A friend of mine texted this afternoon in the midst of a crisis. She couldn't locate her giant box of nail polish and was afraid she'd thrown it out in a fit of overzealous purging. She asked if I had any she could borrow.
I can see why she asked. I don't do nail polish often, but I do have some fabulous colors. I am a maven, after all. We don't doneutrals.
As soon as I took out my own box of polish, six-year-old Spawnling ran up to me excitedly and slapped his hands down on the table. "Can you color my nails, mom? Please?"
This used to be such a simple thing. He wanted polish, I had him pick a color, and we painted them -- just like that. He would then happily wear it about town, to preschool or playgroup, and to play with friends at the park until he either got sick of it or it peeled off.
If the other kids made comments, they'd be positive or maybe surprised ones -- never negative. Little kids don't usually care about gender biases the way we do; yes, they are forming ideas about what makes boys different from girls, but are generally still more accepting of those differences. Far too quickly, however, children start to make generalizations about how each gender should be. It's only once we get a little older -- and hopefully a lot wiser -- that we begin to accept that not everyone has to dress, act, speak or look a certain way.
Unfortunately, Spawnling wore his new blue polish into the living room and proudly showed it off to the group of kids occupying the space. Gutsy has a couple of boys over. One is a good friend's son and, at eleven, is one of the most liberal and accepting kids I know. The other one, however, is nine and comes from a more conservative military family. The first thing he did was declare, "You look like a girl."
Spawnling's answer? "Um, this is my house, you know. I can ask you to leave if you're going to be rude."
My youngest, thankfully, is not easily picked on.
I had to take a deep breath in the kitchen and collect myself before I went into the living room. I then went in and said, ever so calmly, "You know, boys wear nail polish too. Have you ever checked out a rockstar's hands?"
"Yeah, it's true," declared the insightful eleven-year-old. "And they sometimes wear lipstick and eyeliner too." I could have hugged him right there.
"I know," said the other boy, quickly. But he was clearly thinking about it; maybe for the first time.
I wanted to cry; both because society sucks and also because I can't protect my kids from it.
I'm not mad at the boy who told Spawnling he looked like a girl. First of all, there's nothing wrong with being female. Nothing. I'd like to think I'm a prime example of that, thank you very much. Secondly, he's a product of our society's biases. He's not a bad kid, and I know he didn't mean to upset anyone. We just don't see nail polish on boys very often. He thought Spawn was trying to be funny, or that it was weird.
I have watched my sons go from little children who pretended to birth and nurse their babies, to slightly older children who watched shows like Hannah Montana and didn't care who knew it, to older still, where they are purposefully filtering out anything that would make them seem less male.
I'd like to think my husband and I are open-minded, liberal people ourselves, who have tried to raise the Gremlins Three in a way that allows them to be who they really are and not what we expect them to be. We've never told them anything like "only girls do that," or "boys should act like this." Sadly, society does expect certain things about them based solely on the fact that they have penises instead of vaginas. It's not okay to wear girl things. It's not okay to watch girl shows. It's not okay to like girl music.
And it's certainly not okay to wear nail polish.
As I write this, I'm sitting with a ball in the pit of my stomach. There's a fine line between letting your kids be who they are, and worrying that you're sending them off to be eaten by the wolves. Do I live by our principles and support Spawnling's decision to wear polish whenever he wants? Or do I gently discourage it and feed the gender assumption machine? Both of those thoughts stress me out to no end. I hate the idea of his self-esteem taking a beating if he gets teased at school next week, but I also loathe the thought of contributing to the idea of "normalcy" that sometimes leads those who don't meet those criteria to take their own lives. The last thing I want to do is tell my son he can't be who he is.
Am I a better parent for protecting who he is, or protecting him from who other people can be?
I took Spawn aside a few minutes ago and said that, if he was worried that kids might negatively comment on his nails at school on Monday, we could always make sure to take the polish off before the weekend's over.
He confidently replied, "No, it's fine. If anyone says anything I'm going to tell them I'm a rockstar."
And so, the blue polish is staying unless he decides otherwise before Monday morning. This foolishness, this ignorance, this prejudice has to end. We need to take a stand for all kids, whether they fit the mold or not. We need to challenge gender stereotypes and support our children in being who they are. And in this case, change starts with some blue nail polish on a kindergartener.
Sorry, a rockstar kindergartener.
Amanda Jette Knox
Blogger at TheMavenOfMayhem.com
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