When my car-loving, rough and tumble boys decided they wanted red and blue toenails for Fourth of July, and their friend decided to follow suit, “yes” was my knee-jerk response. What I didn’t anticipate was how an innocent activity would turn into family tension for all three boys.
Despite being raised by a self-professed tomboy, I’m a pretty feminine person who likes to paint my toenails. This summer my oldest son watched as I painted my toes hot pink and with yearning in his voice proclaimed, “I want to paint my toenails, Mommy!”
Fourth of July was coming up, so I pulled out my red and blue polish and humored him. When my youngest son woke from his nap, he spotted the Fourth of July toenails and announced his own desire for red and blue toes. Next up was their friend, who spotted my boys’ toes at our afternoon swim session.
Before fireworks had even begun, I was dabbing nail polish remover onto my handiwork after my sons’ friend reported his pedicure to his mom. His parents are in the middle of a custody case, and anything that could potentially cause extra conflict is not okay.
My boys didn’t fare any better.
“Daddy says boys can’t paint their nails,” said my oldest son when he returned from holiday festivities. It was an echo of what their friend heard from his mom.
“Well, that’s an opinion, not a fact,” I explained to my son. “I’ll talk to daddy about it.”
The Downside of Gender Norms
I wish I was at liberty to divulge all the reasons why this conversation was so ironic, but suffice it to say my life has been filled with people of varying gender identities and sexual orientations. I’ve learned that the two don’t necessarily line up as we’re conditioned to expect, and that trying to control either through allowed activities and wardrobe choices is about as effective as expecting rice or pasta for dinner based on cooking method instead of what is actually in the pot.
I’ve seen first-hand the effects of trying to make a person into something they’re not, and it wreaks havoc on the individual and the people who are closest to them. I want something different for my boys. So when they express interests outside the gender norm for boys, here’s why I let them go.
3 Reasons To Let Them Be
1. I want them to be free to explore and be who they are. Nothing feels better than being you. Wear mix-match tie dye. Ask Santa for that purple truck. Decide for yourself if you’d rather do soccer, gymnastics, or swimming. As Claire Cain Miller states in her recent New York Times article on raising boys, “For children to reach their full potential, they need to follow their interests, traditional or not. So let them.”
2. I want them to learn what it means to be a man. I don’t know a whole lot about what it means to be a man because I haven’t had many positive male role models in my life. But I do know that being a man has nothing to do with color preferences and clothing choices. In the 1800s boys traditionally wore dresses until they were 6 or 7 years old. And even in the early 1900s, pink was considered a boy color. I’d rather my boys focus on the actions and character traits that make for a good human being instead of getting stuck on outward appearances that change with the times.
3. I want them to be secure in themselves. All of life is a practice. We start with the little things when we’re young. My oldest son got teased by boys in his dad’s neighborhood for wearing nail polish. One response would be to soothe his hurt feelings and take the polish off. But how will that life lesson translate when he’s older and gets pressured to do something because everybody else is doing it? And what happens when he gets teased for something he can’t change?
Put the Ball in His Court
“What did you and daddy decide?” asked my oldest son after our conversation was finished.
“We agreed that you get to decide what you want to do,” I told him.
He said he’d rather not paint his toes anymore. He’s sensitive and has been aware of the things that make him different from others since he was three years old.
“That’s fine,” I said. “The bottom line is that you get to decide for yourself what to wear, and you don’t make fun of other people for what they decide.”
He seemed to understand.
Boys Will Be Boys
Let me be clear that I’ve rarely tried to impose special interests, masculine or feminine, on my boys. My parenting style has been to expose them to life and let them follow their muse. Usually they pursue traditionally masculine interests despite being raised in a single mom household by a feminine woman who wants nothing to do with their beloved cars and trains. My boys are mostly what modern culture would call boy, and I’ve never tried to change that.
Perhaps that’s why I love the way Claire Cain Miller closes her New York Time’s article:
Raising a son this way isn’t just about telling boys what not to do, or about erasing gender differences altogether. For instance, all male mammals engage in rough-and-tumble play….So roughhouse, crack jokes, watch sports, climb trees, build campfires. Teach boys to show strength — the strength to acknowledge their emotions. Teach them to provide for their families — by caring for them. Show them how to be tough — tough enough to stand up to intolerance. Give them confidence — to pursue whatever they’re passionate about.
That’s the way I want to raise my humans.