditional love, his gesture also brought out the worst of human nature.
For some reason, a number of commenters took it upon themselves to quote biblical verse. ‘Havey’ for example, picked Proverbs 22:17 17: ‘Correct your son, and he will give you comfort; He will also delight your soul’.
I’m not sure if Havey has been to church lately, but the last time I was at Mass, I distinctly recall seeing Jesus and his disciples depicted in what looked suspiciously like frocks. Sure, they’re technically called ‘robes’ or ‘cassocks’, but they’re pretty much the same as a dress.
Havey and his/her ilk might also do well to have a closer read of the New Testament. If they do, they’ll find that Jesus spends a scandalous amount of time exhorting his followers to ditch conventional social norms, such as encouraging them to turn the other cheek instead of seeking revenge, to treat people from other cultures (notably Samaritans) with care and respect, and to fraternise with those who society despises (tax collectors and lepers, for example). He also bangs on a fair bit about loving thy neighbour, even when he or she does you wrong.
Many others, predictably, missed the whole unconditional-love-thing and saw the images of Pickert and his son as an opportunity to demonstrate to the world once and for all that they are violent homophobic psychopaths who probably ought to be sedated.
‘Anthony’, for example, explained ‘If I saw a guy abusing his son like that guy in the article, I would run right up to him on the street and beat him to the ground. If he wants to be queer that’s [sic] his business, but to force his adopted [sic — there’s no mention that Pickert adopted his son] kid into a lifestyle of sodomy just aint [sic] right! It is child abuse.’
It’s remarkable that an example of love can provoke such hatred in people. It’s also remarkable that donning non-traditional clothes still creates so many anxieties — particularly for men.
Children are not Mini Me’s. Our job as fathers isn’t to make them duplicates of ourselves, but to give them the courage and freedom to choose their own path. And yes, that applies even if they turn out to be nasty, vicious little internet trolls who threatens violence against complete strangers for displays of acceptance.
Pickert should be applauded both for his demonstration of love for his son and his questioning of restrictive gender roles. While most of us talk the talk about ‘staying true to yourself’, 'unconditional love' and all that stuff, when it come to the crunch how many of us have the guts to step out of our socially prescribed roles?
While Nils Pickert’s boy might grow out of his love of skirts, I hope the lessons that his father loves him no matter what will endure forever.
Christopher Scanlon teaches journalism at La Trobe University and is co-founder of www.upstart.net.au, the site for emerging journalists.