Blogger, Writer, Urban Adventurer
I have spent a ridiculous amount of time over the past month obsessing over nail polish. I am not a beauty blogger; I do not have a fancy event coming up soon; and I don’t just simply have a passion for well-maintained nails. What I do have is two daughters and a son.
More specifically, we have a five-year-old son who loves to color. If you ask him to color in a fish, rest assured that his creation will include every shade in the crayon box. He has more than once requested I buy him a pair of rainbow shoes, which is easier dreamed up than found on Amazon. He also likes to paint his nails.
I am not exactly sure how it got started. I know it has something to do with his two sisters getting their nails painted and a simple question of why he was not allowed to have his painted, too. When a three-year-old asks you why he’s not allowed to do something as inconsequential as nail painting while his twin sister can, you begin to truly absorb how arbitrary our whole view of what boys or girls “can” and “cannot” do is.
I had been preparing myself for moments like this. I expected to be challenged if our daughters expressed an interest in something traditionally considered “for boys.” I was ready for the fight, but this specific fight has not come. For the most part, it seems like the box of “acceptable” things for our girls to do is growing bigger. We have a whole movement towards girls in STEM and our daughter has been praised for her strength competing in triathlons. Heck, girls are even welcome in the Boy Scouts now. I couldn’t be more happy with all of the options and positive messages for them.
Our son, on the other hand, still has a relatively narrow space in which he is expected to conform. Don’t believe me? Let your son paint his nails.
It was a non-issue when he was younger. People thought it was cute and could even rationalize that he wanted to be included in activities with his sisters. As he has gotten older, though, the awareness and comments on his blue nails have increased. It’s almost as if others are becoming aware that he actually likes having them painted. Everything else about our son screams “boy” from his clothing and shoes to his haircut, except sometimes he sports blue and orange nails. And some people just can’t seem to handle that.
Before we go any further, I want to be clear: in no way do we think there is a correlation between our son’s love of color and his sexuality. Even if it did, we don’t care. The fact that this is even part of the dialogue for a child at this young age shows me how deep these constructs of masculinity run and how scared people are when they are challenged even in small ways. But I digress.
Fast forward to kindergarten. The kids come home and we are having a typical “how was your day” discussion and his twin sister blurts out that kids were laughing at her brother’s nails. He looked up at me sheepishly and admitted this happened at recess. I could feel the mama bear in me start to crawl out of her cave, but something inside me stopped her and asked a simple question, “What did you do when they laughed?” His response was, “I told them they are MY nails and I like them.”
I was shocked. Of our three children, he is the most tender-hearted of the bunch and he had unequivocally stood up for himself in a situation where he would typically crumble. Crisis averted. Or so I believed. A few weeks later, an adult asked him, “Why do you have your nails painted like a girl?” Again, he gave the same response. This time, I was more disheartened. Yes, I was still proud of him for standing up for himself, but the reality of this becoming an issue was setting in. It is one thing for him to have this discussion with five- and six-year-old peers, but it is a whole other mountain to climb when defending yourself to adults.
So what do we do as his parents? What message do we want to send him? What tools can we give him? How much do we care, and which aspects do we care about? My husband struggles with this some. It is less about the painting of the nails and more about not wanting any of our children to have to endure teasing. He doesn’t like conflict, but when it comes to protecting our family, he is fiercely loyal. If you take the nail polish off, the instigator goes away. Leave it on, and you open him up to future comments.
We spend a lot of time and energy focused on how we want to raise our kids. I want them to have “bounce,” be able to defend themselves, and know how to get back up after a setback. I want them to view a failure as a learning opportunity. Ultimately, I hope they’ll learn to have grit, resourcefulness, and a good work ethic. I also want our home and our family to be the safe place where they can come to us with any questions, concerns, or fears and be met with love, compassion and acceptance. I also want them—both daughters and sons—to understand boundaries and that no one has the right to comment on, or make them feel ashamed of, their bodies. We get to make the rules for our family, and in our family we support one another.
It was his eight-year-old big sister who cut through all of these big ideas with a simple truth. Upon hearing about the stranger’s passing comment about her brother she was disgusted and said out loud, “Why is an adult talking about how a child looks? You like the nails, keep them.” Cue my mama tears.
She’s 100 percent right. It is his choice. If he wants to keep the polish on, he knows fully well that he might be teased (even if that prospect hurts my heart). If he wants to take it off, that is fine, too. As long as it’s his choice. If we want to instill all of those values I listed above, then we can’t be the ones to solve this for him. There are going to be plenty of times in all of our kids’ lives where people will make comments, judge them, and even try and shame them for their choices. I hate this for them, but it is the reality of the world we live in. I can’t expect them to be resilient for the big challenges if they don’t get to practice on the small ones. It’s just nail color, people. Is it really a big deal? This is one tiny area of his life where we are giving him full autonomy, and that is powerful.
We will keep affirming his choices, and keep sending him the message that we love him and that he does not need to be ashamed if he picks something slightly outside of his gender norm. Other people don’t get to make him feel bad about that. I know as they get older the stakes will get higher and we will move on to more serious topics than polish, but, for now, I’m going to let him field this one. I think he’s got it covered.